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Icons of the West – Don Buck

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don“Looking north at the foot of what was known as Don Buck’s Hill there is some rising ground, gorse covered, with a few old pines around a deserted house. A few years ago that house was a busy store and the knoll was encircled with the queerest imaginable collection of sack shanties and whares. In a semi-circle they stretched round the store, all under the eagle eye of Don Buck.”

So says Vagabond, writing in the Auckland Star in 1926. It is almost impossible now to know exactly the true story of the legendary Don Buck, but Vagabond’s story was written by someone who knew the man and the camp, just nine years after his death, and is undoubtedly as close to the truth as anyone will get. Even the correct spelling of his real name is not certain. Francisco Rodriquez Figuero appears on his headstone at Waikumete but both the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Star of the time, with access to court records, spelled Rodriguez with a “g” (the Portuguese way) not a “q” (the Spanish way). They spelled the surname Figueira (which, we’re told, is correct).

Don Buck was variously described as a gum trader, storekeeper, farmer and viticulturalist. He ran a general store and a camp for outcasts at Swanson. He put the outcasts to work digging gum, which he then bought and sold for a profit. Depending on who was telling the story he was either saint or sinner, and in truth he was probably a bit of both with a lot in between. Certainly he was a legend in his own time and in the century since his death, in August 1917, has grown to almost mythological status with lurid stories of a highwayman with his camp full of male and female, thieves, vagabonds and prostitutes and their wild and drunken ways.

He was always elegantly dressed with calf length boots, embroidered waistcoats, a calf-length top coat and a sombrero, and was frequently seen astride his beloved black stallion.

According to Vagabond, Don Buck would provide new arrivals with the means to build a rough shelter, a spade and spear for gum digging and a week’s provisions.

Mr W R T Leighton, described by the Auckland Star in 1930 as ‘the Father of Henderson’, told the paper that any new arrival at the camp was given: “enough tucker to keep him going and many men made good that way. The camp however drew a fairly rough element at times, in search of work or a rest from the city and it is on record that a plea to an Auckland Magistrate ‘I’ll go to Henderson, your Worship’ gave many a delinquent a chance to make headway. It was a pretty lively place at times”.

In his gum dealings he had a reputation for scrupulous honesty, a habit that apparently didn’t extend to everything he bought and sold. Says Vagabond: “…it was common knowledge in the camp that some of the property that was exchanged had not been acquired through proper channels.”

He was no stranger to the law on petty matters, such as driving his gig without lights, after sunset and letting six horses roam loose on the main road at Henderson. He may have been an accomplished con artist of sorts; to buy and sell gum he needed a licence and to keep a book of purchases, but in 1904 he was fined for not keeping the book. The excuse his lawyer gave was that Don Buck wasn’t good with English. Obviously no-one remembered the very eloquent letter Don Buck wrote six years earlier (1898) to the editor of the Auckland Star, complaining bitterly about the cost to himself of being called as a witness in a court case and then not being needed.

Vagabond wrote in the Auckland Star that; “when I first knew the outfit, he had clearly established himself there as storekeeper and uncrowned king of as rough a mob as you could muster in the whole province.”

“Anyone down and out used to make for the camp and whatever Don’s failings, he never turned a man or woman away as long as they played the game. They say there is honour among thieves and there certainly was a certain kind of it in that strenuous little kingdom.”

“Don was tall, good looking, with a deep voice, handy with his fists, always had some ‘shooting irons’ about the house and he was held in considerable respect so that in all the broils, battle and sudden death that shook the camp, none of them ever swept nearer than the front steps of the throne. The carousals and the fights used to afford his Majesty a certain amount of amusement.”

Don Buck would supply kegs of whisky but was never known to touch a drop of alcohol himself. Camp dwellers, however, got fuelled up on an especially potent port-like liquor and fought, sometimes resulting in grievous bodily harm and several deaths.

As Vagabond says: “Bacchanalian and fearful were the scenes enacted at the camp on wine days. The ordinary jollification of a gum diggers’ community is sometimes colossal but at Don Buck’s camp they went too far. One man was hacked to death with an axe, another couple disfigured each other with the jagged ends of broken bottles and one man got so completely drunk, he fell face down in the fire and suffocated where he lay.”

Allegations of someone hacked to death by axe, were exaggerated. Court reports from February 12, 1912 show that George Fry hit John Denny with an axe, after Denny hit Fry with a bottle during a drunken frenzy. Both men were charged with assaulting each other and Denny said he was so drunk he had no idea he had been hit with an axe! The story of William Whiteside dying in a drunken stupor, in 1912, was however correct and this and the subsequent enquiry seems to have shaken Buck badly.

These rampages led some magistrates to call for the camp to be closed and in time his shanties were condemned. For all that, it was quite common during the life of the camp for the police or magistrates to send wrong-doers to the camp as an alternative to gaol, so they obviously saw effective rough justice at work. As Mr Leighton said, being sent to the camp represented a new start for quite a few men. It is certainly true that a number of people were indebted to Don Buck’s kindness and compassion, with gifts of money and food and the opportunity to work for a living.

Vagabond says that after the closure of the shanties: “Don seemed to lose all zest for life. First he got a cold, then dropsy set in and at the comparatively early age of 56, or perhaps less, he passed away.”

The Waikumete headstone says Buck was 47. Whatever his age, he may well have been a very sick man; today dropsy would be associated with congestive heart failure.

In a poignant footnote, on the day he died, his beloved black stallion kicked the stall of his stable repeatedly to summon help and kept it up until someone came.