Spring bride remembers hardship of farming life

MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE
Last updated 10:01 28/03/2014
Betty Burnett
Maike van der Heide

Betty Burnett

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Betty Burnett was a spring bride.

It was 1949 and most Rai Valley couples would marry in May because that was the end of the season for farmers. But Mrs Burnett wanted a spring wedding, and she got it: "I made sure of that."

Mrs Burnett moved from Blenheim to Rai Valley to join her husband Maitland on the farm. For the first six months, her new home did not have electricity: "You went to bed with a candle".

In the early days she did not help with milking, her time filled with raising four children.

"I was in the shed and poking around but quite often in those days the menfolk said ‘no, you don't do that sort of thing'. It got to the point in the end when I milked the cows on my own."

The Burnetts had a six-or eight-set milking machine, but Mrs Burnett said it was nowhere near the technology used today.

"You sat down on your haunches and put the cups on and then opened the door and let the cows out. Not like now.

"We had a big herd of cows, we had 40. Now that would be a hobby farm."

Like other farmers in the area the couple also tried sheep, but Rai's soggy conditions made lambing treacherous.

"The first year we had sheep, we lambed in July. It was perfect weather - then in August it poured with rain."

The following lambing season was rained out completely, and Mrs Burnett recalled a neighbour telling her in the early days that in one flood, they "just opened the windows on each side of the house and let the water flow through".

Nappies were hung up on the porch because it rained for six weeks after the March birth of one of her children. Rain and fog became a normal part of life but sometimes the wind took everyone by surprise. Mrs Burnett said on one occasion, when visitors were staying for two weeks, she was changing the sheets and had hung them out overnight.

"I thought nothing was happening, just the fog." But in the darkness the wind came up, so strong it broke the washing line and blew the sheets into the mud where the family's pigs were running around.

"Everything got trod on and I never got the stains out of the sheets."

Today the farm is gone but Mrs Burnett still lives on the same property.

She volunteers her time in Rai Valley's craft shop, but says the social scene is nothing on what it used to be.

"Television put an end to it."

Before everyone became glued to their screens, Mrs Burnett said there were five big balls a year, which they attended "in our long frocks and gowns", plus a big dinner in the hall, where the supper room used to seat 50 to 60 people and have four to five sittings a night. The school always put on a concert and a magician came to town.

One year, travelling show It's in the Bag visited, and Mrs Burnett said one woman knew the answers to all the questions because she'd already attended five shows, and was told off by the host.

Mrs Burnett had only missed two out of 61 Rai Valley A&P Shows and has been stewarding at the shows for 20 years.

See for yourself what life in Rai Valley was like back in the day, and what it's like now, at the International Year of Family Farming event at Carluke Domain, Rai Valley, on March 30.

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- The Marlborough Express

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