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The Historic Ahipara Gumfields

Kauri Gum History Tony Yelash Image Gallery Today
The Last Gumdigger of the North - 

                                  Tony Yelash (1902-198?)

In the middle of this lonely bleak countryside, in a corrugated-iron hut, lived an elderly Dalmatian called Tony Yelash. People call him "the last gumdigger of the north".
Mr Yelash arrived in New Zealand in 1927, at the age of twenty-five. He had come to this country for five years to make some money to take home. In Yugoslavia, he had been a farmer - he raised sheep and pigs and grew vines. But in New Zealand he turned his hand to gumdigging. He started to dig by himself. "I dug in a face - just like digging potatoes. For every three spadefuls of soil you get one spadeful of gum chips." Later, he employed other men. At one stage he had fourteen men working for him, and owned two large washing machines. He also tried his hand as storekeeper and gum dealer. He never went back to Yugoslavia. By the time his five years were over, the Depression had begun. And then after that came the war. He had now been living on the Ahipara gumfields for more than fifty years.

He had always enjoyed the life "Nice money, nice job, good climate. There was good and bad on the gumfield, but little stealing and fighting. Everyone got on and everyone pulled together." In later years, as many gumdiggers had their families living with them, there was a school bus, and whether they had children or not, all the gumdiggers would help to mend the pot-holes in the clay road, so that the bus could get through.

Mr Yelash pointed down into a small valley behind his hut. "Down there was once a shanty town, with a barber's shop, billiard saloon and dance hall. Dances every week - twice at Christmas." Now there is just scrub, and it's hard to believe that four hundred men once lived and worked there.

And what is left of the gumfield now that the gumdiggers have gone? Grey barren soil, full of ditches and small holes like the surface of the moon. And jagged stumps of whitish wood sticking up, the remains of scrub burnt off many years ago. Fresh scrub has grown, but it is thin and stunted. Everywhere looks the same. But for Tony Yelash, every square metre is was different. There are a thousand landmarks which only he can see, and each one tells a story. There, where the soil seems to be raised in a line, was once a dam. It was made forty years ago, to create a water supply for the washing machines. Here was where a close friend had his shanty. That shallow ditch over there was once one of the main channels leading the water to the machines. The washing machines are still there. They are rusted now, but Mr Yelash would like to get them working again. It was his dream to make a sort of museum of this patch of gumfield. He lived without electricity. He makes his own bread and cooked in his fireplace, grew vegetables and made his own wine.

Tony Yelash (Grandson of the late Mr Yelash)

Kauri Gum History Tony Yelash Image Gallery Today