Last Saturday 250 people attended a reunion for the 35th anniversary of the Whakatū Freezing Works closure and MTG Hawke's Bay had the privilege of welcoming attendees into the museum.
The event started in Whakatū, across the road from the main gates of the Whakatū Freezing Works, next to the maumahara rock, a memorial rock to workers past.
Ngahiwi Tomoana started, revitalising "old calls" common only to the freezing works itself. One particular call, "one out all out!", was to trigger an etiquette to show itself later in the morning.
Harry Cooper, in his 80s, started tikanga with a mihi to everyone present alive and dead. Recalling memories, his reo comes from the birth place of chief Kahungunu himself, up north. Coming into Hawke's Bay Whakatū years ago from afar to work, Harry settled and raised a family. After the works closed he, like many, eventually shifted away to Australia - but only for a generation, returning home four months ago.
Following Harry was Haami Hilton, chosen kaumatua reo for Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi who carries tribal kawa with tikanga on Kahungunu tribal lands and further afield.
Then came the religions: Numia Tomoana (Anglican), Tuterangi Apatu (Catholic), and kaumatua Jerry Hapuku (Mormon). This was followed by some mihi from the crowd. Many present were spouses, children and grandchildren of past workers, speaking for their fathers, mothers, and grandparents. A complete community of old reunited.
Ngahiwi announced the end of formalities with "One out all out!". The group then split into two some mustering at the Clive Hotel and others travelling to MTG to view their exhibition "A Bloody Business: the history of five Hawke's Bay freezing works".
This exhibition explores the effect the frozen meat processing industry had on the socio-economics of the Hawke's Bay region, using as illustration five significant meat works: Tomoana (1884), Hawke's Bay & North British (1887), Thomas Borthwick & Sons Limited (1906), Wairoa (1909) and Whakatū (1913) freezing works.
The first shipment of frozen meat left Dunedin in 1882 but today only AFFCO NZ Ltd, Wairoa, remains in operation. Hawke's Bay & North British Freezing Works collapsed under stiff competition. Thomas Borthwick & Sons Limited was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake. Whakatū and Tomoana closed following rationalisation and downsizing that started in 1984.
Thousands of jobs were lost - having a significant economic impact on Hastings and surrounding districts. The effects were all-encompassing and gut-wrenching.
Whakatū Freezing Works started in 1902. A group of Waipukurau farmers with small land holdings were concerned with not having ready access to locally owned meat processing facilities, thereby forcing them on the mercy of large freezing companies such as Tomoana, Borthwicks and the North British & Hawke's Bay freezing works (all British-owned). The farmers suspected that monetary returns from their fat lambs and export grade sheep was being kept purposefully low. In 1910, a contingent met with William Nelson of Nelson Bros Tomoana Freezing Works to address this issue. Nelson emphatically denied their accusation that Tomoana made excessive profits at their expense.
Concerns that they were continuing to be exploited by the large freezing work companies, the group of local farmers resolved to form a cooperative freezing works, under the name of Hawke's Bay Farmers Meat Company. In 1912 a committee was set up to canvas how many small landowners would be willing to support the cooperation and the number of sheep available to make the freezing works viable.
The Hawke's Bay Farmers Meat Company's aim was to purchase land at Whakatū to erect a freezing works. The site was chosen because it was located close to the Napier-Wellington railway line and was halfway between Napier and Hastings.
By 1913 enough funds were raised to begin building. A railway branch line was laid to convey building material to the site and construction began in earnest.
Along with the freezing works, a refrigeration and electric plant, manure and tallow departments were built. Outside the perimeter, single men quarters, cottages and a railway siding were provided.
Killing at Whakatū Freezing Works commenced in January 1915. Helped with demand, fuelled by World War I and the government commandeer of meat for the British market, the works processed 123,900 sheep and lambs and 3190 cattle in their first season. Whakatū Freezing Works proved immediately profitable.
Gradually, small communities made-up of employees, developed around Whakatū and Pakipaki. By the 1970s a small township supporting the employees of Whakatū had developed. It comprised a dairy, butcher's shop, garage and community hall. The locally owned Whakatū Freezing Works went on to become a huge complex, breaking national killing records and exporting 95 per cent of its processed stock to more than 50 countries.
With brutal suddenness, Hastings experienced the closure of two of the country's largest meat processing plants. Whakatū on October 10, 1984, and almost 10 years later, on August 19, 1994, Weddel New Zealand the owners of Tomoana, went into receivership, forcing the closure of the works. There was a combined loss of 4500 jobs in Hawke's Bay.
It was a beautiful but poignant reunion – celebrating the community and camaraderie of times past but also the pain caused by the closure. We're pleased that MTG has been able to share the important story of this industry, the people and the shared experiences that bind them.
• Te Hira Henderson is curator Māori at MTG.