Keeping the home fires burning

19:52, Nov 13 2012
leo and mary brosnahan
SETTLING IN: Mary and Leo Brosnahan, with son, Barry, preparing nesting boxes for the chooks at their new Springbrook home.

Leo and Mary Brosnahan may have been in their new Springbrook home for only a fortnight, but Mary's already getting the place licked into shape.

Her efforts in the garden are apparent, cutting trees and shrubs down to size, and making room for the sizeable collection of plants sitting in pots awaiting their new home. She's also turning her mind to alterations she'd like to make to the house.

Meanwhile Leo and son Barry are out the back, sorting out some nesting boxes for the chooks and turning pig sheds into hen houses.

The couple might both be in their early 80s, but that doesn't seem to be slowing them down.

The 12-hectare (30-acre) Springbrook farmlet is just the third property the couple have owned since their marriage; the first in Gapes Valley, and the second - home for 49 years - was Sunny Brae, on Woolshed Valley Rd.

Mary never expected to leave Sunny Brae, and the family seemed to think they'd have a battle on their hands to change her mind. But, she says, she took the wind out of their sails by already making that decision.


"Leo's health wasn't too good at that stage, and I've got osteo-arthritis in my back. I'd said to the family I'd never leave Sunny Brae, and they all came down for a conflab one weekend, but I'd made up my mind before that, that we would move. They all sat there with their mouths open."

There was a lot of work to be done to prepare to move after 49 years in one place but, she says, the family all helped out and did their bit.

But it was a wrench to leave their Otaio home, the gardens she'd developed over nearly half a century, her many collections of treasures acquired through an interest in antiques, and her Rayburn.

The new home has a green and cream Shacklock coal range; and while it's better than no coal range at all, Mary's hoping to upgrade to an Aga or a Rayburn. Coal ranges have been quite a theme throughout their married life.

"We went to Gapes Valley when we first married, six miles out of Geraldine. We had no power for seven years and, while we were the first to get the automatic telephone, it wouldn't work; it was just sitting there.

"We had an old black coal range. We had four children before we got the power on, so I used to boil up the nappies in a kerosine tin on the coal range, and Leo made me a wind-up drying rack for the clothes."

The old black coal range came to the end of the line when a brick came down the chimney and hit the register, sending soot everywhere. It was replaced with a red and cream Shacklock, bought in Albury as householders in that district made the change to electric cooking.

Mary was a country girl, raised on a Seadown dairy farm, and met Leo, a Rosewill farmer, through church and country dances. Their early life together involved a lot of hard work.

"I hadn't seen the place at all; he brought it without asking me, because that's what men did in those days . . . but he's learnt a lot over the years."

Mary was kept busy bringing up children and helping Leo out on the farm.

"The first year we were married, all the families had a picnic on New Year's Day, but we were gathering in the hay . . . I was six months' pregnant, and it was physical work, but I was young and strong.

"As the children came along, they all came with us, and I think that's why they are all so handy and all good workers."

After 11 years in Gapes Valley, the need for a bigger house was clear, so the couple sold their farm to the neighbours, and began looking for a new home.

The agent had been trying to get Leo to look at a place on Woolshed Valley Rd, but he was reluctant, saying it was too expensive, so there was no use taking him there.

"The chap wanted £120 per acre, and it was 303 acres. Leo looked at the place, the house was nice, it was suitable, and I could see the potential. What garden she had was nice and, apart from the house, there were two sleepouts.

"My father and Leo's father came down and they approved, so the owner said, ‘Well, what will you offer me?' Leo said, ‘I'll offer you £85 an acre with the crawler tractor thrown in', never thinking he'd take it . . . we couldn't believe our luck."

That marked the beginning of nearly half a century at Sunny Brae, bringing up their family of seven, and as the children grew older, embarking on horse breeding, entering competitions at local A&P shows, and extending the garden - the fence between the garden and the farm was shifted three times before Leo said enough.

There was no coal range at Sunny Brae, but Mary and Leo soon fixed that, later replacing the first model with a Shacklock. But Mary had her sights set on something more.

"I'd always wanted an Aga or a Rayburn, and a Rayburn came up at an antique auction in Timaru. Leo said to make sure it's got the firebox on the same side as the old one, for the water pipes, and it did, so I bought it. It cost $900, and I've had that until now, and now I've had to leave it behind."

But Mary's noticed that Agas and Rayburns are being sold at a Timaru business; so far, she's resisted the temptation to go and look, but that probably won't last too long.

"All winter I cook in it, do scones, pikelets, muffins, all my meats and veges, and it provides oodles of hot water, so I'd like to get back to that. And with the Rayburn, you put two big pieces of wood in it and it would go for two to three hours, so I could go out in the garden and know it wouldn't go out."

Her gardening efforts led Mary to her long-time involvement with both the New Zealand and South Canterbury iris societies - but almost by chance, rather than design. A pinky-lavender coloured iris her mother had grown, and Mary had planted both in Gapes Valley and at Sunny Brae, eventually came to the attention of iris experts in the United States - the home of irises - and was identified as a new variety.

"So they said I was allowed to name it because it didn't have a name. I wanted my mother's name to be in it, but they said I had to have my name too, so it's Mabel Mary. That was the first iris I ever knew anything about. I've got many more species now, and tried to bring a lot from my garden here."

Horses and gardening worked well together; breeding ponies provided Mary with funding for garden centre purchases; not to mention the ready supply of horse manure. Mary's horses have made the move to Springbrook too; like Mary, they're happiest in the country.

"I've lived in the country all my life, I can't stand town."

The Timaru Herald