A hard won El Dorado

Last updated 15:11 04/03/2014
Southland Times photo
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
Three generations of Hortons, from left, Laura, Tania, Anthony, Cameron, Wayne, Owen and Wray at their musuem bar.

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History is tapping increasing numbers of southern farmers on the shoulder as their family farms' 150th anniversaries roll around. Each one brings with it a stack of yarns. Michael Fallow and photographer John Hawkins catch up with one example.

Not all that long after Robert Horton met Henrietta Popenhagen at Grove Bush her father John was seen, a scythe over his shoulder, searching for this Mr Horton, with the intention of "shortening him up in certain places".

We can only wonder to ourselves what that was all about but the couple subsequently married and eight days later celebrated the birth of their daughter.

During the next 25 years she was joined by 11 siblings, so you have to figure that the scythe had been used as nothing more than a visual aid during a man-to-man discussion.

For his part, Robert knew a thing or two about the educated use of sharp implements and it was to stand him in good stead. A London-born ship's carpenter in his mid-20s , he'd arrived in 1856, ready to settle.

He first came to Grove Bush through surveyor tracks cut through the bush and was so taken by its birdlife, rivers and lagoons swarming with fish, that he held it to be paradise and bought "65 acres, 2 roods and 14 poles". Or, as we would less charmingly put it nowadays, about 26ha.

He ducked across to Australia to encourage his elder brother William to join him.

Around the Lawrence goldfields the brothers spent a couple of years initially prospecting but then more profitably working - Robert built miners' huts - before heading back to Grove Bush, where William was sorely disappointed by what he scornfully called "Robert's El Dorado".

Rather than birds and fish, it was the mosquitoes and sandflies that caught William's attention. He caught the next ship to Melbourne.

Robert landed contracts with the Otago Provincial Council's roads board, building many Southland bridges including the first to span the Makarewa River, the Otapiri Bridge, and the first across the Lora Stream. After marrying Henrietta in 1872, he pulled back on the contract work and bought another 45ha.

Henrietta's mother Sophia - this is classic pioneering stuff, equal parts admirable and awful - once undertook a strenuous bush tramp, 5am to 3pm, to Dunedin to call a doctor to a neighbour who lay seriously ill after childbirth. To do so, Sophia had to leave her own 3-month-old daughter in the care of the desperately ill new mother.

The record shows that Robert Horton was no stranger to the courts by the time he bought his farm. Not that he had been in trouble with the law. The law had been in trouble with him.

He had brought a civil case against an Invercargill police inspector, name of Weldon, for the return of 20 sovereigns nicked from pants while he slept at a city lodging house.

A man charged with the thievery was acquitted through a fault in the indictment but when Robert asked the police for his money back he discovered that the defendant was making the same claim.

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Caught between two lawyered-up men, Inspector Weldon told Robert he didn't doubt the money was rightly his and quietly explained a court order was necessary.

So Robert, helpfully, sued him.

The judge at the civil hearing commended the inspector for his handling of this tricky matter and pronounced himself "perfectly satisfied . . . that equity and good conscience clearly entitled the plaintiff to possession of the money".

It must be said that Robert came out the wrong side of another court judgment after a set-to with his immediate upstream neighbour, a Mr Allen, whose cows got through a fence and into his paddock of oats.

"Did you hit this man?" the judge asked him.

"Yes, your honour, and very hard."

"Fined [PndStlg]20 plus costs."

Both Robert and Henrietta built the original four-roomed homestead using totara heart timber cut in a pit saw. All studs were morticed and then held in place by wooden dowels.

Robert cleared the bush by hand and one-horse power, sowing grass and, in those years before local sawmilling, laying white-pine box drains.

He'd drive wedges into logs to split them lengthwise, typically about 2m long.

They were placed in an upside-down V with wooden pegs hammered in to hold them together and straps pegged across the bottom to hold them until the soil settled.

(As recently as 45 years ago his descendants, replacing some of these boxed drains with field tiles, noted that the timber came out of the ground looking as sound as if it had just gone down.)

Unhappily, all that hard work was sorely assailed by the Hedgehope River Board's flood relief scheme, which since 1887 bedevilled the Horton property.

Robert and Henrietta had fruitlessly opposed the scheme under which flood relief channels were dug upstream on the Makarewa River, ending halfway through their land.

Somehow - and who could have seen this coming? - the upshot was that the Horton farm became so much more flood-prone. It flooded 13 times in one particularly sodden year, breaking a couple of pioneer hearts in the process.

The hardworking Robert died in 1906 and Henrietta took over the day-to-day running of the farm with help from her youngest son John, whose elder brothers had either moved on to farms of their own or were soon serving overseas in World War 1.

When one of them, Henry, returned in 1919, he gradually assumed a more leading role. And when Henrietta died aged 68, she bequeathed the farm to him, while John received a monetary payment as his share.

Milk from the cows was sent to the Grove Bush dairy factory.

Henry was more interested in sheep but that posed a problem. Not to be too technical about it, but sheep have shorter legs than cows and drown easier. So Henry found it wise to buy more land, up on the hills; three blocks roughly 30ha each.

It's been a sheep farm ever since.

Henry married Rachel Hansen and they had 12 children, 10 of whom survived. The eldest, Owen, worked for his dad.

The first ploughing Owen ever did was with a six-horse team and a single furrow Willet swamp plough. Slow, labourious work.

Just before 1951, he persuaded his father that they needed a tractor; A McCormick-Deering W6 on steel and rubber wheels, with the swamp plough converted to work behind it.

A lot of hard manual work had to be done on drainage and, again with much difficulty, Owen managed to persuade his dad to buy a BTD6 crawler with blade for filling in gullies, stumping, and removing manuka scrub on the top farm.

Owen bought one of the higher blocks from his father in 1959 and the following year married Dorothy Taylor.

He hadn't immediately twigged why his future mother-in-law had been resisting their marriage. The widow's three daughters were all wanting to get married at the same time and she was having trouble making ends meet. But they worked it out, as you did.

Midway through the engagement, Owen began felling matai trees from the farm that he would use to build their marital home.

"Well, we used as much as we could. Had a lot of it tanalised."

In the weekends, Dorothy, who worked in the city, would come out and pitch in.

Henry was a man of few words, especially when it came to advice, but Owen remembers two encouragements that were about as close as he ever came to long-windedness.

"Feed your animals before you feed yourself."

"Any fool can borrow money; it's a smart man that pays it back."

Henry and Rachel retired to Invercargill in 1965, but only after Owen had bought the original blocks from them.

He was the only family member who had reached 18 years of age, and therefore the only one who could be sold land under the law as it stood. Completing these transactions before his parents' retirement had been the only option available to keep the farm in family ownership.

At this stage, much of the original Horton farm, which had been so laboriously cleared of bush, had reverted to rushes because those hand-dug box drains had silted up from the flooding.

For the first seven years of his married life, Owen laid about 20,000 field tiles each year. Clay tiles. Not to be a sook about it, but he admits he found them "a bit rough on your fingers".

He cleared about 65ha of milled-over native bush ("I had time on my hands back then, " he says, chuckling) and saw to fencing issues after building a post driver that allowed him to put in more than 100 posts a day.

By 1983, most of the farm was drained, cleared, grassed and fenced and Owen decided to buy a further 60ha, albeit mostly of stumps, bush and bog.

A bit later, with an eye to posterity, he arranged to have a selected part of it - kahikatea (white pine) and matai (black pine) - preserved in a QEII Trust. The big frost of 1996 killed off much of it, but left fairly intact another, younger patch, that they'd decided to call Bank Managers Bush. Now it's under QEII Trust protection as well. The rest of the farm is all, now, fully developed.

A year after the river through the farm was staightened in 1966, a flood had extensively damaged the fresh-dug banks. This was to lead, eventually, to Owen's extensive involvement in the Southland Catchment Board.

"The problem was, when the scheme was promoted no thought was given for a maintenance rate to be put in place to look after the scheme upon completion, " Owen reflects.

The catchment board put wooden groynes in the worst areas. And a fat waste of time and money that was.

But then Owen and Russell Winter, who at the time was in charge of maintaining the system, devised a system of post and netting fences along the foot of the bank, then put concrete rubble behind it, overlaid with a bit of soil, planted on motere willows and flax.

That worked just fine.

Owen decided to stand for the catchment board and was elected in his second try, in 1983.

During his three terms he witnessed the worst floods Southland had suffered in a century.

He was the board chairman when he led a Southland contingent to Wellington just after the 1987 flood to persuade Finance Minister Roger Douglas to help fund the flood protection schemes the board was ready to put into effect.

After what Owen inscrutably calls "a little contrivance on my part" the board had enough funding to complete all the flood protection jobs in Southland, and project engineer Roy Baines won design awards for the engineering techniques used in the work on the Kingswell Creek, Otepuni Stream and Waihopai River.

Owen doesn't gush about it, but says it plain. It was a case of the board encouraging professionalism "only employing the best".

In 2001 he set up a family trust and a partnership with his son Wayne and, in 2012, Wayne and his wife Tania bought the farm.

Tania remembers Wayne's excitement, last year, when he had the chance to clear a little bit of scrubby bush down on the other side of the river.

"That's all that Owen left him. Wayne's like, 'yay . . . I finally got to clear something', " she says.

Their boys Anthony (14) and Cameron (12) were let loose on some of that work too. They were so up for it . . .

There's a remarkable shed on the property now, best described as a farm museum with a some convivial componentry. Put it this way. Not even at Te Papa would you have a mirror ball and a well-secured chainsaw hanging companionably overhead.

The museum-games room was a wee project that "grew legs and ran way on us, " Tania says.

Wayne was always finding old stuff around the farm, throwing it on the truck, and bringing it in.

"Owen looked at him a bit sideways - 'what are you going to do with that?' - but when he saw what he was doing, the next thing it was Owen coming over with truckloads of stuff."

Look around the museum and you'll find marvels aplenty, among them Maori artefacts, Henrietta's old iron and washboard, venerable drench guns, traps, a brand iron, log snigger and more than a few puzzlements, like this . . .

"It's a castrater, " Tania explains. "But that's not the good one. Where's the good one, Wayne?"

They find the good one. I don't like the good one.

So they put the good one away.

"The kids love bringing their friends out and showing them the older stuff, " Tania says.

The farm's 150th anniversary, marked this week, draws deeply on this extensive family's sense of itself.

Puts things in perspective, Tania reckons. "When you're getting out of bed at 5am on a cold frosty morning there are times when you think 'why the hell am I doing this?'. But then when you think of all the modern stuff we've got now, the tractors and that sort of thing, well . . .

"I've got it pretty easy, " Wayne agrees.

And a few feet away, by a particularly handsome leaner near the museum's bar, Owen smiles. Look more closely at that leaner and you might notice that it's a nice piece of totara that once stood among the piles from one of Robert's bridges. 

- The Southland Times

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