The Forest Nursery

When David received his discharge from the Royal Air Force in 1919, he returned to Gorge End to help his father and his brother Eric on the farm. His twin sister Mary had gone to live in Wellington, but her place in the domestic life of Gorge End was soon to be taken by the young Welsh immigrant Lilian James.

Thousands of returned servicemen wanted farms of their own after the Great War was over and, to meet the demand, the government started a programme aimed at breaking in “marginal” land for them to settle.

This left established farmers short of labour. The post-war boom also left the better-off sheep farmers able to afford domestic help — servant girls, housekeepers, etc. — so that they could live the more leisured lifestyle to which they felt entitled. The government was keen to encourage approved young men and women from the “Home” country come to New Zealand, their steamer passages subsidised by the taxpayer.

The immigrant farm labourers were sometimes abominably treated and most of the servant girls were quite unprepared for the more primitive aspects of rural New Zealand life of the time. Many men and women left their farmer employers in search of higher wages or better conditions in town; most of the young women got married.

Fred got Lilian’s name from a London employment agency and arranged for her to come to New Zealand. Her brother Ernest came with her to check out her future employers and to see that she was settled and happy.

Lilian had been well instructed in domestic service at her Cardiff school and she was personable and well spoken. She soon became more of a “companion-help” than a domestic drudge and was accepted as part of the family. She joined in the various leisure-time activities of the district — horse riding, picnics, tennis parties, village dances.

Lilian later recalled the Gregories being most amused by the look of horror on her face when a young Maori man asked her for a dance at a Makuri village ball. However, she dutifully danced with him and found him to be just as much a gentleman as any of the other young men there.

Fred had given David and Eric a small piece of land each on the outskirts of Pahiatua, the intention being that they could have an independent income and groom themselves, so to speak, for their eventual take-over of Gorge End.

Eric had the larger area, a 21 acre (8.5ha) section of flat to rolling country bordering on Huxley Street. It extending eastward between the local Recreation Ground and the Pahiatua District High School to the hill country beyond. It had a three-bedroom colonial-style house erected about the turn of the century and some out-buildings but it was too small to support a family without an additional source of income.

“Scotty” Robson moved into the house as tenant, scratching a bare living off the land and supplementing his income as school caretaker. He always carried a bitter resentment towards the Gregories for living off the fat of the land, as he saw it, while he was “on the bones of his arse”.

David’s section was next to Eric’s, but behind the school. It was also smaller, being only 13 acres (5.25ha), and having less flat land. It was shaped rather like a small boy’s plywood cut-out gun — the “butt” being the rectangular portion next to Eric’s section, the “trigger guard” being a small square intrusion into the school grounds and the “barrel” being a long narrow flat piece leading down to Princess Street by the school gate.

Together, the two Gregorie sections surrounded the school on three sides.

Fred insisted that David and Eric have some professional training away from Gorge End. Eric went to Arapawanui Station, just north of Napier, which his maternal great-grandfather, John McKinnon, had founded in the 1860s, while David joined the New Zealand Forest Service as a cadet to learn about silviculture — the propagation and growing of trees. He must have been a great disappointment to his father. He was not drawn to sheep farming and had no interest in taking over Gorge End. He also had a strong streak of independence and did not fancy working on the farm until his father’s eventual retirement. He had an interest in trees amounting almost to an obsession — and he wanted to get married.

The arrival of an attractive Welsh girl at Gorge End in 1920 caused perturbations all round. Several young men of the district fell for her, including Eric, then 19, who gave her expensive presents for Christmas and on her birthdays. But it was David who eventually won her hand.

Fred and Edith did not entirely approve of the scion of the House of Gregorie marrying a Welsh servant girl and, no doubt, they resented the loss of her labour.

Add to this, David’s apparent rejection of his patrimony and his determination to become a nurseryman and you have the reason for the rather cool attitude that Fred maintained towards David and Lilian for many years.

David joined the New Zealand Forest Service as a cadet in the early 1920s, a time when the service was convinced of the “uselessness” of native trees and of the marvellous utility of Pinus insignis, as radiata was then called.

Farmers liked Cupressus macrocarpa, both as a shelter tree and as a potential timber tree. Heart macrocarpa was very durable in the ground and was seen as a useful replacement for totara, which was becoming more and more scarce.

They had, of course, not yet seen the 90-year-old macrocarpas that stand around many New Zealand farms today, living monuments to the ignorance of the generation that planted them.

David was keen on growing Australian eucalypts, particularly E. macarthurii, to supply the hardwoods New Zealand lacked. They grow rapidly in the New Zealand climate but, unfortunately, they are difficult to harvest and our foresters and timber merchants lacked the necessary knowledge and skill.

Farmers were keen to plant trees as shelter belts to protect their homesteads from the bitter winds that swept over the newly-naked countryside and they foresaw the need for replacement fence- posts and strainers. A well-tended macrocarpa hedge provides excellent shelter, and heart macrocarpa makes strong, durable fenceposts, strainers and gate posts but, unfortunately, farmers could not be persuaded that the same plantation would not serve both purposes.

The result was a lot of plantations that proved far less useful than expected.

Many farmers were determinedly ignorant about trees. As David was to say bitterly in later years, “Farmers only know the names of three trees — pines, mike-racarpas and bloody blue gums.” And then they got two of them wrong — macrocarpas, of course, and the blue gums. Most of the eucalypts planted in New Zealand were not blue gums — they were stringy barks — but the difference was too subtle for the average joker to understand.

Without the knowledge that can come only from hindsight, David was determined to encourage farmers to plant trees and to supply the trees for them to plant. In 1927-28 he started work on the flat area and the more gentle slopes of his Pahiatua property and went into business as “The Forest Nursery”. At first he travelled in from Gorge End on his Douglas motorcycle, living in a tent when it was necessary for him to stay in town. Then he built himself a little hut at the end of the drive that led up from the street. It was a very simple affair — a post about two metres high at each corner, a rough-hewn frame, a lean-to corrugated iron roof, a sawn-timber floor, a window and a door. It was clad in wire netting covered with tarred building paper, which would keep out the wind and the rain but was quite useless for keeping out the cold. A 200 gallon (900l ) tank draining from the roof gave him a water supply and a long-drop a few yards away was his “lav”. He cooked on a Primus stove and used a Coleman kerosene lantern for light. He grew macrocarpa, Pinus insignis (radiata), Chemaecyparis lawsoniana, E. macarthurii and a few other eucalypts, barberry, Escalonia stellata, Lonicera nitida and other hedging plants and a few other more decorative species according to demand. His staples were macrocarpas, lawsonianas, “gums” and hedge plants, the latter largely for the urban market.

He published an attractive little brochure which extolled the advantages of planting trees, described the various species that were available and explained what they were suitable for.

David worked hard, using the simple tools that he could afford — a spade, a hoe, a rake, a Planet Junior (a hand-powered cultivator), a trowel and a little knife for weeding the seedling trees. He also had an axe, a tomahawk and a slasher, a pick and a scythe, a hammer and a screwdriver which doubled as a chisel. His transport consisted of two wheelbarrows and a bicycle.

Every year he planted some of his surplus stock — mostly macrocarpas, but with a few pines and eucalypts — on the steeper land, an investment in the future from which he was not to reap the benefit. In 1927 or 1928 he had a tiny one-bedroom cottage built on the sunny slope above the school. It was clad in rusticated rimu weather boards and lined with gibraltar board, the joins concealed by battens of varnished timber.

At the back of the house there was a short verandah and a wash-house with an “empty-the-can” out-house next to it. Water for the house was supplied by two 600 gallon tanks (totalling just under 5500 litres) which drained off the roof.

The kitchen opened off the back verandah, with a door to the bathroom on the left and another door opposite to the small living room. A bare scrubbed kauri sink bench with cupboards underneath and an enamel sink stood under a window beside the door and there was a kitchen table by the casement window that looked out over the back lawn.

Opposite the sink bench was an aluminium-painted Shacklock coal range, with a floor-to-ceiling cupboard beside it. This doubled as a linen cupboard and a store-cupboard for Lilian’s preserves.

On the short length of wall between the range and the living room door hung an Ericsson telephone surrounded by message pads, order books and other paraphernalia. This was where most of the nursery business was transacted.

The living room fireplace was back-to-back with the kitchen range. There was an oak table with folding ends, four dining chairs, a leather chair and basket chair with cushions. Against the wall there was a sort of chaise longue with wheels at one end and handles at the other, rather like a porter’s trolley. It was made of wood and had a long cushion supported by webbing straps. It was made by Eric while he was at Nelson College and given to David and Lilian as a wedding present.

A casement window looked out onto the back lawn and caught the morning sun. The front window gave an extensive view to the north and the west — over the school grounds to the town beyond and in the distance the blue bulk of Wharite Peak, snow-covered in the winter. Closer at hand were the grassy slope of the Tylee’s Hill and David’s growing macrocarpa plantation — the “forest” from which the nursery took its name.

The single bedroom opened off the living room to the left and, next to it, the front door opened onto a tiny porch with a step down to the grassy area at the top of a roughly-metalled drive.

David and Lilian were married on June 6, 1929, and set up house at The Forest Nursery.

It was a stroke of dreadful luck that after waiting four long years before they could get married, they should have chosen the year of the Wall Street crash to start their life together.

They had no electricity for the first ten years of their married life — none of the household appliances that today we take for granted. There was no wet-back on the coal range in the kitchen, no hand basin in the bathroom. A small round enamel basin rested in a wooden frame over the bath for washing one’s hands and face, or shaving.Water had to be heated on the stove or carried in, bucketful by bucketful, from the copper in the wash-house at the other end of the back verandah.

Lighting was much as it had been at Gorge End, although even more frugal. They had one Coleman incandescent mantle lamp, which was carried from room to room as required, one kerosene wall lamp and candles.

The first Gregorie grandson, David Macaulay, known within the family as “Mac”, was born on June 9, 1930. With a birth-weight of only 2lb 3oz (1kg) he was not expected to survive but thanks to Lilian’s devoted care, he lived to tell this tale.

In February, 1931 the city of Napier was destroyed by a massive earthquake and 258 people were killed. David’s grandmother Mary Ann Dinwiddie and his Aunt Kate Dinwiddie were among the 12 000 refugees who fled the shattered city. They went to stay at Gorge End while their house was being rebuilt and made frequent visits to the Forest Nursery.

A year or so later David and Lilian made the first of two additions to their little home — a small but gracious sitting room and a second bedroom for themselves.

What had been the front porch became a short passage off the dining room, with one door leading into the sitting room and the second door, to the left, leading to the new bedroom.

A wide triple casement window was built into the northern wall of the new sitting room and a new chimney built outside on the eastern end. The mantelpiece, a single plank of 5cm thick heart rimu, reached from wall to wall above the fireplace, with bookshelves underneath and a small glass-fronted cupboard for Lilian’s “treasures” on the left.

Two coloured prints of English village scenes hung on the wall on each side of the fireplace and a number of etchings hung on the other walls. A small pottery relief of Mr Pickwick hung above the fireplace.The front door opened onto a new porch with a longer flight of steps down to the newly-gravelled turning area at the top of the drive.

Lilian established a new garden on the other side of the turning area, in the precarious shelter given by small belt of macrocarpas David had planted between the house and the school. The westerly wind still roared over the struggling young trees and the little house sometimes shook with blast. Lilian hated it.

The old hut was used as a sort of informal office and tool shed for the next fifteen years. David built a very rough woodshed onto the back of the house, beside and behind the wash-house, and made a small concrete yard on each side of the back porch.

He was never a handyman and all his constructions, whether timber, concrete or corrugated iron had a decidedly “bush carpentry” aspect. The concrete was rough and not levelled or graded in any way; the wood shed was made from undressed poles stuck straight into the earth with second-hand corrugated iron cladding and roof nailed on.

On the far side of the back lawn an almost vertical drop, known as “the precipice”, hung above the creek. This was flanked by a more gentle slope where David planted his first orchard — Sturmer and Cox’s Orange apple trees, a Burbank plum, a nectarine and a peach.

The flat area between the hut and the street was fertile, well-drained and sheltered. This was where David had his seed beds. Some of the seed he gathered himself from mature trees at Gorge End or on other farms, the rest he bought from Yates or imported from Australia or from California, the original home of both the macrocarpa and the radiata pine.

He experimented with new species — Pinus muricata and contorta, Cupressus lusitanica and benthamii, various eucalypts, pink and white flowering escalonia, as well as silver birch and liquidambar — anything that he thought would be hardier, or provide better timber, or perhaps be more attractive to his customers.

The sunny slopes below the house and across the creek were used for “lining out” — yearling trees were planted out in long rows to grow for another year, or even two, before being sold. It was all hard work — all manual work with no mechanical assistance.

Over the years, David built a firm reputation for quality and reliability. A large part of his sales went to other nurseries — Duncan and Davies in New Plymouth, Wilson’s in Hastings and Persson’s in Palmerston North. Sometimes the demand would be such that he had to buy trees in from Gundersen’s in Dannevirke and other sources. Many of these trees eventually found their home in the massive government forestry projects in the centre of the North Island, or in some of the private forestry schemes such as that at Lake Tutira in northern Hawkes Bay.

He could not have made a living from supplying the local farmers, which had been his original intention, as only a few of them were interested. In any case, the depression years of the early thirties were a time of hardship and poverty. Few were spending more money than they had to.

He was forced to supplement his income by growing fruit for the local market — raspberries and boysenberries in the creek bed below the hut, strawberries and tomatoes in a netted enclosure behind the house.

It was his misfortune to be years ahead of his time. Now — seventy years later — his message is beginning to get through. Trees are valuable — more valuable than sheep.

David was greatly respected in the town for his hard work and his integrity. Very few men have worked harder than he did, or for less immediate reward. He was a very loving man; a duty-driven man who put his wife and his children, always, ahead of himself.