Eltham in the 1960s and 70s had the privilege of being the most industrialised town in New Zealand, heading off Petone on that count. In those days the town was home to Huttons' freezing works, a large Taranaki Dairy Company milk powder facility, the Rennet Company that made exotic cheeses as well as rennet, the Taranaki Electric Power Board’s major depot, Eltham County and Eltham Borough Council depots, a couple of large engineering businesses and a sawmill. It was home for a few years to a large single-men’s camp when gas pipelines were being built from the neighbouring Kapuni field, north to Auckland and south to Wellington, as well as a condensate line to the port at New Plymouth.
There were also two large stock and station agents, branches for all of the major trading banks, Stark & Pickford’s big supermarket, a Ford dealership and three pubs. Eltham’s main street, Billy T James and some locals starred in the movie “Came a hot Friday”. It was all go.
Eltham was unusual in that, given its population and surrounding agricultural hinterland, it didn’t have a secondary school. All kids in that age group, apart from a few who attended boarding schools far far away, were bussed each day to Stratford High School which was about 10km away to the north.
In those times the Police and Highway Patrols were in different services. Traffic Officers were administered either by the Ministry of Transport or in some cases by local councils. I’m not sure whether Transport Officers had the power to arrest, but they certainly had the power to intimidate and generally annoy.
Small towns in those days often had a few colourful characters. Eltham had several. Some were legends. If not legends, they certainly provided extensive subject matter for the conversations of locals.
The local traffic officer was one such character. He was built like the proverbial brick toilet. A ginger-haired brick toilet with a crew cut. Officer Roscoe P Coltrane had been a Big Time Wrestler in a past life.
As befitting a traffic officer, Officer Coltrane took enforcement seriously. He loved speeding drivers, not so much because he liked ticketing them, more for the thrill of the chase. One chase ended near Feilding, about 170km away, when the vehicle being pursued ran out of petrol. You get the idea.
Another character in the town was a logging contractor, Beau Duke. Beau employed a couple of assistants and roamed around the county felling pine trees, most of which were delivered to the Waipari sawmill in Eltham.
Beau was a strapping lad, usually clad in a singlet and shorts, irrespective of the weather. To say he was strong would be an understatement. He had arm and chest muscles that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have died for. In those days chainsaws were large, heavy, extremely loud and hard to start. Electronic ignition systems and stout plastics, and the transformational effect those had on two-stroke engine reliability and weight, had yet to be invented. Chainsaws were large pieces of kit. Real Man Kit(TM). Beau could horizontally drop start a Pioneer 600 with a 36 inch bar, particularly when he had an admiring audience. Lesser mortals had to sit it on the ground and heave at the pull-cord
Nobody in Beau’s team wore protective clothing or hearing protection. The noise from a chainsaw of that generation hard at work was just immense. These things made Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound look like a flimsy crepe paper partition.
Beau used to haul logs with an old Bedford truck. It was even old in those days. The loads heaped onto this willing workhorse were quite large, at times defying several of the known Laws of Physics as well as the prescribed axle weights for vehicles of this ilk and the maximum load limits for many county bridges. This careful attention to detail had not escaped the attention of Officer Coltrane.
Officer Coltrane’s interest in the general well-being of his Bedford had not escaped Beau. Often when leaving a property with a load of logs, Beau would not take the shortest distance to the Waipari sawmill. The scenic wonders around Eltham can at times have that effect on drivers. Through various local contacts, Beau seemed very well informed about Officer Coltrane’s whereabouts. A contest was afoot.
One day Officer Coltrane could not believe his luck. Rounding a corner immediately ahead of him in Eltham Borough no less, was one Beau Duke driving a Bedford truck groaning under a pile of logs. Officer Coltrane stopped the truck and invited Beau to follow him to the local weighbridge so that the full extent of any illegality could be quantified. Off he set, presumably aglow with joy, and with Beau following.
However a couple of corners later, Beau “lost control” of his rig. It capsized, discarding its load into a neighbouring paddock. Beau walked away unscathed and unticketed. This meant that a disconsolate Officer Coltrane had to wait until another day to catch his nemesis in the act of illegally carting ample evidence.