“If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards,” and “Free Idiot Test $50” declare two of the many signs in the Puhoi Pub. The walls and ceiling inside the two-storey wooden building, established in 1879, are crammed with collections of artefacts that include bras and bikini tops, caps, kauri gum, bullock horns, stuffed animal heads, flags and old-time tools. Photographs of visitors as diverse as Billy Connolly and Santa Claus are on display, and banknotes, postcards and business cards (many of them signed) flutter in the breeze.
“People come back after periods of up to 20 years to see if their particular contribution is still there,” I’m told. Both times we’ve visited recently the bar was heaving with tourists coming and going, ordering drinks and meals, or clicking away with phones and cameras, and during summer weekends the alfresco dining area only seems to be vacant if it’s raining. The pub’s rural setting, a mere 50km, or half-hour along the northern motorway, from Auckland makes it a popular venue for brunches and lunches; a far cry from its establishment as a gathering place for lonely members of a small, relatively isolated community a long way away from their homes on the other side of the world.
The pub wasn’t the first building constructed though. Puhoi’s Bohemian immigrants’ strong faith meant that a place to worship was a priority. The plain but obviously significant Catholic church, with its stained-glass windows that represent the pioneer families, was the earliest public building erected, to meet that requirement.
Susan May is one of eight volunteers in the historic Puhoi Town Library. Originally constructed for the Puhoi Road Board in 1913, the building was donated to the community 10 years later when it became surplus to the Road Board’s requirements. Generous donations of cash and books enabled the building to open as a public library in 1923, but in April the following year, the ‘great flood’ occurred. Water rushed into the library to a height of seven feet, destroying most of the books, and once the water receded a six-foot-high wall of silt had to be removed. It’s said that framed photos of Queen Victoria and King George remained hanging on the wall, but with only their royal heads peering above the floodwaters. Loss of the books meant the cessation of the library, and the building was subsequently used for many purposes including, for a short time, as a mortuary. The library was re-established in 1976, although no books are kept on the lower shelves. Two further floods in 2001, although not to the same level as the great flood, mean that the librarians remain vigilant when storms threaten. Now, Susan says, there are more than 6,000 books in the library, which is completely independent from the Auckland Council’s library services.
Hands up if you’ve heard of a dudelsack. Prior to my visit to Puhoi’s Bohemian museum I certainly hadn’t, but the museum has a replica of the original instrument, also known as Bohemian bagpipes. Locked in its glass cabinet it looks somewhat ungainly with its leather bellows and bullock-horn trumpets, but the museum has a useful audio guide which enables visitors to listen to its sound (item 164 for the record).