An early autumn morning and friends call to each other across the Puhoi River. “How was your cataract operation?
Are the peaches ripening over there?” Sounds normal, in these early weeks of Omicron 2022. Puhoi people are cautiously enjoying their freedoms again – gentle music on the hotel lawn, visiting relatives, harvesting buckets of quinces and picking Granny Smith apples. There are also lots of locals putting their skills to use working from home – children’s books, gourmet cooks, freezers for sale, art classes, produce swaps, junior football, tea rooms reopening – signs of a community in fairly positive spirits.
Here may not be the place to compare Covid 19 with what the world went through in the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic but, its impact on our Bohemian ancestors was just as profound. Peter Straka points to these words on the underside of a 100-year-old piece of furniture: “Peace declared Tuesday, November 12, 1918. Annie Straka (his aunt) had the influenza.”
And his cousin, Isabel, nee Titford, recalled that during the Great Flu, Granny Titford, born 1863, put lots of crushed garlic in the Puhoi Hotel’s broom cupboard. The crushed garlic then got into the broom bristles and so got distributed throughout the hotel during cleaning. “Lots of people – travellers and teachers, for example – stayed at the Hotel and none of them caught the flu!”
My mother, Gretchen Elizabeth, born 1910, was the granddaughter of Puhoi pioneer Elizabeth Pittner and was later adopted by her aunt, Margaret, nee Christmann, who, with her husband, Alfred Williams, owned the Mangawhai Hotel. In a 2006 interview, Gretchen told the following story:
“The flu epidemic after the First World War didn’t hit Mangawhai very much that I can remember, but there was a group of Maori living at Coal Hill. They didn’t live together as a pa and they didn’t call it a marae in those days, but they were a group of families living together.
“Because the flu was on, and everyone knew how serious it was, the policeman asked the Maoris to stay in their own community and not to come down to the village for supplies. They arranged for one man – and I can still see him arriving on horseback – to get any supplies that were necessary. At the hotel they would make a large container of soup. I don’t know how he managed to get it back on horseback.
“They asked the Maori to isolate themselves for their own good, because it was known that Maori were prone to chest diseases and they thought they might be easy victims of the flu.”