Small towns have big things

by / 17/05/10

Risking excessive cheesiness and double entendres alike, Salient feature writer Matthew Cunningham examines the small town phenomenon of ‘Big Things’.

When I was about six or seven years old, I remember going on a road trip with my dad around New South Wales. As we headed north from Newcastle, he suggested that I might want to look out the window, for there was something big ahead of us. When I asked what it was, he told me that it was Ayers Rock. “Not even, Dad!” I replied, full of the cocky self-assurance of a child with a second-grade education. “Ayers Rock isn’t even in this state!” “I’m telling you, it is!” he replied with a laugh. “You just wait and see!”

And sure enough, another kilometre or two later, there it was—a giant, plastic eyesore, shaped and painted to look like Uluru. “The Rock Restaurant,” I read, groaning at my dad’s attempt at being cool. “But that’s not really Ayers Rock, Dad!” “No,” he replied, “but it is one of Australia’s ‘Big Things’.”

And so I was introduced to the common Australian practice of small things writ-large. Since then I’ve seen many more of them—the Big Ant, the Big Oyster, the Big Gold Panner. I even had the privilege of going to university in the town famous for the most sexually suggestive of the big things—the Big Banana. But what about New Zealand? As it turns out, you Kiwis have a few big things of your own—but surprisingly few people have written about them. This article is dedicated to small towns in New Zealand and their ‘big things’.

A long and lively history

The year was 1967. The Vietnam War was raging, the Space Race was at its height, and the hippies of the world were taking their first tentative puffs from the doobie of youthful rebellion. All of this paled, of course, to the preparations for the Christmas celebration in the small Kiwi town of Paeroa. In front of the town Post Office was erected a seven metre-high replica of a space rocket, topped by a loudspeaker that would blare music and announcements throughout the festival. The theme proudly proclaimed that “Paeroa was to rocket into Christmas”—and so it did.

The following Christmas, the rocket was reassembled and painted in a familiar pattern of brown and yellow. Thus was the ‘Big L&P Bottle’, world famous in New Zealand, born.

Most of New Zealand’s big things have similarly humble origins. Ohakune’s ‘Big Carrot’, for example, was conceived by Peter Hammond, a local grower of the Ohakune Growers’ Association. “The opportunity arose from the ANZ Banking promotion on [television] in the 80s as a prop from their advertising,” explains Bruce Thompson, Deputy Chair of the Waimarino-Waiouru Community Board.

“[It] was officially ‘opened’ by the King Country MP Mr Jim Bolger, and our mayor at the time Mr Bill Taylor.”

The operators of ‘Kiwi360’ in Te Puke—home of the ‘Big Kiwifruit’—stress the harmonious nature of their icon. “[It] is the shape of a kiwifruit slice, made up of Maori canoe paddles (waka hoe).

“The inclusion of Waka Hoe symbolises the land’s Maori heritage, the Mana Whenua of this land to the Tauranga Moana Iwi, and the orderly cooperation between peoples which has resulted in the success of our business.”

Big things also serve as a focus for ongoing pageantry in small towns. “Since 1984 a Carrot Festival has been held in the town featuring the large machinery for harvesting, floats and stalls,” says Thompson.

“It has [also] featured on the New Zealand postage stamp.”

It’s all about the produce

Big things typically represent the staple produce of their hometown. Apart from carrots, kiwifruit and bottles of soft drink, New Zealand’s other big things include a Big Crayfish in Kaikoura, a Big Salmon in Rakaia, a Big Trout in Gore, and a Big Sheep and Sheepdog in Tirau.

“[The Big L&P Bottle] represents our branding,” says Paeroa ward councillor Julie Bubb.

“We have flags down the main street with the L&P theme. All the food outlets in town have L&P painted frontages. We even have the L&P Cafe, which has a replica plastic bottle in front.”

Thompson proudly asserts that “the town of Ohakune was known as the carrot capital of the North Island”, and that the Big Carrot “stands proudly today promoting Ohakune and its wares”.

Martin Svehla, Ministry of Tourism Senior Communications Adviser, agrees that ‘Big Things’ are representative of what small towns have to offer. “Personally, I see them as a bit of fun. An exclamation point on what’s important to that town or area—something the community is proud of.

“There’s a big trout in Gore, and I understand that fishing on the Mataura can be spectacular.

“In terms of town branding I’d have to say I love what Tirau has done,” adds Svehla, referring to the Big Sheep and Sheepdog. “That’s a real feature, and I bet it makes people stop and have a coffee and slice of cake.”

A bit of fun

The people of Paeroa are “definitely proud of our local icon,” says Bubb. “The ‘bottle’ has become one of the most well known and photographed structures in New Zealand.

“There must be million of photographs of it around the world.”

Not everything about the icon has been effervescent, however. Before 2002, the bottle presented a rather unique problem in that the best place to take a photo of it was from right in the middle of State Highway 2. “There was naturally a concern about accidents, so the bottle was shifted at great cost to its present location where some bollards prevent the photographers from going on the busy highway.”

The biggest problem that the Big Carrot faced was of a more ideological nature. “Opponents were concerned at the anti-feminist nature of the ‘phallic symbol’,” explains Thompson.

“[They] suggested that two big swedes would be more appropriate.”

Quality over quantity

While New Zealand’s ‘Big Things’ may be few and far between, they are just as cherished by their small town patrons as their Australian counterparts. They present a light-hearted celebration of local industry and produce, as well as an unashamedly cheesy tourist attraction.

And just how do our ‘big things’ rate against their cousins in Australia? “I’m sure Australia has more,” admits Svehla. “I heard they’ve really embraced the whole ‘big thing’ idea on a large scale over there.

“[But] we really focus on quality here in New Zealand. I bet ours are made better. Probably using the latest America’s Cup fibreglass technology and the like.”

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