Axemen Legends of Northland

Over the past century, Northland has produced many axemen and sawyers of stature. Names such as Mick Griffen, Joe Julian, Dinny Hoey, Pero Smith, Bill Shelford and Innes Davidson have joined the ranks of New Zealand’s legendary sporting greats, and Northland axemen continue to excel.  

Featuring highlights from video interviews recorded with a selection of contemporary Northland axemen, our online exhibition summarises this enduring heritage sport through their eyes: its events, equipment, technique and organisation.

Our axemen interviewees all descend from Northland axemen. Their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers were bush workers, and often competitive choppers as well. Bruce Alexander, now in his eighties, is possibly the last of the sporting axemen who, as a young man, worked the kauri bush with axe and cross cut saw.

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 Nelson Parker  

“What walks in the father, runs in the son…”

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Bill Carter 

“You can’t have a chopping carnival without someone doing the work…”

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Bruce & Neville Alexander 

“While my father watched, I won the heat, the semi-final and the final. I think that’s the closest I could have got to perfection.”

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The Semenoff Family 

“Three generations chopping together – you can’t do that with rugby.”

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Fast, spectacular, dangerous and exciting, competition woodchopping and sawing is part of New Zealand’s social heritage and, although shared with Australia, is arguably our only authentic heritage sport.

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The men who felled the kauri forests of the North worked long hours for low wages with basic tools: the axe, the cross cut saw, the maul and the wedge.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The history of Northland’s competitive woodchopping and its connection with the kauri bushmen was a passion of former Kauri Museum CEO, Bet Nelley. This exhibition owes much to the relationships Bet nurtured over many years within the woodchopping world.

The Kauri Museum wishes to acknowledge the generous support of The Chisholm Whitney Family Charitable Trust and Wilson Earthmoving Ltd, and also the kind contribution by Tuatahi Racing Axes and Saws.

Special thanks to Nelson Parker, Bill and Trish Carter, Bruce and Neville Alexander and the Semenoff Whanau.

 

VIDEO CREDITS

Video interviews filmed and edited by Brilliant Films for The Kauri Museum.

The following material is used by permission:

  • The Axemen’s Carnival, Northland, circa 1955-1956. Vivienne Lee-Johnson, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa 0.007830
  • Kauri forest, Wairoa River, Kaipara, 1839. Charles Heaphy Alexander Turnbull Library C-025-014
  • Maps based on data licensed by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence
  • Clip of Nelson Parker at Sydney Easter Show courtesy of Aaron Youd