Morrison, Tony Gilbert Interview

Today is 3rd September 2018. We’re interviewing Tony and Liz Morrison about the life and times of their families in Moteo and other environs. Tony, would you like to tell us something about your family?

Well, I was born [in] ‘39 – just the year of the war – in Napier; and we moved to Swamp Road for nine years. My parents came from Tiko [Tikokino] and Onga [Onga Onga]. My father was a drover; by the time he was twenty-one or two he built and owned the butcher’s shop in Tikokino, and was one of the first butchers to have a delivery round Onga, Waipawa, Waipukurau, with two Overland butcher’s vans that were pretty new in those days.

My mother worked for the Brassingtons there; she came from Feilding. [It] was a large family, eleven children I think, and her father was a wool buyer in Feilding. After my father had a shearing gang, a fencing gang and they split all their own posts and battens and cleared the lines in the Wakararas, he became the butcher and then a shepherd, and became [began] droving and shepherding, and came to work for the Kellys in Swamp Road in 1939, when I was born. Five of us in the family, two girls and three boys. We all started going to Fernhill School. My sister went to one of the schools in Havelock I think, later, and became a nurse in Palmerston North; married an airline pilot and is still alive in Auckland. My other brother joined, Brian, joined the Air Force after school, spent thirty-eight years in the Air Force and then did a pressure cooker course on education and became a school teacher in the town he was living in, Blenheim, and he is still alive. And my other brother was a builder. My younger sister married a doctor in Auckland, is still alive and doing well.

And I’ve stayed in Puketapu, driving tractors when I was about fourteen and fifteen, working for the local contractor and various farmers that were just getting into Ferguson tractors and things about ‘49/’50/’51; seemed to have a life driving tractors, and I bought a hay mower shortly after. Bought the baling business out a year or two later, and did that for twenty-odd years. Then my father bought my brother and I a grass seed stripper which was a very, very old machine, and my brother and I towed it round with a Ferguson tractor, and it beat all the seed on [at] various times of the year, and we beat all the paddocks round. All the farmers didn’t mind us doing it, and we’d hang all the seed in bags along the fence to dry for a month and then during the winter we’d harvest it all. So that’s how I got into contracting and threshing seeds, and I did that for several years.

Tony, that’s something that a lot of people have never ever seen or heard of being done, stripping; because it was widely done throughout New Zealand, mainly by horse drawn …

Yes – this was a horse-drawn machine, but we pulled it with a Ferguson. But it had steel wheels – it was a very old machine, and it had hardwood beaters. And to clean it out was a filthy process, and because all the paddocks were covered in thistle and stuff that was all beaten in with the seed and that, and to bag it all up was not a very pleasant job. And the greatest idea, of just hanging it on the fence in the sun; and it’d turn a shower of rain and you’d probably have two or three bushels in each bag, and within a few weeks it’s as dry as a bone and required no further drying. And it was threshed on an hourly basis; Arthur Orbell was the contractor, and we could do a massive amount of seed in one day, so it was a cheap process.

Was this Arthur Orbell from Clive?

Arthur was in William Street in Hastings.

Yes, that’s right.

And I remember the contractors – Walter Kupa, a Maori contractor, did all the hay baling down Swamp Road; wire tie press – the press stayed in the corner of the paddock and they used old Model A trucks as sweepers to bring the hay over, and it was pitch-forked into the baler; and that was the way it was done. Manny Bergeron was a contractor that [who] arrived with a self-towed threshing mill, and they threshed the paddock down at Potters’. Towing this machine round seemed to be a modern way of doing it, and that’s the first towed threshing mill that I ever saw.

That would have been an old Sunshine or McCormick-Deering, probably.

Yeah, it would’ve been. After that, at nineteen, I did a quick three-month stint across to Australia and drove a fair portion of Australia in a little Morris Minor car that I’d bought, and took it over on the ‘Wanganella’. And I learnt a lot of the ways of life in Australia; I stayed with the Australasian manager of Dalgety’s, Mr Bennett and his wife, that I’d met through their daughter, and they treated me like a king. So I lived in Sydney for two or three months with them, doing day trips around, and travelled north up the Armidale Road and spent a lot of time crossing rivers – there was [were] no bridges and a lot of things, in those days.

And then I came back and I started cropping. I’d lease a bit of land and … share cropping. Because I had a threshing mill, the likes of the Lowrys and that were very keen to do a crop of barley and go halves in the seed. So that’s how I got going.

And I bought a block of windswept, flooded land up Moteo Road in about 1969 and started levelling it. And when the two cities of Tamatea and Flaxmere were being developed – one on the riverbed and one on the seabed – everybody had to buy two or three truckloads [chuckle] of this stuff to get gardening, and I sold three quarters of a million yards it was, in fifteen years, and carted it all to town. And it was also the base of hotmix … tarsealing … and I used to sell thousands of metres to the local asphalting company. That gave me a real boost in life, and I got going pretty well. And I bought a hundred acres over the road and then started developing orchards down the Swamp Road; I bought three or four or five of the dairy farms and developed into apple orchards and various things.

When the silt was all levelled we subdivided into three blocks and sold it to developers that wanted to get into grapes. So that was my … I bought land by the acre and sold it by the truckload. [Chuckles]

I got cropping for a few years; leased a big place down next to Kinross-Whites, hundred and twenty acres, and we grew leeks, peas, various crops over the years. And then when that lease was run up I bought the levelling block at Moteo, another block over the road and we started planting apples about 1979, 1980. And we planted … close planting apples was the way to go, and trellised – sort of held up by wires – and we did about a hundred acres of apples. And I became I think the twelfth biggest supplier to the Board [Apple & Pear Marketing Board] in New Zealand within three or four years of my starting the business. Apples, I’ve never got much fun growing apples.

I bought a property down the road, a hill and a bit of flat, and we did a subdivision there which I’ve just finished, sold the last section a couple of months ago. Planted a lot of beautiful trees – it’s a pleasure to go down and see – cherry trees up the roads and it’s as good as you get. I’m very, very proud of that. And I just stay on my four acres where my house is in Moteo Road which [where] I’ve been for forty years; built the house, and sort of live in semi-retirement.

That’s what you tell me …

Yeah.

When I look around there’s not too much semi-retirement. You fly simulated aircraft and helicopters several hours a day, you said?

Yes.

For a hobby …

Yes.

anywhere in the world, and there’s probably a few other things. Now we’d better go back to when you were a young man and you learnt to fly at the East Coast Aero Club; you said Ken Parish taught you. That’s a long time ago.

Yes. My flying career started … I was always fascinated with aeroplanes, and when I was about sixteen or seventeen a friend of mine, Chris Pask, started topdressing. And I used to give him a hand driving the loader; fixing old loaders and stuff, we didn’t have very good gear. And then I started flying myself, and I think I nearly held the record at Bridge Pa. I decided to get my licence, so I devoted three months to flying and I think I had my licence in about three months after I started flying, which was an absolute record. And I started in the wintertime, driving loaders for all the seven or eight topdressing companies around the district; and I was qualified to load the planes so I did all the holiday times that the others … so I worked for many of the topdressing people. And I was able to fly the aeroplanes to Hamilton or Palmerston [North] for repairs, so I was always flying a [an] aeroplane that had a blown gasket, or leaking oil, or something else seriously wrong with it. So you always had your ear on the engine and what was going to go wrong.

I did several years flying, and gave that up when my children were heading to high schools … private school, my daughter; and flying became a thing of the past for a while. And then many years later I decided to buy a flight simulator that I’d seen, and now I’m engrossed in flying helicopters; airliners – I can fly about fifty airliners – and I spend many, many hours sitting in this simulator doing that; whereas I didn’t have a computer in my office until my office lady just about walked out because we didn’t have one. So that was the first computer that I had, and so I’ve had to learn the computer age pretty quickly too, for flying.

Jim Frogley … old Jim Frogley and Jock McKenzie?

Jock McKenzie … going back to the topdressing days, Jock McKenzie was flying a Tiger Moth for old Jim Frogley, and licensing wasn’t always up to scratch. Jim Frogley flew for years without a licence, but they were characters, and they did a lot of the topdressing in the immediate … from here to Puketitiri and around, I suppose. Then Chris Pask bought Jim Frogley’s business out and continued it for many years.

I was almost going to take a career on in flying; I’d got my licence, and towing gliders, and I was always flying something. And the local topdressing pilots … several of them which [who] were Second World War pilots … told me I was absolutely crazy; stick to what I knew, driving tractors; it was safer. And so I did.

And then after I’d got in[to] planting orchards, about the nineties … early nineties, I sold an orchard and it gave me an opportunity to get into dairy farming. So I bought into a dairy farm in Feilding, at Cheltenham, the biggest dairy farm in the country. Gordon Black, the accountant in Hastings, advised me this is the way to go. So we bought a quarter share each and I spent several good years learning the dairy business. We bought a couple of farms next door, and converted and did another shed. Then when we’d got to capacity we thought we’d buy a development farm; we bought, Long Row in Onga. It was a fourteen-hundred-acre farm; had been run by trustees in England for many years. Run down, beautiful property, just in the rain belt back from the main Tiko/Onga highway, about five miles towards the hills. And we developed that; within three or four months we’d done six hundred acres of new pasture, cut all the trees, seventy kilometres of roading. And we had … one of the partners was Peter Barry, and he was just a brilliant man at dairy farming. And he became one of the biggest dairy farmers in the country before an accident killed him. But he was the inspiration behind what I was doing, and there was about a dozen people in our investment portfolio by the time I sold my shares. But it was a very interesting period of time again, and …

I didn’t know you’d been a dairy farmer too.

Well, it’s a funny thing – the farmers down here, when I was a teenager I used to milk the cows for two or three of the dairy farmers here because I’d be driving their tractor. So I’d help them if the husband was away, and … so that’s the old fashioned way of learning the dairy business. When I got into it with these people, everybody was a professional, and we had people who – agronomists, and we had grass people; fertiliser; learnt how to make a dairy farm really produce. And we got up to about six hundred and thirty thousand kilos at our peak; that’s when I got out of it.

So then just before that, I started an importing business bringing diesel engines mainly, from Japan, and tyres and wheels and everything, because a lot of people were converting from petrol utes [utilities] to diesel. And so I spent several years going to Japan buying engines and parts, and we did that from my home here for several years, and that was also a very interesting business, with travel; high stress business but then they all are.

Were you buying new stuff, used stuff?

No, mainly second-hand stuff from wreckers. Good quality stuff, you know – we learnt a bit about it the first year, but the better you bought the better you did out of it. But yeah … the old Nissan LD28, which is a six-cylinder thing; hundreds of irrigators throughout the country probably still run on them. And school buses were converted from petrol to these engines, and we imported over two hundred of them alone.

I don’t know whether you remember, Jim Frogley used to have a plane, Avro 626 …

I remember it well – Annie, Avro Annie. Yeah, I do remember it, and I saw it fly. And it flew a lead – yeah, I think Jim flew it actually, didn’t he?

Yes.

[Chuckle] But anyway, I remember going out to Jim’s hangar and workshop, and it sat there gathering dust for many years after. And I believe he gave … or he sold it to the museum in Ohakea and perhaps it’s still there.

It went to Wigram eventually.

Yeah, what an aeroplane that was! Yeah.

Yes, an amazing plane. Frogleys were our neighbours, and … yeah, it was young Jim of course; he’s just sold his Beaver.

Has he?

Yes, he’s retired.

Well!

He’s had a fairly charmed life.

He has, yeah.

And when you think back to the people that we were flying at Bridge Pa … Temple Martin …

Temple Martin was a character, yeah. And of course all the topdressing pilots … Derek Turnbull …

I interviewed Ray Turnbull recently. He was the youngest; he was also a topdresser.

Yeah. Bob Fleming … still down there. The ones that I used to go with … Dick Beattie was probably one of the most famous. Alan Condon, Paterson …

Alan Sievers …

I saw a guy in a picture in the paper of three old guys; Currie … now I remember a Pommie [English] guy that was a stock agent, Currie, and I think that’s the man in question. Alan Sievers was the manager of Wrightson’s; the reason of quite a lot of my success at farming was because of Alan Sievers. He was a good farmer, a good manager, and a good lender of money; and I hope a good judge of character because he used to give me [chuckle] some massive stock overdrafts, which I needed. [Chuckle] I didn’t have any money, so no, he was a great influence to me, Alan Sievers.

He probably knew that you’d pay him back.

Yeah.

You’ve sort of had what I’d call a mixed life but they’ve all been very successful, haven’t they?

We’ve been pretty lucky that we haven’t had one that’s been really bad. No, you know, we had some bad days, but we didn’t really have any super bad years.

You’ve never had kiwifruit, have you?

Never had kiwifruit, no. I’ve had grapes and apples. Yeah. And we’ve grown … oh, used to grow maize when we first bought all this land. The maize was just … I had over a hundred acres of maize several years going, and I sold the grain directly to Keighley’s Poultry Farm. Several of the poultry farmers bought direct off me. Yeah, we were growing maize; I think we grew the best crop of maize in the district here on this property one year – five and a half ton and something, to the acre. Now they do more than that, but in those days it was good.

Machinery was quite cheap when you look back on it, those days.

Well, I could buy a new hay baler and a new tractor – the tractor was $2,850 the first year of decimal currency; so $2,850 for a new 990, and the baler was about $2,800, or $3,200 I think it was, it was brand new – and you could pay for it in the season, and still live off it. So you know, your outlay wasn’t as much as a tractor now; you spend three years paying it off.

Oh, someone said to me, “No, all we do is refinance; use the one we’ve got as the deposit.”

Yeah.

Now, you haven’t told me when and where you met Liz … where she was from.

Well, I think it was at the junior National Party dance, it probably was.

In Warren Street, Hastings?

Well, Hastings and Napier – we used to go to the dances, and of course those days it was the bachelors and spinsters dances. Fernhill, Puketapu, Meeanee, Sherenden, Patoka; and that’s where we met, at one of those dances. Liz was at Woodford House … no, she went to Iona, my daughter went to Woodford. I think we got married in ‘64 and we’re still together and bought two kids up; got a boy, fifty-three, and a girl, fifty.

What are their names, and what do they do now?

My daughter’s Wendy Morrison Patterson and she is a housewife, and her husband’s a lecturer at the Polytech in Tauranga; and they’ve got a trailer business. And they’ve got twins, fourteen-year-old twins. And my son, he’s got a fourteen-year-old daughter and a twelve-year-old son. And they’ve split up, him and his wife; he lives at Mohaka and he sells inflatable boats and he’s got a business doing that.

Now, what do you do for a hobby, [chuckle] besides flying ..?

Well I’m fortunate enough to’ve bought a beautiful boat; I’ve got a stunning boat. And I decided at seventy-five I was getting pretty old, and I didn’t want to do anything I’d done in my life before, and that’s almost everything. So I went over to Europe and bought this super yacht, and I bought it back during the first year. We had it in Tarragona on the Mediterranean coast, and we sailed it to La Palma in Majorca, put it on the slip there and painted the bottom, and loaded all … this boat was amazing. I bought it with everything that went with it was the instructions, and I didn’t realise how much stuff actually went with the boat. So there was container loads of stuff, and when we bought the boat back it came back on a big transporter, and we filled all the cabins and stuff up with furniture and art and all the stuff that came with the deal. And that’s been the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I’ve got it in Napier now, and we don’t sail on it a lot, but we go down South Island each January for a few weeks and enjoy the beautiful Marlborough and Queen Charlotte Sounds. And we just do the odd day trip here. I’ve got a very nice berth in Napier; I go in for an hour or two every day, have lunch on board – there’s always something to do. And so that’s probably my hobby now.

How big is your boat?

It’s a hundred and five feet.

Oh! [Chuckle] That’s a cruiser!

It’s a ship.

It is a ship! So what sort of beam would that have?

It’s a hundred and five feet by thirty-five feet.

That’s huge!

It’s pretty huge.

That’s amazing! You know, it’s best to have done things than to have sat there and thought about doing them, isn’t it?

Well … this was amazing, bringing this big ship back. I bought it off an entrepreneur in Malta; Englishman – a music man – and he’s probably the most colourful man I’ve ever met. I bought it from Spain, the most corrupt country in the world, [chuckle] on a transporter without a lawyer. And I got it back, tied [it] up to the port in Napier, and we never had a hassle.

But you’ve been through the traps, haven’t you? You’re not stupid.

Yeah. But it was built for the Kuwaiti royal family; it’s a stunning boat. It was built in the eighties in the opulent years of the boom of oil and stuff so the boat is in beautiful condition. It’s still one of the fastest yachts on the Mediterranean – it’ll do thirty-one knots, it’s got four thousand horsepower, it’s got two big V12 MTU engines – just stunning.

So you load it by the ton?

We buy fuel … yeah. Always used to buy fuel by the gallon, then the litre, now we buy it by the ton. But I don’t regret a bit of fuel in it; it’s lovely. And it’s beautifully got [done] out; it’s got 24 carat gold in all the drapes; Georgian wine cooler; it’s amazing! All the Russian crystal glass that came with it; the wine collection; the vintage stuff; the artwork – it is just a beautiful thing to own.

And you’ve got a permanent mooring …

Yeah.

in Napier?

Right where the … yeah. Down from the bar, you know, the corner there, where the fishing wharf is? That’s my boat there. Mmm. So all of the toys it’s got – we could …

But I mean, if you go down to the Sounds every year, you don’t have to use it for six months of the year.

No, this is true. People say. “You don’t use it much.” But, you know, we go away for three weeks and we do eighty or ninety hours on the main engines, and probably two or three hundred on the genset, [generator set] which is what most people would only use in a year in any case.

Do you need a captain’s ticket?

I don’t … private boat, it’s quite amazing; I can drive it myself, but I choose not to. It took me a year to learn to operate the boat; but I bring the captain … there’s been a captain on it for thirty years … nearly all its life he’s been the captain. He’s an Englishman, and I bring him out; I’ve brought him out four times now from England, and we’ve learnt the whole boat really, from him. So he comes out for a month’s holiday each year in January so he drives the boat, and I’ve got a New Zealand captain that normally comes along to assist and he’s a very good cook so it all works out pretty good. Yeah.

Well, there’s a reward for effort in life, isn’t there?

Yeah.

And you know, when you look back and think of all the times you sat on a bumpy tractor and …

Yeah.

the noise and the dust.

Drive shake, all those … no air conditioning, no power steering …

No, I know.

In my baling years I baled a million bales. And hill work too, steep hills at Patoka and that; used to do it pretty steep, didn’t they? Whatever the man could cut, we used to bale. And a hay baler pushing you down a hill is not always great fun either. But we had a few incidents, but not too bad.

Fortunately.

Well, Frank Hooper used to mow a lot of stuff … yeah. He mowed – like, when I took over Pakaututu, anything north of Puketitiri, the local contractor was absolutely hopeless with bad gear, so I ended up doing the whole lot.

I forget his name now.

Kelly.

It was Kelly.

[Chuckle] Well I went up there, and I didn’t need much extra work ‘cause I was doing all the Hartree stuff – Tom Hartree. Then next thing I did all Puketitiri; you know, jeez, that was a long way and I’d go up there for the day, work twenty hours and drive back for lucerne the next day down here. And when I started the swing bridge was here remember, so we used to have to go round Redcliffe [chuckle] to get over the bridge. Yeah. But anyway, I enjoyed doing that in a way, too.

Gosh, Tom Hartree’s a nice man …

Isn’t he? Great guy, Tom.

… real gentleman.

Yeah. They’re doing a good job there, and always have done. Never been too short of money, always done it properly. And never branched out too … you know, they always bought a new tractor every few years. They were good operators and a big family of them.

All the barefoot boys.

Yeah.

We used to have a man who used to stay with us on the farm and do some painting and cooking for us at home, and his name was Fred Hemingston. He used to go and live with the Hartrees for three months a year.

What was his name?

Fred Hemingston. About six weeks ago I got the phone book and there’s a T Hartree; rang them up and I said, “Does the name Fred Hemingston mean anything to you?” He said, “As children we used to think he was marvellous – he used to come up and stay with us.” Isn’t it amazing how these links ..?

Well the Hartrees, they’re real characters. Old Jack was a character and so was Boss. And you know, they were pioneers up here, and I remember when I first went to Patoka as a teenager and started driving tractors for Gordon Moulder, the rabbits were the problem. People wouldn’t believe how thick the rabbits were, until Halliwell up there … Maurice Halliwell … invented the jam gun. So in the early days we used to do miles of rabbiting; we’d have a spade and a paintbrush, or a tablespoon on a pole with a bit of tape round it so you didn’t have to bend down, and the guy’d walk along and take a bit off the top of the grass and tip it over and the jam man behind would have the spoon with the jam; go in with jam and put a dob on the … After three days you put the poison in the jam. But anyway, Halliwell up there … Maurice … invented the gun that did it all in one hit – like a big grease gun it was. And so that was Maurice Halliwell that made that. And they got control of the rabbits after a few years, and with giant discing, knocking the scrub down, English grasses and fertiliser, Patoka just boomed.

Yes, it was all red clover country, wasn’t it?

Oh, some of it was terrible. Used to blow though, when you know, you’d giant disc it and that; if they got it at the wrong time I’ve seen the ploughing blow away. So six or seven inches gone, and sand blast all the posts on the fencing. And it probably still would, but now I think they chemically treat the ground and then oversow and things like that so they don’t chop it up like we used to.

So coming back to your retirement, and spending some time flying round the world in your simulator, visiting your yacht and going away each year in it, do you have any other bad habits?

Well I’ve travelled. My wife and I have travelled – most years we would travel somewhere, if not two or three times. So we’ve been round Europe a few times, and often to America, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Asia. I’ve been all round the Mediterranean, Africa. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in between things -well, Liz and I have. So we still travel perhaps two or three times a year, just briefly.

So your orcharding and grape operation you have a manager doing?

Most days. I was pretty hands on myself in orcharding and I’d do all the weed spraying and all the work in the night time, because I didn’t have … but I had an orchard manager, Lance; he stayed with me twenty-odd years.

But another hobby I did when I was pretty young in life – I started finding old vintage engines and doing them up. And I did about twenty of them, and I just sold them to a collector; just two or three when I bought my boat and I just didn’t have room for them any more, and past it. So I had a very nice vintage collection that is still in a museum, so that was another hobby for a few years.

I see you’ve got a man working out on a David Brown in the …

I’ve always had a handyman, or a mechanic or something, and we’ve always run a workshop; but now I just have an old friend that’s worked with me for many years. He comes three times a week … half a day … and he mainly mows the lawns. But just in the last month or two we’ve been still looking after sections on our subdivision.

Where is this subdivision?

I’ll just take you down and show you in a minute. And we’ve got a big garden and I’ve got a big vegie garden.

You’ve actually got a park.

Yeah, [chuckle] I suppose so. We did a big cut down last year; a lot of the trees getting big and old and so we culled the trees that were too close to the house, and so we ended up with twenty-seven bins of firewood out of it, so that was good. And some of the trees … well, the redwood at the gate now is a colossal size tree, and I was an old man when I planted it, … forty when I planted it. Now it’s that big, and yeah … biggest tree.

At the height of your owning land around here, how many acres of orchard and vineyard did you have?

I don’t know. It wasn’t important to me to have so many acres, it was just … I’d buy the neighbour out perhaps, and develop it; normally bare land, and then we’d develop it into orcharding and sell it when things were good. And I did several, which I’ll show you.

Well Tony has just brought me back from a tour of Moteo where he’s had his interests in the last forty years. Tony, thank you very much for allowing me to come and tape this for Hawke’s Bay history.

Good, Frank – I hope that little bit of history in my period of time living in the district goes forward. And places sort of like Apley Road – when I was a child there were seven families in Apley Road, now there’s forty. And the whole district is … I don’t even know who my neighbours are nowadays.

Okay, well, thank you.

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Interviewer:  Frank Cooper

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