A monument to the genius of Ernest Hayes

Ernest Hayes’ wire-strainer received a design award years after he had died.
Ernest Hayes’ wire-strainer received a design award years after he had died.

A wire-fencing device, in production for 90 years, is among tools invented by Central Otago's Hayes family, writes Pamela Wade.

The No 8 wire shorthand for the ingenuity and adaptability of New Zealanders could hardly be more appropriate, I discover in a crowded workshop in Central Otago.

This tin, stone and timber shed, now 100 years old, is where Ernest Hayes and his sons found simple and practical solutions to the problems faced daily by farmers, not only here near Oturehua, but throughout New Zealand - and the world. Probably his most successful invention, against stiff competition, is the Hayes Smooth Grip Chain Grab Puller, a wire-straining tool from 1924 still in production and used wherever there are wire fences - in other words, virtually everywhere.

It's an amazing achievement, and even more impressive when you're standing on the spot where it was developed.

The Ida Valley is wide, open and beautiful on this golden summer's day; but back in the early 1900s, especially in winter, it would have been quite a different story, especially for a farmer with a family of nine children to support.

It must have helped enormously that his wife was the redoubtable Hannah who, manager and guide Helen Cameron suggests, was New Zealand's first travelling saleswoman. "She got on her bicycle in her long skirts and took samples all over the Maniototo, as far as Lindis Pass and the Mackenzie Country. Sometimes she was the first woman ever to set foot on a property," she says, still marvelling after 25 years dedicated to preserving and presenting the Hayes story.

We look at the first of Ernest's inventions, a device to chop poisoned rabbit food, on display in the tiny original shop and office from where the business was run. Ernest clearly had it in for this pest: Alongside it is a rabbit smoker for asphyxiating them in their warrens.

Then there's the straining tool and next to it the ratchet wire strainer that even a townie like me has seen a million times. All along the bench are more of the simple and robust tools he invented to make easier some common tasks facing farmers everywhere.

Outside, we've already passed several examples of Ernest's most obvious and iconic invention: The windmill water pump, that indispensable component of every rural landscape. His first, a monster 12 metres high with sails nearly seven metres in diameter, was used to power the workshop, generating the first electricity in the valley.

Now an old tractor drives the machines inside the rambling shed, which is dim and smells evocatively of coal and oil. Overhead, a web of belts and pulleys connects the drills, lathes, punches and grinders, all still operational and used to invent and adapt everything from a boot scraper to the cattle stop. On one wall are shelves holding more than 3000 carved wooden patterns for devices sent to Invercargill for casting.

From impoverished beginnings as English immigrants, the Hayes became affluent, and their 1920 mudbrick homestead across the lawn - the "Big House" - is a monument to the family's success, from the organ and piano in its elegant drawing room, to the bathroom with its indoor flush toilet (a marvel of the time). Everywhere, Helen points out features with the Hayes touch: Sheetmetal surfaces, sash-opening cupboards, re- used offcuts. "Engineers!", she says fondly. "They do things differently from carpenters and builders."

In 1975 the house and workshops were just $100 away from falling into the hands of a scrapmetal dealer, but are now in the tender care of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, preserved for the fascination - and inspiration - of all visitors.

Hayes Engineering, Hayes Rd, off Ida Valley-Omakau road, near Oturehua, 16 kilometres from Ranfurly, is open all year apart from June-July. The machines can be seen in operation on open days; see hayesengineering.co.nz

Pamela Wade was a guest of Hayes Engineering.

The Southland Times