By David Parker
Former Festival Director, Co-ordinator and Volunteer.
It all began fifty years ago when a Jack Keys and Phil Wilson were working in Kowhai Park. The Tuis were singing, almost deafening and the Kowhai was in full bloom, providing a spectacular sight. Phil Wilson was recorded as saying “Isn’t this a beautiful combination, the tui and the kowhai, Warkworth should be known as the kowhai town. Jack Keys thought that was an excellent idea and later suggested to Jim Ferguson, who was President of the Rotary Club at the time, that they should adopt the name and have a festival to celebrate.
Mr Ferguson put the festival idea to the combined service clubs of Warkworth. They included Rotary, Jaycees and the Lions Club. They embraced the idea and appointed an executive committee to organise the festival in 1970. Those who served on that first executive, representing the three service clubs were Ken Fearnley (Chairman), Jack Keys (Hon Sec), Tony Anich, Jim Ferguson, Neil Forsyth, Hedley King, Stuart Neal, Brian Rees and Geoff Roper.
For the first four years the festival ran without any real commitment to make it an annual event. Having been co-opted onto the committee in 1970, I was put in charge of running the first float parade. I can recall the discussions that were held over whether or not we should have an annual event or bi-annual event. It was a Mr Neil Sole, a local businessman that moved that the festival should be held each year in September when the kowhai is in full bloom. In 1976 the festival organisation was streamlined with the formation of the Warkworth Kowhai Festival Society.
That first festival was a resounding success and some of the original events are still going today ie Floral Festival, Warkworth Brass concert, Sports events, Photographic Exhibitions, Combined Service Clubs evening, Combined Churches Celebration, Market/Huge Day Out River events and included also was the official opening of the Warkworth Tennis and Squash Club pavilion.
From my perspective, I have fond memories of so many festival events of the past. For instance the float parades where we travelled through down Neville Street, Queen St into Elizabeth St and out onto the Hill Street/Highway One intersection in order to turn and return into town! We did that for the first few years. Some of parades featured the local Rodeo Club riders. Horses and riders would break from the parade and head into the public bar and following a bit of liquid refreshment, would rejoin the parade. The horses even had their own beer troughs! We had can-can dancers perform on the balcony of the Warkworth Inn on various occasions and champagne breakfasts were always popular in the Silver Service Restaurant of the Inn. Then there were the night parades, when coloured lights once festooned the town streets and Lady Godiva would appear on a black horse wearing almost nothing but long blonde hair almost touching the road. When the parade returned to a daylight event, stalls had to be cleared away from the street by mid-afternoon so as the parade could proceed.
We always had so much fun on the river with the annual Raft Race a feature attracting great numbers of very competitive and creative structures which not always finished their race.
From 1991 there has always been an annual Canoe Showdown featuring kayakers from various clubs around the country including a number of national and Olympic competitors. The event which was always organised by our own Jim & Judy Sonerson, also crowned the winners the ‘king and queen’of the Mahurangi River with a head lei of mangrove leaves!
I can recall the time when we decided, as a fundraiser, to have a Chuck-A-Duck race on the river. There was instant opposition from a public organisation to the idea as protestors thought we were going to be throwing real ducks! Each year we would sell some one hundred plastic ducks which raised good money for various causes. Many of the ducks had names ie Dafy, Daisy, Dilly, Dipsey and so on. The former local Search & Rescue organised the first race then the Kawau Coast Guard and so on.
There have been numerous and quiet novel themes each year, all of which have afforded the opportunity to dress in appropriate attire from carnival, nautical, country & western, pirates, cowboys and halloween. As special guests we would invite various VIP’s and Olympic sportspeople over the years to attend the festival. I recall in 1984 we had the late Sir Dove-Meyer Robinson, former mayor of Auckland who arrived all dressed in full cowboy attire as it was that theme. It was the year he was promoting a rapid rail system so the local Boys’Brigade thought it a good idea to feature a large ‘rapid snail’ in the float parade and took the prize. Another novel event was the race for the fastest live snail on earth.
Participation by numerous local sports bodies has always been a feature with Festival Golf, Bowls, Croquet, Tennis & Squash events being held. Golden Oldie support was strong. Youth organisations and Schools have always taken an active and varied part in the annual event. The festival has afforded the opportunity for numerous community organisations to promote or display their talent. Local arts, crafts and floral groups always have supported the festival concept indicating strong community input.
We have always tried to include our outlying districts in one or another. Early in the piece, we promoted a Sir George Grey Day at Mansion House on Kawau Island and that has in more recent years turned into an annual festive day during the summer months. Craft and Village days were held in various local halls. There was even a Scarecrow Fest out at Sheepworld for a whole month. So many events have taken place and if it wasn’t for the volunteering effort of our local Service Clubs – Rotary, Lions, Jaycees and the Kowhai Coast Lions, many of these would not of happened.
What was the Annual Market Day or Festival Day is now the Huge Day Out currently attracting around 20’000 visitors and offering an amazing array of talent, music and attraction. I can only recall one actual day in 1989 when we had to cancel the day due to heavy rain. There have been numerous other days when it has poored down before the start, fine in between then as soon as the float parade concluded, down it came again. Two marching bands have added much joy, colour and music. Both the Warkworth & Wellsford Pipe Band and the Guggenmusik bands have proved extremely popular over the years and will again be a feature this year. Warkworth has always been a township of Ducks who used the make their way up Neville street in military order to eat the fallen acorns. So popular they were the Festival decided it would create and hatch their own duck that could be used for promotional and childrens events. So out of an ‘egg’ one market day, popped ‘Waddles’ and will lead this years new Walking Parade as Warkworths mascot. Moving the Festival from September to October has been a good move.
This annual festival has always been Warkworths opportunity to display both it’s wealth of talent and community spirit. There has been no other local organisation that has drawn so many visitors over the years nor so much support and benefit to the community.
Its success really has been attributable to all the sponsors and thousands of local volunteers who, over the past fifty years, have contributed their time , energy and enthusiasm as committee members and ambassadors. Individually, they have served in my opinion, with distinction. I have been privileged to of been associated, one way or another, with the organisation over a good number of years. The Warkworth Kowhai Festival has always been a happy, fun-filled, family event. I believe the festival is in good hands and I have no doubt that it will continue to be an event that the community can be proud of and indeed should continue to support.