Families still steeped in their culture celebrate 150 years since 83 immigrants sailed from small European villages to start new life carving out farms from thick forest with help from local Maori chief.

The township of Puhoi, north of Auckland, this weekend celebrates 150 years since the arrival of the first group of settlers from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic.

But the pioneers were shocked by the first glimpse of their new home, on June 29, 1863, after a four-month sea voyage.

Men, women and children landed on the cold bank of the Puhoi River about midnight and sheltered in a couple of nikau whare. The morning light showed the valley had little flat land and was hemmed by thickly forested hills. They had been lured across the oceans by the promise of free Crown land for small farms but these would have to be hacked out of the bush.

"It was an absolute struggle for the first 10 years," said Brendan Schollum, chairman of the anniversary organising committee whose great-great-grandfather John Schollum was on the first ship.

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"They had paid their own way out and they had no money and few tools. But they had great values, which they gave us by their lives.

"They were strong in their faith, very hard-working, the family was paramount and they were generous to each other.

"They showed enormous co-operation. They worked collectively to build housing and tracks for each family to reach their property."

Local Maori chief Te Hemara Tauhia gave them food and showed them how to live off the land. Clearing the bush for pasture provided income. Firewood, kauri roof shingles and logs were sold in Auckland.

Eighty-three settlers had left Europe in 1863, and more followed until by the 1870s about 200 Bohemians lived at Puhoi.

A Catholic priest, a church and a school were high priorities and they achieved these within 18 years of arrival.

"The other great characteristic was they knew how to party," said Mr Schollum. "They took every opportunity to play their music and dance and socialise."

It was not easy land to farm and many moved away to nearby Waiwera, Orewa and Silverdale and to the Waikato, where there was another Bohemian settlement at Ohaupo.

But the old Bohemian names and characters remain in the valley and the hills.

"Puhoi is about a lot of families - it's made up of 40 strong families."

Some, like the Schollums, Schischkas, Wechs and Wenzlicks have held reunions drawing hundreds.

"It's unique in its development in New Zealand, though may be similar to Akaroa, with the French settlers, and Dannevirke, with its Norwegian and Danish settlers, where they have kept their roots strong."

Proud descendant Dame Claudia Orange, historian and author, is a guest speaker at a Saturday function for invited guests in the small Centennial Hall and on Friday another descendant of the pioneers, Judith Williams, launches her book It Takes a Whole Village - The People of Puhoi 1863-2013.

Judith Williams has lived in Puhoi for 40 years and is one of a band of keen district historians.

"I was at the 1963 centenary celebration where we danced in the street and I have set out to add the last 50 years, or two generations, to the centennial history."

She recalls conservative Puhoi Bohemians, some still speaking the north Bavarian dialect of their parents, branding as "hippies" a 1960s influx of newcomers seeking an alternative, rural lifestyle.

"Since 1963, our population has shifted from being nearly 100 per cent Bohemian descendants to where 75 per cent of the people are newcomers, from the city and other rural districts and from 20 countries."

Judith Williams says this shows in the explosion of community activities - many of them relying on volunteers - the rural fire force, library, historical society, Bohemian museum and dance group, playschool, sports club, concerts and art exhibitions.

She notes the link with the past has been kept by two institutions once at the heart of the Bohemian settlement, the church and the hotel.

"While the influence of the former has waned, the latter has grown."

The community raised $400,000 for refurbishment of the 1881 church and has a target of $600,000 for a new station for the volunteer rural fire brigade, which mostly attends traffic accidents on State Highway 1.

In 2009, a four-lane highway opened from Auckland to Titford's Bridge via the Johnstone's Hill twin tunnels.

It raised expectation of a rash of subdivisions and a Puhoi and Mahurangi West combined population of 1200 households and 4000 residents.

The Transport Agency suggested Puhoi's access would be lost with the proposed extension of the highway to Warkworth and Wellsford avoiding the notorious Schedewy's Hill.

But after a fierce campaign, south-facing ramps are promised for the project which could start in 2016.

Former Rodney District councillor Dave Parker lives in Warkworth but has played drums in the Puhoi Bohemian Band for 40 years because he says the people are a pleasure to be with.

Former Puhoi resident Roger Buckton will launch his book A Musical Heritage in Colonial New Zealand as well as play the dudelsack - a bagpipe-like instrument from Bohemia with his band Folkworks as part of the celebrations.

Generous publican gives rugby career a cash boost

The Puhoi 150th Anniversary organising committee has produced a booklet which honours the spirit of residents past and present.

One of them was tough publican Rod Seymour, who ran the 134-year-old Puhoi Hotel for decades until his death in 2001.

A softer side of his character is recalled by former All Black Robin Brooke, of Warkworth, who grew up in the district with his brothers Zinzan (All Black 1987-97) and Marty. The young lock had just been picked for the national secondary schools team.

Brooke recalls: "Rod Seymour did something I'll never forget. At closing, Rod took the till out, with the night's takings, and threw it at me across the floor. As you can imagine there was money scattered everywhere. Rod said: 'Well done, boy. Good on you for making the team. Take it, it's yours.'

"It was a very generous gesture which helped a great deal."

Anniversary events

• Folkworks will play at the Sunday Farmers Market 9am-11am, then the Ohaupo Bohemian Band will come on for a 40-minute set.

• The Puhoi Bohemian Band plays in the Puhoi Hotel on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

• Displays of heritage, art and photography are in the hall, museum, church and hotel.

• On Saturday at 9am Bishop Patrick Dunn will celebrate the Anniversary Mass in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

Puhoi numbers

150 years since the arrival of the first group of settlers from Bohemia

107 days at sea without touching land on the War Spirit before arriving on June 29, 1863

83 had left Europe in 1863, and more followed until about 200 Bohemians lived there by the 1870s.


On the web: www.puhoi150years.org.nz