Forestry commentary: Whale Bros

By: Patrick Cox, Photography by: Patrick Cox and Supplied

Whale Bros helped, in their own way, shape a part of the forestry industry by supplying wooden posts to a hungry market in NZ

Eighty-two-year-old Bruce Whale and eighty-six-year-old Ron Whale are two of a family of nine siblings, originally from Rangataua, Ohakune.

Their father helped construct the road to the Turoa Ski Field, back in the fifties, with the help of local businesses donating five pound (ten dollars) a month to help with construction costs.

Ron being the inventive one had a Ford Model A that he modified and added an extra gear box to go hunting. The vehicle went where a Land Rover would not, according to Ron, and he would often find himself taking diesel up to his father building the Ohakune Mountain Road.

It was inevitable both brothers would end up in the logging industry, as their father on occasion would spend time logging native logs in and around the King Country. Looking for work in 1966, they found themselves in the Central North Island’s Kaingaroa Forest, Waiotapu, with a couple of logging crews.

Ron and Bruce helped shape a part of the forestry industry
Ron and Bruce helped shape a part of the forestry industry

It was about at this time Ron was down at the railhead at Murupara, where all logs were destined for the Kawerau. In one corner of the yard was a massive stack of Corsican pine.

The sawn logs had been removed and the rest were just sitting there going rotten. It was what you could call a ‘light bulb’ moment, as at the time this was a sub-species that nobody wanted and had little value to buyers.

A meeting with the local conservator of the forest saw the Whale Bros secure cutting rights to the Corsican Pine in the Waiotapu area for three-pence a cubic yard, or in today’s terms: around three cents a cubic metre. So, Whale Bros started with a post yard at Waiotapu Forest down Kerosene Creek road.

Corsican pine was perfect for posts, after the brothers invented a way to peel posts, and the diameter size was perfect. Some trees had multiple leaders, just a metre or so off the ground and up to one hundred feet or thirty metres tall. Their timing was perfect, as in the past most farmers’ post and strainers were either totara or beech trees.

Forty percent of Corsican was recovered as saw logs and the balance in round wood from those hundred-year-old trees. As an added bonus, because of the brothers’ ability to peel posts, local wood choppers would seek out peeled blocks for their wood chopping competitions.

Bruce (left) and Ron (right) are two of a family of nine siblings
Bruce (left) and Ron (right) are two of a family of nine siblings

Cutting posts and stacking them in the yard to dry is back-breaking hard work. Having spent a bit of time myself in the late 1960s driving for Bridgeman Transport, we would get sent out to pick up a truck and trailer load of posts. You would take an offsider and spend the day loading by hand. By the end of the day and a gallon of cordial under your belt, you were a very spent unit.

The year 1972 saw the explosion of the kiwifruit industry and Whale Bros found themselves inundated with demand for post and poles. Fast forwarding to 1979, they purchased 250 acres on the corner of Whites Road and Broadlands Road, Reporoa.

There they set up a post mill and treatment plant and production continued to expand. By 1981/2 they were producing around 2000 square metres of post and poles a year.

Whale Bros supplied post and rails to retailers in the Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay, as well as selling them from their own yard. Having one of the first timber treatment plants in the area, they also did contract work for other sawmills.

To supply the yard with logs, Whale Bros had two company logging crews and Roger Elmiger was contract logging for them. To supplement supply, they also brought logs in from Matakana Island at Tauranga.

As if this was not enough work, with the post yard taking up a small corner of the 250 acres, they added 800 breeding hinds to the property from 1986 to 2003 producing meat and velvet.

Whale Bros had one of the first timber treatment plants in the area
Whale Bros had one of the first timber treatment plants in the area

At the height of their business venture, the Whale brothers employed up to 47 people. Two other brothers also worked in the bush and sadly Rex Whale was killed in a skidder accident.

Talking to these two old, tough bushmen was a little hard going. Ron forgot his hearing aids and Bruce being the quiet one, did not say much and is also a little deaf - a legacy of spending your life around noisy machinery.

Nobody told us back then the consequences of not wearing hearing protection. I mentioned to Sharen Whale, Bruce’s wife, that even though they were bloody deaf they seemed to understand each other. Sharen said she had watched them over the years talking to each other, not even facing each other, and still understanding what each other said. I guess if you work with someone, especially family for long enough, you’re pretty much on the same page.

Ron purchased a lifestyle block in 1986 at Bonshaw Park on the Napier-Taupo road, then 16 years ago moved into central Taupo.

After Bruce had a major accident in 2003, losing a part of his hand, Sharen convinced him it was time to sell the business and enjoy life. They still live on the block of land, and not one to stand still, Bruce has planted 2500 Manuka trees down the back of the property.

If it wasn’t for people like the Whale Bros and other post producers, where would our wine, kiwifruit and other horticultural growers have got their post and poles.

One comment they made was quite interesting. With the introduction of harvesting machines, product arriving at the yard was damaged from mechanical harvesting. I guess sometimes what these two guys started with, axes and chainsaws, did a quality job that modern machinery just can’t do.

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