A large timber and corrugated iron shed in Rāhui Road near the race course, burnt down on November 4, was a link to the days when market gardens proliferated in Ōtaki.
Its demise stirred memories among locals who knew the Eales family that had gardens on the land around the shed.
Frank and Jean Eales were well known in Ōtaki market gardening circles. They grew a variety of fruit and vegetables at Rāhui Road, mostly the iconic Ōtaki tomatoes. The shed was used for storing equipment and as a pack-house. Frank erected the shed and lived in it for a time while he built the family’s two-storey house, which still stands on the property.
Claudine Thompson, as one of the Adams family living nearby on Rāhui Road, recalls working in the gardens – along with others such as Paula Jones and Mavis Ludlam – at weekends picking strawberries.
“We used to have smoko in the shed,” she says. “It would always be a cup of tea and wine biscuits. We would get enough to go to the pictures on Saturday afternoon, 9-pence upstairs and 6-pence downstairs.”
The Eales couple bought the land in 1942 from Irish gardener George Chittick, who lived near where Waitohu School was to be built in Te Manuao Road. He came to Ōtaki in 1923 and owned several blocks of land in the Plateau area.
Frank and Jean developed one of Ōtaki’s largest commercial garden operations. They had not only the Rāhui Road property, but also bought nearly five hectares (12 acres) of land in August 1950 for £3500 on Waerenga Road from the recently widowed Emily Buxton. Emily was the widow of New Zealand’s pre-eminent landscape gardener of the time, Alfred Buxton. Alfred and his brother-in-law, Jim Kirkwood, had operated a huge flower operation on the land, part of which became Maire Street in 1953.
In 1957, the Ealeses bought a section on the corner of the main highway and Addington Road, part of the new Addington Estate. Two years later they built Ye Olde Pumpkin as a fruit and vegetable store and dairy, which Jean ran. In more recent times, it operated as the Koru Ice ice-cream shop, which closed last year.
At the western end of Addington Road, Frank leased land from Eric Jensen on the peat soils and grew a new variety of rhubarb, which was considered superior quality and became the local gardeners’ rhubarb of choice.
The Eales children, Valerie and Robert, carried on the gardening and entrepreneurial tradition.
As a teenager, Valerie established one of the first roadside vegetable stalls in Ōtaki. She began by setting up a trailer south of the Ōtaki River bridge, selling produce mainly from the Eales gardens. Later she rented a small area on the highway opposite the entrance to Ōtaki Gorge Road, where she built a stall.
Fruit and vegetable stores proliferated in Ōtaki from the 1960s until the early 1990s, particularly along the highway south of the river.
Gardening began with pre-European Māori, who recognised the quality of the land, as did the Chinese gardeners who came in the early part of the 20th century.
The industry was spurred in the late 1930s by the Labour Government’s move to build new State houses that pushed commercial gardeners off land at Taita in Lower Hutt. Many Italians were among them.
After the Second World War, there was also an influx of war veterans helped onto the land with State Advances loans. Among them were a group of growers who bought land on the Addington Estate and established stalls on the “golden mile” around where the last of them survives today – Penrays.
They included not only Penny and Ray Bertelsen (hence the Penray name), but also Howie and Christina Townrow, Gordon and Rosemary Black, Alma and Bob Bartosh, and Norman and Euan Joe.
Others had small stalls with honesty boxes outside their garden gate throughout the town. My own parents had a small stall in Te Manuao Road, and built a store at the top of County Road on the highway in the 1970s that’s now the home of Coastwide Plumbing.
The Ealses were not to miss out.
Robert started a business selling from a tent in a vacant lot near the BP service station at the Railway (now the offices of First National and Web2Print). He later teamed up with brother-in-law Arthur Bills to build on the same site the Ōtaki Vegetable Market – known as the OVM – to establish a permanent store.
The shed fire in November is being investigated after arson was suspected.
* Sources: Carl Lutz, Ōtaki Historical Journal