Shearer and poet leaves mark on Mackenzie
TIMARU HERALD STAFF REPORTER
Ernie Slow was a poet and balladeer who lived in Fairlie and worked all around the Mackenzie Country in the early half of last century.
Recent interest in his poems has prompted us to look again at a feature written by historian William Vance and published in the Timaru Herald on July 9, 1960.
"Ernie lived a life of self-reliance and this independence was one of his marked characteristics. Almost all his life had been spent in the high country and there was not a station job that Ernie could not do.
"For years he was a gun shearer and it was then that he absorbed the atmosphere of the Mackenzie. No rabbiter was better at his work than this man, and numbers of the steep hillside fences have been put there by Ernie. Even when he was a comparatively old man he built the snowline fence at Glentanner.
"The atmosphere of the Mackenzie gave him a dignity which he never lost, for there was nothing petty or mean about him. His nature was also reflected in his gentleness with dogs and horses.
"And in his shearing days he did not forget his fellow workmen, for when he made a visit to town he would come back with a big pot of raspberry jam and dump it on the shearers' dining table with these words: 'General Godley used to say "Keep the jam up to the troops".'
"This fondness for raspberry jam stayed with him. I can never forget my afternoon tea sessions with Ernie in his corrugated iron hut when we ate bread and jam together, swilled down with black tea while outside the Mackenzie sun soared up to 92 degrees.
"Then it was that I learned a good deal of Mackenzie Country history, for Ernie could tell tales of every station.
"Like the ballad-makers of old who travelled from place to place telling or singing their stories in poetic form, Ernie did not bother to write down his poems, but would recite them to an interested audience when the occasion arose. I wrote down a number of them, and on the afternoon of his death he called in to give me a copy of his latest poem.
"Perhaps best known of his poems was The Devil's Daughter which takes place in the Sardine Hut, 6ft x 6ft with a 5ft high lean- to roof. Situated near the Fork River it was a boundary-keeper's hut in the early days and was so named because of its inability to accommodate all the musterers expected to stay there.
"This corrugated iron hut had a corrugated iron door that moved with the wind. When a strong nor- wester blew up the wire handle of the door it rubbed against the iron, making a screeching noise. Newcomers who did not know about this (and they were never told) were mystified by the eerie noise, so that the hut gained its reputation of being haunted.
"This is the basis of Ernie's story, although the rest of it, I understand, has some foundation in fact."
Ernie Slow (military service No: 10/178) was wounded in the leg twice, while serving in World War I at Gallipoli and discharged from service deemed unfit. He died of suffocation, aged 70, on the night of May 3, 1960 when his weatherboard bach, at the reserve in Fairlie, caught fire.
Jack Skinner alone can surely boast
Of having seen the Godley Ghost;
'Twas way up in the Sardine Hut,
Where spooks and phantoms nightly strut,
For there, among the rocks and water,
He saw the famous Devil's daughter.
Now spooks, like fleas, they fear the light,
So to the hut they came at night.
Jack Skinner had just arrived, you see,
Back from Fairlie, on the spree.
And like all men, his happiness grew,
With some of Scotland's famous dew.
He danced with glee upon the floor,
When came a tap upon the door:
A visitor at this time of day?
A shepherd must have lost his way,
And opened wide Jack pulled the door,
Then staggered back with an awful roar.
He seized his gun for open slaughter,
There before him stood the Devil's daughter;
A female form before him stood,
Jack aimed and fired as quick as he could.
With smoking gun and failing light,
I'm sure he looked an awful sight.
'I've done for her,' he madly yelled.
His chest with pride and spirit swelled;
'All spooks I'll fight; all forms and sizes.
With whisky good, my courage rises.'
But the night wore on with wind and rain,
When a tap came on the window pane.
Standing there, mid'st falling water,
Jack saw once more the Devil's daughter;
Two loud reports, a mighty crash,
That sent the window pane and sash.
And Skinner sank with eyeballs red,
Upon his old and trusty bed.
He prayed the Lord would send the light,
To end this most distressful night;
He stirred the fire, more light to keep,
And went to bed but not to sleep.
While resting on his cosy bed,
The wall was rapped above his head.
I've been a John Hop in the Force,
I've steered erratic in life's course!
I've taken mad men to the cells,
I've flirted with pretty belles;
But never such a night I've spent,
With nerves and spirits badly rent.
Upon the hillside, cold and bare,
He saddled up the old grey mare;
"It's for my life I'll ride this race,'
He called for Phar Lap's mighty pace.
Pity poor Skinner in his plight,
As he rode out into the starless night.
He dashed o'er rocks, through scrub and water,
But following fast came the Devil's daughter;
His spurs sank in like spearing fish,
His whip came down with an awful swish;
And from the mane right to the tail,
He rode for life - he couldn't fail.
With speed to burn, I'd not reward her,
But old Jack Skinner was working her harder;
He spied the lake of bluish water,
When upon his back sprang the Devil's daughter.
He called for help - he called afar,
He called for Hamilton's racing car.
The sheep, they scrambled up the rocks,
And wild birds flew away in flocks;
And birds that never flew before,
Flapped their wings, as off they tore.
He jumped the well-known station gate,
'Twas six foot high - he couldn't wait.
Dog kennels upset, and sheep dogs, too,
Flew at the sound of the hullabaloo;
And crashing through the door, half shut,
He galloped into the shepherd's hut.
Dave Sutherland shouted 'Earthquake! Fire!'
And out he dashed in his night attire.
The old mare's head through the window came.
For Skinner kept riding, might and main;
A crash of timber, an awful shout,
The old mare is through; the wall is out.
Dave Sutherland yelled out, 'Damn his eye,'
As the hut, it reeled, and then capsized.
Into the swamp and out again,
Jack wheeled his mare for the Glenmore plain;
Bruce Murray jumped out of his cosy bed,
'Sounds like an earthquake here,' he said.
The mules and horses madly fled,
The bull stood fair upon his head.
The Skinner made for the river water,
Racing for life from Devil's Daughter.
Once more he galloped for the station light,
And now he looked an awful sight.
His eyes they glared like balls of fire,
His hair stood up like fencing wire.
His moustache would clean a twelve-inch gun,
For Skinner then commenced to run;
He flattened the henhouse midst jolts and jars,
The roosters fled right to the stars.
With a mighty effort and plain sweat,
He upset the squatter's dining set.
Around the house, on a beaten track,
He went so fast he saw his back;
The shepherds rushed, but held aloof,
As Skinner climbed up on homestead roof,
As game as Kelly, and riding yet;
They hauled him down with a fishing net.
The falling at the squatter's side,
The Devil's daughter he defied;
'Oh thank the Lord,' he madly raved.
'Oh, thank the Lord, for I am saved.'
For Skinner didn't care a jot,
For he gulped down whisky, piping hot.
Shepherds still swear, up in the snow,
You can hear those phantom roosters crow;
And travellers, as they pass that way,
Hear them crowing night and day.
And o'er the mountains, rocks and pools,
Three weeks were spent to find the mules.
The bull was found, all stiff and sore,
Just nineteen miles this side of Gore:
Some horses alas were never found,
Some say they're in the phantom pound.
So the boss gave out the following rules,
To shepherds, rabbiters, dogs and fools.
Employees make note and fear,
For whisky is forbidden here;
For months of snow creates less slaughter,
Than a visit from the Devil's daughter.
But they say that whisky often leaks,
Upon the well-known Godley Peaks.
But they mix it well with sparkling water,
To keep away the Devil's daughter.
- The Timaru Herald