A big part of Ōtaki’s past will remain only in the history books with the demise of the trust that represented the old Ōtaki District Commercial Gardeners’ Society.
With few market gardeners left in the district, an ageing membership and a stagnant bank account , the trust is winding up. However the community is benefiting with large cash donations as the trust empties its coffers, totalling more than $200,000.
In the past few weeks, trustees Tyrone Gow, Norman Young, Phillip Sue and John Wong have been distributing cheques to several community organisations.
“There are no strings attached. These groups can do what they like with the money,” Tyrone says.
The cash had been sitting in the trust’s account after the commercial gardeners society was wound up. It had accumulated after the society’s building on the corner of Mill Road and Dunstan Street was sold to Farmlands.
As with the busy yards where the wagons were parked on the eastern side of the tracks at Ōtaki Railway Station, the building was a hive of activity in its heyday. Growers would buy their seed, fertilisers and sprays, and chat with their gardening colleagues.
It was originally an old Army hut, brought on-site in 1945 and used as a storage shed. The site was leased from the Ikaroa Māori Land Board before being bought in 1966.
The hut grew with several extensions to include a trading store and offices. It became a significant business in Ōtaki, eventually in 1987 merging with Farmlands to leverage the larger company’s buying power.
The society itself was established in 1942 with Ted Bartosh the first president and Tyrone’s grandfather, Harry Gow, as vice-president. The bi-cultural influence was such that it was agreed whenever there was a European president, there would be a Chinese vice-president and vice versa.
The organisation was formed to represent the hundreds of market gardeners that operated in the Ōtaki district up until the mid-1990s. About that time a change in the market auction system and the advent of huge greenhouse operations in Auckland meant small commercial gardens were becoming increasingly less viable.
Many Chinese growers came to Ōtaki, often directly from China. They also came to work for established gardeners after struggling to find employment in Wellington.
Tyrone estimates well over 100 families made Ōtaki their home.
In the early 1950s, urban expansion in Lower Hutt and government assistance for Second World War veterans drew other gardeners, many of them Italian.
However, once the number of commercial growers dwindled in the 1990s, the society’s Dunstan Street building became less relevant. Much of the money from its sale remained in the society’s bank account, which the trust inherited. Then last year the trust decided that the money would be put to better use in the community.
Tyrone says the trust was adamant the money should stay in Ōtaki and benefit the local community.
That sentiment was echoed by fellow trust member Norman Young when delivering a cheque to the Friends of the Ōtaki River.
“We [the trust] didn’t make the money, we’re just the guardians of it,” he said. “As the last ones standing, we want the money to go to good causes.”
Norman also alluded to the big contribution made in Ōtaki by Chinese growers, such as his own parents.
“Ōtaki gave many of us our lucky break. Many started from next to nothing. Gardening allowed us to become educated and to make money in this town.
“Now we want to give some of it back.”
Cheques have so far been presented to:
Friends of the Ōtaki River: $10,000
Ōtaki College: $10,000
Ōtaki Community Patrol: $6000
Ōtaki Foodbank: $5000
Ōtaki Historical Society: $20,000
Ōtaki Surf Life Saving Club: $20,000
Ōtaki Volunteer Fire Brigade: $20,000
St John Shuttle: $40,000
XŌtaki Alumni Trust: $10,000