Ōtaki Museum’s new exhibition about Ōtaki River has drawn the attention of three men who likely know the river and its vagaries more than anyone.
Carl Lutz, 95, George Gray, 90, and Barry Mansell, 85, with a collective age of 270, each has a lifetime of memories growing up and working on the river, dealing with its occasional ferocity, and managing its fickle nature. It was clear from their gaze on the exhibits at the museum – and their conversation often interspersed with deep thought – that the river has been a huge influence on these men’s lives.
Carl Lutz came to the farm deep on Rāhui Road with his family as a youngster in 1935. He still works on the farm on the north side of the river nearly 90 years later.
On the other side of the river, Barry Mansell was born into the Mansell family that became synonymous with Ōtaki Gorge. He recalls the first 10 years of life without electricity in the farming family’s home. He still lives in the Gorge.
George Gray was born and grew up in Ōtaki. As a young man, he took on the job of overseeing management of the river for what was then the Manawatū Catchment Board. He stayed in his role with the catchment board for 37 years, and a further three years with Greater Wellington Regional Council after the local authority amalgamations of 1989.
Looking over the museum exhibition titled Ko Ōtaki Te Awa – Ōtaki is the River, these men not only knew about, but also experienced many of the events on display.
While he obviously doesn’t remember it, Barry was born to Terry and Marjorie Mansell during a huge storm in 1936. A young man, Ralph Wood, was part of a tramping group caught in the storm. He died of exposure at Twin Peaks in the nearby Tararua Ranges.
But Barry also remembers the good times.
“My elder brother Lindsay, sister Rosemary and I would go up to the Arcus property on horseback, take our lunches and swim in the river in the summer time,” he says. “It was absolutely wonderful, right up above the Ōtaki Forks.”
He also remembers riding up over North Mangaone Road and into Anzac Flat, the headwater for the Waikanae River. Horses were then the only method of transport for the Gorge families.
Barry’s first horse, when he was “10 or 12”, was one broken in for him by Charlie Arcus.
Interrupting Barry’s musings, George said he recalled seeing Barry on horseback chasing a deer through a quarry.
“Yes, I remember that,” Barry said. “That was a deer that had been chased by Arnie Denton and Jim Morrah’s dogs. But not many people know about that quarry now. It’s all covered up. It was just by the Waiohine swing bridge. The catchment board for 30 or 40 years got very hard greywacke by blasting it out.”
While spending almost all his life farming and drawing from the river’s bountiful resources, Carl acknowledges that the river can be both friend and foe, taking as well as giving.
“It had a dark side to it,” he says.
When he was 11 and his parents out for the day, he noticed the river rising rapidly. Eager to get the cows to safety and milking later that day, he and a friend staying at the time ran about half a mile along the road across a footbridge. They drove the cows into the shallower waters of the river, hoping they would arrive safely on the farm downstream. However, every one of them ended up on all the neighbours’ farms – and all survived.
“We were lucky to get home ourselves – the footbridge was still passable. That was my first bad experience of the river.”
Although it was just before his time in Ōtaki, Carl recounted the story of the death of Ann Falder, who was staying on a neighbouring farm when the infamous flood of 1931 struck (it flooded into Mill Road, Ōtaki). With water rising around the house, Ann insisted husband John, take her into town.
They were crossing a footbridge when it gave way, tossing them into the river. Ann was later found drowned near the race course; John survived with the help of Jack Robinson and Jack’s son, Eric.
George Gray, who had spent time as an Army engineer, was given his first job with the catchment board by Len Taucher. He started on a pick and shovel.
“I told Len I wouldn’t be staying long, maybe two months. I spent the next 40 years working there.”
George was only 28 when Len died suddenly. He was offered Len’s job.
“That was the biggest learning curve of my life,” he says. “But I loved every day of my job on that river.”
There were differences of opinion between the catchment board and the farmers, but George says there was mutual respect because they all understood the river – even when the board was prepared to let the Rāhui farmlands go under water if Chrystalls Bend flooded, to save the houses and businesses in Ōtaki.
That threat has largely been alleviated after the regional council carried out work at the bend.
Ko Ōtaki Te Awa – Ōtaki is the River, Ōtaki Museum, 49 Main St. Open 10am-2pm Thursday-Saturday.