Smith, Leonard Bryce Interview
Today is the 14th March, 2017. I’m interviewing Len Smith, a retired spraying contractor, and dipping, and you are a farmer as well. Len, would you like to tell us something about your family?
Yeah, well I was born in Dunedin on the 3rd August … in a place called Roslyn which was a suburb of Dunedin … during the Depression, and I understand that not long after my birth I was taken to Roxburgh where my father had been seconded under the old Dole Scheme to help build, as a labourer, the Roxburgh dam. I know very little about those days of course, ‘cause I was too young.
But my grandmother had separated from my grandfather and had a home in Hanover Street in Dunedin, which is where I really can remember the beginnings of my life, so to speak. It was number 150 Hanover Street, which is now part of the Dunedin hospital, built all over that land. And those times in 1933 and a few years after of course, were the Depression years, and it’s very, very hard for anybody born in the forties or fifties to realise just what it was like – it was actually coming out of the Victorian age. It was quite common … and I can remember a carrier down there called Larsen, and he had a four-wheeled buggy, so to speak, and he used to deliver the beer in big barrels on the back of his trailer, with a horse. And he used to have two horses and they used to put them down on the ground with ropes – they’d run them down a ramp on the back, put them on the ground on ropes, and then roll them across the footpath. I can see them now, rolling across the footpath … and then down this big hole which was next to the building … and they’d drop them down there and then couple them up and serve the beer. And it was probably all Speights.
Those are the early days, but my Dad was actually a … his profession, so to speak, was a boot repairer. And he had a couple of shops, one of which he ran himself and the other he obviously employed some labour to do that, and this is in Dunedin.
And around about 1938 or ‘9, I can recall my grandmother had met her new partner and they both decided to shift to Wellington and they left us in Dunedin. It was definitely before 1940 because in 1939/40 there was the Wellington Exhibition which we had the joy of actually travelling up to. I can remember we travelled up from Dunedin in a train, through Christchurch to Lyttelton and then on the overnight boat to Wellington, and stayed with my Nana who lived in Evans Bay, just … probably about three hundred metres from the Patent Slip round at Evans Bay. So we could look out to our right and we could actually see the structure that had the trolleys that used to … I just forget what you call them now … they used to take people on them and – you know, like they have at the fairs. We could actually see them and they were built on what is now Wellington Airport. Yeah – that’s where the Exhibition was held – Lyall Bay. Anyway, we came up to there, and I’m not sure how long it was for but I presume it was probably something like a month.
So what age were you then, Len?
I would have been seven … six or seven … yeah. We went back to Dunedin and I went to school down there, and then the war started. And in 1945 when the Germans surrendered and there was peace in Europe … and I think if I can remember correctly, it was about June 8th … it was early in June I’m sure. Well three days after that we actually shifted to Wellington as a family. By that stage our family consisted of my mother and father, myself, my brother who was two years three hundred and sixty-four days younger than me, and my two sisters, Joy and Sharon. And we shifted to Wellington.
By this stage I was now getting into the Intermediate School for schooling, so I was in Standard 5, I think it was I was in. And I went to Te Aro school. We actually lived in Durham Street up the Aro Valley, which in future years – I never knew that this would ever happen – but I happened to be talking to one of my granddaughters about four years … five years ago who was at University in Wellington – she’d rung, and I said to her “where are you, Sarah?” She said “I’m in Abbott Street”. I said “oh yeah. Well if you’re in Abbott Street, how far up are you?” She said “oh, down the bottom”. I said “oh, well if you’re down there you should be able to look out – are you in a front room of the house?” She said “yes”. I said “you should be able to look out of there and see Durham Street across the road”. She said “yes, I can”. I said “well the first house in Durham Street, number 6 – that’s where we used to live”. She was quite amazed, yeah.
But as I say, we lived there. I was not a good student. When my time come [came] to go to High School, I semi-rebelled. I went to school for three months and it just wasn’t me, so I started ‘wagging it’, so to speak. And I did this for a long time so my education was pretty limited. I wouldn’t say that I was a bad learner, but I just rebelled against it.
And I met a guy in Wellington – I can’t remember where, but his name was Captain White, and he was with the British Seaman’s Union I think they called it. And at that time there were no aeroplanes between New Zealand and England, so to speak. If you wanted to go to England as a passenger you had to go on a boat. So there were boats coming and going all the time, and this guy – this Captain White – he used to go round these boats as they entered the port in Wellington, and he would arrange social events for the crew. ‘Cause the ships weren’t like the modern day container ships – they would sometimes come and spend six weeks just in Wellington alone.
And I somehow or other got in cahoots with him, and I used to go with him. And [chuckle] he never asked me the question ‘why aren’t I at school? Which suited me bloody fine. [Chuckle] And I had the privilege of being one of the first citizens to actually see radar. The radar had been installed on this boat, and I think it’s name was the ‘Harpalion’. And I went up there and it was in a little cabin at the foot of the mast, and they opened the door and I went in and saw it for the first time – the beam was just going around Wellington … you know what you see on a radar screen? I could see that. ‘Cause I think deep down in my blood, I should have been a seaman really.
Another thing that’s of interest is one night one of my old school mates and I, and my brother, had been to the pictures at the Paramount which was down near Courtney Place … well it was actually in Courtney Place. And we came out and there was a glow in the sky, so we ran down to Clyde Quay because we thought we would get a better idea of what was going on. And when we got to Clyde Quay and looked across the harbour there was a terrific glow there and in the glow were the masts and all the riggings of the ‘Pamir’. It was tied to the wharf at Aotea Quay, and of course from where we were looking it was directly in line.
The fire by the way, was the Levin & Co – who were wool people – it was their Kaiwharawhara fire, and it destroyed the whole … all the wool got burnt.
So Des and I and Bob White, my mate that we had been to the pictures with, we actually ran or trotted along all the wharves all the way down to Aotea Quay, which is quite a stretch, and then realised it wasn’t the damn ‘Pamir’, but we carried on and saw … and witnessed this big fire that was down there. Yeah.
Another thing that you may have heard of is – there was a … I think it was for the Christchurch Centennial … but there was a race put on between England and New Zealand. And in that race were RAF Meteor jet plane, and they came down and they landed at one stage – they couldn’t make the whole trip obviously in one hit. But they were landing at places and they landed in a place called Cocos Islands which is in the Indian Ocean, and I saw those jets. When they arrived they actually flew over Wellington in formation, and me going to Te Aro School, our playground had a magnificent view of Wellington. At that time there were no big buildings … it looked straight out over the top of the city.
And my Nana, when she shifted north … just before the war … to Wellington, they ended up buying a place on The Terrace which is virtually in the middle of town. The house is still there, 192 The Terrace. And I can recall going into my Nana and Grandad’s bedroom and looking out over the harbour and seeing the ‘Tamahine’, which was a boat that used to sail between Wellington and Picton, coming in. And it used to come in and go out round about two o’clock in the afternoon. And also there was the ‘Arahura’ which used to go to Nelson, and that was an Anchor Company boat.
Anyway, my Mum and Dad must have had some sort of a difference of opinion and my Mum decided to split. And this was in about late 1947 … late ‘46, early ‘47. And I had an opportunity to go on a farm, so I got a job in Carterton at a place called Ponatahi which is, if memory serves me correctly, about eight or ten ks [kilometres] out of Carterton. And I went and worked there – I still was actually under age – I should have been going to school, but … yeah. [Chuckle]
So I had this rebellious sort of streak …
Call it strong-minded.
Yeah – that’s better, Frank, yeah. So I was sort of … a bit of the independent man.
And I went back to Wellington and messed around there – had some good jobs. One in particular was with Armstrong and Springhall, where I became the assistant to the Manager of their international store, which was believe or not, a reasonably high place for a bloody young kid of my age, but they must have thought a bit about me, or of me at least. And during the holidays of Christmas 1954 my boss asked me if I would delay having my Christmas holiday until he came back. He wanted to take the Christmas, and I was to get my holidays later on in January. I said “yeah, that’s fine, I don’t mind doing that”. ‘Cause although I had a girlfriend I had no other attachments. So it so happened that that particular year this girlfriend who I’d had, decided she’d go off on a holiday on her own too. So I saw out the Christmas and New Year, and when Les Wright came back – he was my boss – I took off and came to Hastings. My brother happened to be up here at the same time. The reason I came to Hastings was that a few years earlier my uncle and aunty had come up here and bought a property in Copeland Road.
What was their name, Len?
No, not Charlie. But believe it or not Charlie Powell lived at the back boundary of my uncle. Akina Stream that runs through? Well Charlie had a property at one stage – if you came down Murdoch Road you’d run straight into his place and the northern boundary was the stream.
It’s all coming together for me because Gordon Lambert married Charlie Powell’s daughter …
That was an arranged wedding, Frank. I’ll tell you the story … I’ll tell you now. Charlie had an engineering shop here in Hastings, and he used to do most of my engineering until I got all my own gear, but he still did quite a bit. And I went down there one day and Charlie said to me, “that young brother-in-law of yours, young Gordon – do you think he’d like a job cleaning up my workshop after school?” Gordon was still going to high school. I said “yeah, I think he would”, so I asked him and oh, he jumped at it. Anyhow, nothing was said – there was no ill intent at all, but over time we noticed that Charlie’s daughter, Yvonne, used to hang around a bit when Gordon was there. So Charlie and I [chuckle] over a beer one night in the Mayfair Hotel, we were talking about this and decided that we would encourage the relationship, which we duly did and which has duly lasted all these years – they’re still …
I always had a bit of a shed, but I got my own welder, both gas and electric, and compressed air and those sort of things, so that I could do a lot of the work … well actually, as an end up in years further on, I really needed it because we ended up with a fleet at one stage of nineteen vehicles including all the trucks and trailers and what-have-you. Well there were three sheep dips, just alone, plus the trucks to tow them, and different trailers and tractors. We had five tractors at the one time, most of which … well, I’ll go back to when I got the inclination to start in this sort of business.
That was in 1958. And it was probably Christmas of 1957 that I went down to my mother-in-law’s … Valda and I, we’d got married in 1955. We went down there with our kids to have Christmas dinner at Mum’s, and she lived in Nelson Street at the time … 504 North … and some of her distant relations happened to be there. And one of them was a guy by the name of Trevor Lambert, and we got talking over a beer and I asked him what he did. And he said “oh, I’m a spraying contractor.” I said “are you? What’s that?” I was that green I didn’t know – oh I’d come from town. And anyway, Trevor said to me, “I go all over the country”, he said, “and spray blackberry and gorse.” “Oh, do you?” says I, “what do you … how do you do that?” And so he explained it all to me, and then he said “I’m actually thinking of getting out”. I said “are you?” Look I didn’t have two bob to rub together, and I’m not kidding – we had nothing.
Anyhow, Trevor said that he would sell me all his gear. Well his gear – when I think, it was terrible – but however, it got me started. Then I had to find somewhere to get some work. I didn’t know anything about it. He promised to come and show me, but he never did. And anyhow, I went round all the stock firms, and at that stage there was [were] about seven in Hastings, and I landed up at Hawke’s Bay Farmers. And there was a guy there by the name of Syd Shotter – remember him, Frank?
Yep, sure did.
And I told him that I was starting out. “Oh yes,” he said. And I said “I’d appreciate it if you might be able to get … find some work put my way”. Well time went on, and time went on, and then – he probably gave me a phone call – I can’t really remember, but he got in touch with me and said there was a job to do at Haumoana in a drain, and I jumped at it. And I can remember the name of the guy who it was for – it was for A L D Ritchie. D’you know him, Frank?
There was a drain outside his place, that today I’d probably do in … hour and a half, maybe two hours. That job – I had to make two trips out from Hastings to do it. The very first trip that I went out there to start, I’d arranged to meet Syd out there at … I don’t know, about eight o’clock I think, or half past eight. I go out to get in my truck to go out there and I’ve got a flat tyre, so that meant … because I never had a spare … that meant I had to hop into town to get it fixed and bring it back and put it on the truck, which I did. And I met Syd at the corner of Collinge Road and Karamu Road, me on my way out there, him on his way home. And I can recall winding the window down and looking over, and a voice coming back and saying “if this is how you are going to run your bloody business, then you’re not going to get very far.” So I was on a bad footing for a start.
But anyway, I completed the job. It must have been in February because I remember the stink, but I did the job and I think I billed him for about two and a half or three hours. And the bill came to something like about … somewhere between ten and twelve pounds and I had to wait till the 20th March to get paid, and it was the only income I’d had ‘cause I never got another job at that stage. So I thought ‘well, I can’t do this … can’t carry on like this. I’ve got four kids” … well actually, three at that stage … “and a wife to keep”.
So I went out and picked up potatoes and used my … I had a taxi licence which I got when Val and I first got married. We lived in Waipuk [Waipukurau] for two and a half … three years and I got a taxi licence down there while I was there. So I put it to good use and went into the taxi company, Blue Band Taxis, here in Hastings. Where they were is where the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune built a building. And I got a job sea-gulling and my first job was with Brian … his name’s gone … and I ended up doing night shifts, and I did a lot of night shifts – which were nowhere near like it is today. At eleven o’clock you could shut the business down and just go in and kip on the couch. You never got a call ‘til you got a call to take Joyce Macklowe to the hospital – she was the cook at the hospital at the time. I mean the hospital was nothing like it is now. [Chuckle] It was only a little place. And Joyce used to do all the cooking, and she used to get a taxi to her place at about half past six in the morning, every morning, and that was your first job for the day.
Anyway getting back to the spraying, I think my luck changed when I became friendly with … or more friendly … with the stock and station agents, in particular Syd Shotter and Colin Cameron from Dalgety’s. At that stage I hadn’t done – oh, for the first couple or three years I hadn’t done any work for the biggest in Hastings which was Williams & Kettle. I hadn’t done any work for them.
So Colin Cameron came to me one day and said “are you interested in going up to Kotemaori to do some blackberry up there?” I said “oh, how much?” He said “oh, heaps”, so I said “oh, yeah”. So I went up there, met a guy by the name of Ray Smith – no relation – but Ray was very, very good and we became very, very good friends. And I worked on Kakariki for upwards of ‘bout ten years. And every year I would send up some of our workers ‘cause later on we got more trucks of course, and more people, and I’d send them up there.
And then Glenfalls came into line. These are all Lands & Survey blocks. Glenfalls … at one stage we had five tractors. We’d take them up there around about the end of July … early August, and they wouldn’t come home until about May. We did a lot of work up there, broke all that in, plus over the other side of the Mohaka on the … what’s now the Maori block … we were there. And we did quite a bit of work up Hururangi Road up in Patoka. There was [were] Lands & Survey blocks up in there.
But in 1963 or ‘4 I was told there was a future in dipping sheep, so I made some enquiries and found out that I’d have to get a [?] or a sheep dip and mobilise it, so to speak. There was nobody in the North Island doing it but unbeknownst to me Alan Hyde in Rangiora was doing it, and had been for about eight or ten months. I didn’t know this, so I arranged with Charlie Powell that we would make up this dip. In the meantime before it was actually going, I went down ‘cause my Dad was living in Christchurch. I took Val and the kids down there one Christmas, and we were down there for a couple of weeks. And I went out and met a guy by the name of Alan Hyde who was actually dipping sheep. And I told him what my dip was like, and it wasn’t dissimilar to his so that was the beginning of it. And I think I told you earlier on, Frank that I originally budgeted to do somewhere between ten and twelve thousand sheep, and those sheep as far as we could work out would probably be sheep that had been run on an orchard. I never thought of going out and actually dipping sheep in the actual … out on the farms, but that’s what happened. We ended up dipping out there and went from twelve-odd thousand to six hundred and fifty thousand in a very short time – so much so, that we had to set up a branch in the Wairarapa, which we had for a number of years. And we used to go down there … instead of travelling down – there’s a guy by the name of Pat Baillie used to run it down there until he saw fit to build his own dip and go and do them. So I suppose, you know … it happens. But anything north of here that we had to go and do we always used to travel to. That’s the story there, and then I sold that – I can’t remember exactly when, it was probably in the early seventies – and just concentrated on the spraying. One thing that we did do with the sheep dipping was, we moved into cattle and I used to go over and dip the cattle that were being sent to Korea and China, that were housed at the Lands & Survey block in Napier. And I’d go over and dip them before they went on the boat.
Did you used your mobile dip for the cattle?
No, no, no – I had a cattle dip. We had a special cattle dip. They used to run through the …
The spray, all round.
Yeah. That’s about it there, with that.
And then in my latter years I gave up spraying crops and that sort of thing. By the way, I suppose it’s interesting to note that when we were at our height we were spraying somewhere between six and eight thousand acres of peas, but we were fortunate that we used to go to Gisborne and do all theirs for Wattie’s, and that bumped the number up. But we did a hell of a lot round here.
You did the majority of the peas.
At one stage yes, we were. And then ‘course we had the asparagus. We had a competitor in that, one Frank Cooper, but we never had cross words that I can recall. He did his and we did ours. Now there’s hardly any [chuckle] asparagus grown in Hawke’s Bay.
You know, there used to be two thousand acres at one stage.
Yeah, that’s right.
I used to do quite a lot of work for Jim Arnold. I’m sure you did work for Jim.
Yeah, yeah. We worked for Jim. He was a difficult man. He was fair …
Always paid on time.
Frank, he didn’t have to pay – all he had to do was to say “pay the bills”. It was the Napier Harbour Board that paid. He was only the manager. Yeah, we used to do the Lands & Survey and Harbour Board peas over there. Yeah.
You remember that little company we formed to put urea on maize – liquid nitrogen?
Oh yeah. Multi Crop Sprayers was it?
But we never got anhydrous ammonia in New Zealand the way they had in Europe and England.
Yeah, that’s right.
And so you carried on, and then it was just you and Les?
Yes I had a guy that worked for me for about forty-three years – Les Hallgarth who lives just around the corner. And Les was a hell of a good worker, and he can take credit certainly for assisting me by giving me some genuine help. And he was honest and very, very loyal, Les.
I could always stop and have a chat to Les.
When you did that, Frank, I always used to say to him when he got back here “what the hell’s been holding you up?” [Chuckle]
But there was a time for talking and a time for working.
It’s like [chuckle] old Dick O’Rourke. Did you have anything to do with Dick? They used to call him ‘Dominion Dick’. He’d pick up the Dominion in town [chuckle] and then he’d drive out to the country and stop and read the Dominion, and then carry on and do his job.
Well he was in the hills on his little Fergie tractor. It was like a fly on the hills, that thing.
Yeah. At one stage we cut right down to just Les and I, and I landed some pretty big contracts. One was with Tranzit New Zealand, spraying the main highway from the top of the Whareratas down to the Manawatu Gorge, and also up the Taupo Road as far as the Rangitaiki pub.
And the very first time that I did a job on a State highway – I never had a left-hand-drive truck. And I used to get into my old International and travel over to Napier to the Esk Bridge – that’s where it started. And I would drive from there to the top of the Whareratas on the wrong side of the road. The biggest vehicle that I used to meet in those days was the Leopard Brewery tanker coming back or going to Gisborne. And I remember once meeting the truck at the Mohaka bridge. [Chuckle] This was the old rabbit bridge, and for those of you that have never heard of the rabbit bridge, well down below the existing bridge now – probably about two hundred metres further down – used to be the bridge down there. And there was an influx of rabbits going on into the wrong area for some time until they put a gateway there. And when you drove on to the bridge the gate was on the other side of the bridge … on the Wairoa side of the bridge … and the handle to open it was on the left hand side. So me having a left hand drive truck, I had no trouble at all pulling that and opening the gate, and coming back I had the same. Yeah – and then they … ‘course they put the new bridge in.
I did a lot of work round the Wairoa area in those early years for the Powdrells.
Getting back to the roads … also while I had this highway to do, I secured the contract to spray all of Central Hawke’s Bay which was twelve hundred-odd ks. I did it all myself. I didn’t have any help, and it used to keep me going.
The long paddock.
Yeah. And you know, I often think to myself, when we shifted to Hastings in late 1958 … late ‘57 / ‘58 … we never went back as a family much to Central. We sort of moved more towards Wairoa. We actually bought a bach out at Mahia which we had for thirty years ‘til we got a bit too old to be driving up there all the time to do the lawns. I used to hop in the Falcon ute and go up there in the morning and mow the lawns and come home in the afternoon. Couldn’t do it now – well I could, but I’d kill myself. But I never realised the beauty of Central Hawke’s Bay until I got that job in 1991 to go down and spray it, and I had it for sixteen years I think it was. And I went through every nook and cranny in Central Hawke’s Bay, and it’s beautiful. Up in the ranges, up the top of Mill Road and up in Whakarara, out to the beaches – and there are seven of them, and they are beautiful beaches down there too.
You did this with the Inter?
No not all the time. I did it with the Inter [International] until 1998 / ‘99, and I bought a Mitsubishi diesel. And the reason was I used to come home at night and put a hundred and ten or a hundred and twenty [chuckle] litres of petrol in, and at a couple of dollars a litre, Frank, it was getting …
Well, they didn’t have carburettors, they just had big pipes going into the motor, didn’t they?
Anyhow I went down there, and my first day … I fitted this Mitsubishi up myself, put the left hand drive in it myself, got it all certified, and took off down there. Came home and I still had three quarters of a tank of diesel in the … so I thought ‘this will do me fine’. Well we used to have our own petrol tank here – it used to take three thousand five hundred litres, and it was not uncommon for the petrol truck to come here once a fortnight … fill it up.
A very lean user of fuel.
Well … I’m just trying to think of the name, look it’s gone out of my brain … but the southernmost beach down there, you go to Porangahau and you …
No, no, no – before you get to Akitio. I’ve got a map out there, I’ll have a look and see what it’s called. But anyhow, going out to this beach there’s a road runs across … it takes off before you start to descend this long drive down to the beach … there’s a road called Island Road runs along the top of the hills and stops on the top of a spur. You look down over Herbertville and if you look in the distance you can see Castle Point.
Yes. Many times I’ve sat there and looked at … and you can see it with the naked eye on a good day, but if there’s a bit of haze around you’ve got to have the nockies [binoculars]. But yes, you can see Castle Point down there. That’s down near where the longest place name in the world is. Well that’s changed too, ‘cause that never used to be there.
No. It was only a little AA sign once.
That name was up … up over the other side of the hill. Whangaehu’s the beach I’m thinking of.
That could be quite nice to go and camp there.
Yeah, I’m just trying to think – yeah, I suppose you could camp there.
The trouble is if the weather turned there’s nowhere to run. So then you and Les carried on and you did the road …
Yeah, and Les carried on doing the crops.
And so when did you both actually retire?
Les retired about three years, maybe four years before me, and then I sort of semi-retired for a while and my son took it over, ‘cause at that stage we only had the one contract which was down in Central, and that was enough. You could earn an income out of that, and we also had a few bits and pieces like Bruce Stevenson and guys like him who wanted bits and pieces done in different yards. So yeah, but I actually have been out of it now for a little while.
And so did you sell all your gear?
Not in one lot, no, over the time. As trucks wanted replacing I just got rid of them. No, I didn’t bother trying to sell it off you know, at a price. I thought ‘I’ll just wind it down’. I’d earned as much as I wanted to live comfortably, Frank.
That’s a comfortable feeling, to be like that.
It is, considering that only fifty-something years earlier, we never had two bob to rub together.
One thing that I’ve overlooked was that in 1971 I got a ring from Roy Sherwood. Now I’d done a lot of work for Roy, and Roy was a very well-known character around Hawke’s Bay, and a hell of a nice guy … hell of a nice guy, Roy. And he said “Len, do you think you could come up to the office?” “Yes, Mr Sherwood, I’ll do that”. So I arrived up there and here’s Roy and his henchman, Ian Lawson, [chuckle] virtually waiting for me, and I thought ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ And so they explained to me they’d been approached by the Olin Corporation which is a [an] American company to cart and distribute urea in both solid and liquid form. And Roy says “I know nothing about liquids”, he said. And then there’s a haw, haw, haw. And he said “but you know about liquids, so”, he said “we’ll look after the carting, you look after the liquid – are you in?” I says “yeah – that sounds good.”
So there was a fellow by the name of White – I can’t remember his first name – he duly arrived here and said “well now we’re going to put a tank in”, which they did. And they put a tank in the Wairarapa, and they put a tank in in Gisborne, and they put the machine to make the liquid urea and it sat out here in that shed at the front there. We had to cart it to Masterton to make the … and also cart it to Gisborne. And that became quite a good bit of income for us but Ravensdown bought into them and decided they wanted to do it themselves so they took the machinery and did it themselves.
Now you haven’t told me about when you met Val?
Oh! [Chuckle] Yeah, well I think I started to tell you that, Frank, but I digressed. But it was in 1954. I was telling you about me looking after the store for Armstrong & Springhall while Les went away and had his holiday. And when he came back I decided I was going to come up here to see my uncle and aunty, and quite honestly, have a few drinks with them because we used to enjoy one another’s company. And so I did this, and in those days it was six o’clock closing, and my uncle and brother and I were at the Hastings pub, which … I think Woolworths is built on that site now, isn’t it? And we were in the old Hastings pub and there was a barman in there by the name of Bert – I can’t remember his surname, but anyhow, I remember it was just on six o’clock and we wanted another beer. And we used to buy it in a handle for about a shilling or ten cents, and he said “you boys better hurry up and drink up and get your drinks, because we’re going to cut it off”. So we each got another handle, which I suppose would be damn near about a litre and a half if not two. And so we got into that, left the pub, and on the way home my uncle said to me, “I notice in the paper last night there’s a dance on in Haumoana tonight.” This is a Saturday night. “Oh yes”, says I. He said “how about we go out there?” I said “you can’t bloody go out there, Aunty … she won’t let you”. “Yes she will”. So anyhow, I didn’t get into the discussions [chuckle] but the three of us went out there. And oh – my uncle and brother couldn’t get up on the dance floor quick enough, and I remember I was sitting there looking at what was going on and a woman called Nell Franklin came over to me and she said “you’re not dancing”. I says “no, I’m not a good dancer”. “Oh, come on”, she said, “you can dance. I’ve got someone over here who will partner you”. And she took be over and introduced me to Val. And that’s how it all started.
The Haumoana hall.
Yeah. So as it turned out Val was in the Hawke’s Bay … it must have been softball team, ‘cause she was in both the netball and the softball teams for Hawke’s Bay. And whichever one it was were coming down to Wellington in about two weeks’ time. So I remember saying to her, “well, if you like – do you know where you are going to be staying?” And she told me. I said “if I got in touch with you, would you come out?” And she said she would if she was allowed, because it all depended on her coach. And to cut a long story short, I rung up and got a hold of her coach, and arranged to pick her up. I think I was on a time limit of two hours or something. She didn’t know Wellington so I took her to all the places that I knew – the views up Mount Vic, [Victoria] and those sort of things. And our relationship blossomed and I came back up here – God, I was making regular [chuckle] weekly visits after a while. And … yeah, and that’s how it all sort of came about.
And so you’ve been married how many years?
Sixty-two in about thirty days’ time.
And you have sixteen grandchildren you told me?
Sixteen, and another one on the way. Great-grandchildren that is. There’s twelve grandchildren, and sixteen great-grandchildren with one on the way.
Now Val was one of a twin, [one of twins] wasn’t she?
No. Her younger sisters were twins. There were nine in Val’s family and she lost her Dad when Gordon, who you’ve met, was only very young. I’m not sure exactly how old he was but I think he was only just a baby. His mother brought them up.
And that wouldn’t have been easy with that many children.
No, no. Actually, she really was a real trouper. She lived in Nelson Street as I mentioned earlier on. But we decided that we would invite her and give her … I’m not sure that the State Advances or whoever it was was her landlord, told her that she had to get out, so Val and I went to her with three propositions: 1 – we would buy a block of flats in town and give her one, and she could look after the rest for us … just keep her eye on them; 2 – we would buy her a single flat on her own somewhere in town; or 3 – we’d build a house down here next to us, which is what we did, next door in the cottage here. We were very, very lucky that we managed to get that cottage there. The only reason we got it was because there was a councillor by the name of Dick Glasson, and Dick really batted for us. All the rest of the Council were against it.
He was a good man, Dick.
He was a good man. So he allowed it and we got Peter Bridgeman to build it. It was one of the last cottages that he built actually, Peter himself.
Now have you had any sports on the way through life … were you a cricketer or a bowler or a golfer?
No time for that sort of stuff?
My hobbies were my work, or … I did play rugby. I loved cricket and I played a lot of cricket when I was at school … school boy cricket. But I did play here for Hastings Seniors for a couple of years. And – interesting point – one of the coaches was the ICI rep – oh, what was his name? I can’t remember.
Austin Sawtell didn’t live that long.
Austin and I got into some horrible trouble at times.
I knew Austin well.
Well one night I got a ring from Austin – we’d been in some pretty difficult places together, and he rings me up and says “Len, I want to ask you a favour” . “What is it this time?” “I want a new car, but I’ve got a problem”. I said “what’s the problem?” He said “my car hasn’t done enough miles to get rid of it, so I thought …” And I remember butting in and saying “so you thought I’d twist your bloody speedo?” Well, you know … he came down and we worked on this thing and as it turned out, I think I wound about twenty or thirty thousand miles on it. And Les, my brother-in-law – this is Gordon’s brother, Les Powell. Actually him and Gordon were the two nicest of the boys though – Les was a particularly good guy. Unfortunately he was taken very early in his life. Les came down, saw what we were doing. I told him to keep his bloody mouth shut and don’t say anything.
‘Cause you were winding it on, you weren’t winding it off.
Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyhow Les said to us, “well – are you going to sell it?” And we said “yeah”. Les said “well, I’d like to buy it”. Well the transaction took about two or three months before it finished, but then Les brought the car back and I had to wind it back again. [Chuckle]
And then the likes of Grant Scott – do you remember Grant?
Him [he] and Cameron and I were at Tauranga at a Weed and Pest conference and they got … they were full, they really were – both of them. Anyhow, this big Yank comes in … and we were at this private bar and this big Yank comes in, and we get talking to him. And I can’t remember which one it was, whether it was Grant or Colin – one of them, whoever it was bet this Yank that he could lift him up off the ground. And he did – got him on his shoulders and walked round the bar with this big Yank on the top. If you saw the size of the guy …
Wouldn’t be Colin though, would it? It had to be Grant, because Grant was sort of stocky.
Yeah, oh yeah.
Alan Smith from Watkins Dow …
Hell of a nice guy. Bob Moffatt … Bob actually took me – he had a new car and it was an Austin A50, so that’s going back a while – he took me to Rotorua to my first spraying contractors’ conference organised by Watkins Dow – well at that stage it was just Watkins – Ivan Watkins. And I met some guys up there where we formed the initial Contractors’ committee. And a guy by the name of Brian Douglas was our secretary, and he came from Hawera I think.
I always remember being in the same room as some guys from over that side somewhere, and their whole spray contracting was with these motorised blowers on their back?
You’re thinking of Alf King down in the Wairarapa.
And you could smell them … smell the 245T … how they didn’t poison themselves – well I think some of them did die from …
I must compliment you on your memory. I’ve never known anyone for remembering the numbers of the houses, the streets … you’ve actually got great recall, haven’t you?
I don’t know.
So anyway Len, I think we’ve pretty well got the lot, except you and Val now are very relaxed here sitting here and looking out over the sheep grazing the front paddock.
Yeah, lawns that need to be cut.
Yes – so thank you very much for that opportunity to interview you.
Now, talk about your Contractors’ Federation.
Well, some of the meetings that I used to go to annually in Rotorua with the contractors – and I was sponsored by Watkins Dow, or Watkins in those days – a few of us contractors got together and formed a committee for the welfare of the contractors. And I really did get interested in it to the stage where I actually wrote to the then Ag Chem [Agricultural Chemicals] Board and asked them about something – but I can’t remember what the subject was – but I wrote to them and I got a letter back along the lines of – “Thank you for your letter, the answer of which is …” whatever. “But seeing you’re taking such an interest in this, would you be interested ion joining our Plant Damages Committee?” [To] which I wrote back and said “yes, I would”.
So I sat on that committee for about fifteen years, and we used to have meetings sometimes three times a year, but mostly once or twice a year. And we would talk in the main in the early days, we would talk mainly about grape damage. It was pretty prolific over the country really at that time.
People were that nervous – I only had to park my spray rig at Bay View or up the Dartmoor road and all of a sudden people were looking over to see what I had.
And there were a lot of … not so much claims, but advice of damage that had been done. Some of them you wouldn’t believe. But fortunately for us ground sprayers, most of it was aerial – helicopters. Then in about 1966 a chappie by the name of Robbie Robson in Whanganui, at one of our contractors’ meetings suggested to us we might like to join a national organisation of which he was a member, and you know – would we consider it? So after a few enquiries we found out that it was the Contractors’ Federation. And anyone could be in that, and we went down and saw a chap by the name of Ron Tarr, who was running ‘The Cutter’ at that stage, and asked him if his organisation would take our organisation under its wing.
Well as it so happened, it was very fortuitous. There’s a chap by the name of Wilson who had just left … he was a retired railway worked, but not … not a railway sleeper. He was a guy in the Head Office, and he had just been taken on by the Contractors’ Federation, so Ron Tarr said this chappie Wilson – he would look after us. So we became a part of the Contractors’ Federation, and I was very, very fortunate to be their initial Chairman. And I was the Chairman for about six years, and was on the committee for twenty-seven years. I ended up being a life member of both that, and the Hawke’s Bay branch of the Contractors’ Federation, so I …
You’ve done your time.
I’ve done my time, yeah, yeah – you’re probably right.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper