The family behind Southland's famous shelter belt

Guess which way the wind blows? Slope Point farm manager Barry Brown passes by the assailed shelterbelt.
John Hawkins

Guess which way the wind blows? Slope Point farm manager Barry Brown passes by the assailed shelterbelt.

The trees grow sideways at New Zealand's most southerly mainland protruberance, Slope Point in the Catlins. They serve as a shelter belt  and have long been assailed by strong, salty coastal winds. They're now much admired by photographers for their dramatic and defiant stoicism. The US lifestyle website Brightside.me recently ranked them third in its list of "The 16 Most Beautiful Trees in the World".

Those macrocarpas were planted by Jeremiah O'Brien who was born in 1853 in Kilbenny, County Limerick, Ireland.

Family tradition says he was a wanderer before that, and was possibly working as a sailor on the William Davey when it arrived in 1874 at Bluff.

Jeremiah O'Brien and Anne Haldane.
supplied

Jeremiah O'Brien and Anne Haldane.

Jeremiah worked at Wallacetown and Gore before going goldmining with a Mr McGuire along the Otara beach and then to Black Rock Creek, Slope Point, where he bought 30 acres of land .

On New Year's Day 1880 he married Anne Haldane who had been only one year old when she arrived with her parents, Andrew and Elizabeth Haldane when they arrived in 1858 on the Strathallan disembarking in Dunedin.

They established a sawmill, powered, (to begin with,) a water wheel, and built a three-storeyed house on the eastern side of Waikawa harbour.

The O'Brien homestead at Slope Point.
Supplied

The O'Brien homestead at Slope Point.

Anne's sisters married at the Haldane homestead but Jeremiah was a devout Catholic, so to marry Anne, made his way to Invercargill and St. Mary's church there. (It predated the Basilica).

She and Jeremiah lived at Black Rock to begin with but later bought more land and moved to the northern end of the beach.

There a large home was built and the macrocarpas in the photograph planted as a shelter belt.

A sketch of the Haldane homestead.
Supplied

A sketch of the Haldane homestead.

Flax was planted on the lee side to establish the macrocarpas and and a large orchard thrived; even apricots were enjoyed.

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There was also an enormous vegetable and flower garden.

Stores came by sailing ship and were rowed ashore at Slope Point and stored in a cave there. They were then winched up the cliff to the house.

Wind blown trees sculpted by the Slope Point gale force winds are a popular photographic stop with tourists
John Hawkins

Wind blown trees sculpted by the Slope Point gale force winds are a popular photographic stop with tourists

One of the reasons for the shift was so that the children could attend Mrs. Brookes' little private school.

A gold field was officially declared near Waikawa in 1877 although men were working the beaches in 1867. Because the Waikawa population had increased due to sawmills and more settlers there, there was agitation for a school.

A building at the Spit, where most of the miners worked, was acquired, financed by public subscription.

Prior to that Mrs. Brookes had been teaching in the back room of her house. She was paid in gold dust which she retorted herself and then sent it to Dunedin.

The O'Brien children rode the 6 miles, 3 to a horse, down the steep hill from Slope Point across the Haldane estuary and through the bush and sandhills to attend.

They followed the bridle track which their mother rode to have her children born at the Haldane homestead.

To get there Anne had to cross the Waikawa estuary as well as the Haldane or Waipati one and its current was much faster and deeper.

When the school burned down in 1902, children were taught in the Waikawa hall, but it was not until 1911 that the Education Department approved a school at Waikawa.

Other schools in the surrounding districts were also approved including one at Slope Point where the Government had arranged for the settlement of 23 farms in the area. The two younger O'Brien children attended that school.

It was sixteen years after Jeremiah arrived at Slope Point, that the district was opened up for settlement and named "Haldane" after the original family at Waikawa.

Jeremiah's oats and root crops had impressed the Government officials.

He was known as the "Father of the District," since he and his brother-in-law, Thomas Trumble, (who married Marion Howard Davidson Haldane so named after the captain of the "Star," the 40 ton vessel which plied the Southern ports and who became a good friend of the Haldanes.)

Thomas described many of the doings and exploits of the district in verse, held a Sunday school with Marion, and with Jeremiah was responsible for slightly better roads and facilities.

However it still took two days for a priest to ride from Gore to Slope Point where he stayed at O'Brien's and was thus able to minister to his remote parishioners in the months that had five Sundays.

Jeremiah and Anne kept open house sharing the bounty of their sheltered garden with neighbours, friends and family.

Anne was proud of her poultry. Often on Sundays, two cooked geese were carved and served from a huge white platter.

Although the table was large and could be extended, it was often necessary to feed the children first then send them out to play either in the rock pools at the shore or in the orchard while the adults were served.

Sunday was the day for visitors and Jeremiah marked it by changing into a suit and swapping his work boots to highly polished dress ones. In later years "Creamota " was available and replaced the usual rolled oats Sunday breakfasts.

Jeremiah died aged 78 in January 1931 and is buried in the Fortrose cemetery.

Anne never left Slope Point. Her youngest daughter, Maud and her family lived for some time in the house with her but she also spent some time with her son, Terry O'Brien and his family at Mt. Florence.

They had married and settled in North Queensland, Australia, but came home when Andrew, Jeremiah and Anne's second son, was killed in World War One.

Another son, William died in childhood. Their daughter, Elizabeth married Arthur Ericson and Anne also stayed with them at Otara.

Arthur's father was the first lighthouse keeper at Waipapa when the lighthouse was built after the Tararua was wrecked there in 1881, and 131 people perished.

Son, Denis, married Margaret Casey and farmed at Haldane before moving from the district.

Kate married her cousin Don Haldane and lived at the next door farm.

Their son, also Don, took over the O'Brien farm and was the last person to live in the house.

His brother, Bill, farmed the land as well as Kate and Don's farm before they too moved away. Anne died in 1942 and is buried with her husband in the Fortrose cemetery.

(Article compiled by Mary McLean. Research sources: The Haldanes of Waikawa; their story and Family Tree by Ruth Hayes; Tokanui, Slope Point - Haldane Centennial 1886-1986 by Margaret Lamont; The Waters of the Waikawa River by Ruth Hayes and Heather Buckingham, The Wreck of the Tararua by Joan McIntosh; Bits and Pieces, an early history of Fortrose, Tokanui and Waikawa).

 

 - Stuff

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