Friday, February 24, 2012

Ostriches and Politics: the Helvetia Ostrich Farm at Pukekohe

Another postcard with a story behind it.

Helvetia Ostrich Farm started out as a transfer of the Nathan family’s interest in ostrich farming from Whitford to Pukekohe. I’ve covered part of the story of ostriches in New Zealand previously here, here and here. But the farm dates back further than just from the promise of fulfilling the fashion needs of the women of the day.

John Schlaepfer (1864-1942) arrived in New Zealand from Switzerland, according to his obituary (Evening Post, 5.12.1942) in 1884. He came to own over 3,300 acres just outside Pukekohe sometime after 1887, in an area of sheep and dairy farming, calling the farm Helvetia after his homeland. By 1891, Helvetia Farm was well under way, described as “highly cultivated”. (Ad, Auckland Star, 25.4.1891) In 1900, he was elected as a member of the Karaka Road Board. (Star, 30.10.1900) In 1902 he entered New Zealand history by becoming part of the consortium which operated the Helvetia Ostrich Farm from 1902 to around 1916, managing at one point (according to reports) around 500 birds. He had sold his farm to the Helvetia Ostrich Farm Company for a hefty £9000 in shares (Poverty Bay Herald, 21.11.1914) – nearly $1.5M in today’s terms. (Image right from Wikipedia.)

 DP 5212, 1902, LINZ records, crown copyright
We understand that, encouraged by the success hitherto attending their efforts to acclimatise the industry of the production of ostrich feathers, Messrs. L. D. Nathan and Co. have arranged with Mr John Schlaepfer, of Pukekohe, for the formation of a private company, which will take over Messrs. Nathan's birds and Mr Schlaepfer's well-known "Helvetia" property of 3,500 acres. The position and area of this property as well as the nature of its soil afford much greater facilities for the development of the industry than were available at Whitford Park, and an attempt will be made to supply the colonial market, whereas in the past the supply of feathers has not been nearly sufficient to meet the Auckland demand. The dressing of feathers in all its branches will also be undertaken by the new company. The negotiations were brought to a successful issue by Messrs. Samuel Vaile and Sons, acting for both parties.
Star, 4.10.1902

Products from the Helvetia Ostrich Company. Display from Franklin Historical Society museum, Pukekohe.

(Image left from Wikipedia.)

From 1903, it seemed to be more and more linked with the political fortunes of the MP for Franklin (and future Prime Minister of New Zealand) William Ferguson Massey. He had spoken repeatedly in Parliament from around 1900 as to the virtues of encouraging the ostrich feather export industry, visiting the Nathans’ Whitford Park farm in 1901. (Star, 21.2.1901) From February 1906, Massey’s election committee held garden parties at the ostrich farm. (Wanganui Chronicle, 5 February 1906) The organiser of Massey’s opposition party was R R Martin, up until 1906 the manager at the Helvetia Ostrich Farm (New Zealand Free Lance, 26.5.1906). Until 1912, he was Leader of the Opposition, and from 1908 that opposition was the Political Reform League, renamed the Reform Party the following year (a constituent of the later National Party of today). The president of the local Political Reform League – was John Schlaepfer.

In early 1908, the Observer published some of its classic satire regarding politics orated amongst the ostriches.

 [By Our Imaginative Idiot.]
A VERY large crowd consisting of 11 gentlemen, 2 dogs, 1 bicycle, and a quantity of edible and drinkable sundries, departed by special train for Pukeohe at 12.38 last Saturday to attend the garden party that was tendered to Mr W. F. Massey, M.P., and Leader of the Opposition, by the Political Reform League at the Ostrich Farm. The special train, which was kindly provided by Sir Joseph Ward, consisted of three cattle trucks and a horse box, sumptuously fitted up with sackcloth cushions and hay carpets. The party, having laid in a large stock of eau-de-Cologne, embarked, Mr R. R. Martin being accommodated with the privacy of the horse box, in which to carry out his secretarial duties. En-route to Pukekohe, it was resolved, on the motion of Mr W. F. Massey, M.P., seconded by Mr F. W. Lang, M.P., that a hearty vote of thanks be accorded to the Premier for the use of the train, and that, in the opinion of this meeting, the Premier is quite correct in his contention that no other country in the world has a railway system like that of New Zealand. And, further, that should it be discovered that any other country in the world has a railway system like that of New Zealand, a vote of condolence be accorded to that country.

Pukekohe was reached well up to time, just as the supply of eau-de-Cologne was running short. The party were rescued in fairly good order and condition, and, after having been fumigated, were driven to the Ostrich Farm, where they were welcomed, at a safe distance, by Mr John Schlaepfer, President of the Political Reform League, and by the senior Vice-President, Mr Charles Shipherd. In the course of his remarks, Mr Schlaepfer said that, in his capacity as manager of the Ostrich Farm, he had for some time been preparing the birds for this auspicious event. He had been educating them up gradually in the art of swallowing. He had started them on oyster shells, had then changed the diet to swan-shot, then to bricks, and finally to barb wire and dynamite. He had proposed to top off their education with some of Mr Massey speeches extracted from "Hansard," but the inspector for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had most unwarrantably interfered. However, he had little doubt that ostriches that could swallow barb wire and dynamite had a fair chance of being able to swallow even Mr Massey’s forthcoming speech without any really permanent injury to themselves.

"The garden party to Mr W F Massey, MHR., at Helvetia Farm, Pukekohe. Mr. Massey, listening to the welcoming speech by Mr R R Martin", 1906, AWNS-19060222-10-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries
Tea having been disposed of, a move was made towards the ostriches' quarters, where it had been arranged that the speeches were to be made. Several of the older birds, who had been through the ordeal before, made desperate efforts to escape when they saw Mr Massey coming, and these were at once pinioned. The younger birds, being unaware of what was in store for them, were comparatively calm. The President (Mr J. Schlaepfer) called upon Mr R. R. Martin (secretary) to open the proceedings. Mr R. R. Martin said that having travelled up from Auckland in a horse-box, he naturally felt quite a little hoarse.

At this point, three veteran ostriches simultaneously gave up the ghost, and there was a wild panic among the survivors. A stimulant, in the shape of a coil or two of barb wire having been administered, peace was restored, and Mr Martin continued his address.

Mr Martin said that speaking as an old manager of that same ostrich farm, he knew a great deal about the art of stuffing both animals and men. In the exercise of his duty as secretary of the Political Reform League, he had a good deal of stuffing to do, but he was proud to say that he had been phenomenally successful at his task (applause) and would be pleased to receive a rise in salary (sensation). Or this occasion, he was not stuffing them (groans). He would not waste his own, or their, time any longer, but would call upon Mr W. F. Massey, M.P., to address the meeting. (Applause). Mr Massey, who was received with loud applause by the human beings present and with signs of fearful panic on the part of the ostriches, said that he was very pleased to be there. Mr Martin had said that travelling up in a horse-box had made him (Mr Martin) feel a little hoarse (groans). He (Mr Massey) had, by the courtesy of Sir Joseph Ward, travelled up in a cattle truck, and he (Mr Massey) felt quite bully. Here, seven middle-aged ostriches of Irish extraction, laid down, and died, the rest being revived by means of an antidote consisting of Government hash.

Mr Massey complained that the ostriches did not seem very strong this year. If they turned up their toes at a little joke of that kind, what would they do when he got on political matters. Mr Schlaepfer said that he thought the younger birds, who were well and strong, could stand it, so long as Mr Massey was careful. The older birds, he pointed out, had not yet got over last year's experience, and were therefore very weak in swallowing power. However, they were not much loss, and the younger birds would swallow almost anything. Mr Massey said that he was glad to hear it.

To continue his speech, they must all be aware that the entire policy of the present Government had been feloniously filched from the Opposition. (Tremendous cheering, and the death, by suicide, of two ostriches). He (Mr Massey) had often taxed the Government with this, and they had always denied it. This conclusively proved that it was so. He felt sure that the people whom he saw there that day represented the intellect of the Dominion. (Loud applause, and eight more ostriches in death throes, three in a fit, and five delirious). The Opposition had been responsible for every Bill which had been passed in the course of last session. (Applause, and screams from an ostrich that had gone suddenly insane). All that the Government lad done was to alter the various Bills in one or two trifling particulars, and then palm them off as their own make. (Shame). For instance, the Land Bill had originally, as drawn up by him, provided for the giving of the freehold in every case. (Applause).

What had the Government done? They had, by altering freehold to leasehold, and by making a few immaterial alterations of that kind, changed the Bill somewhat, and had calmly introduced it as their own. (Sensation). But let the Government tremble. Sir Joseph Ward (hoots) had lately insulted Mr William Richardson (shame), and he (Mr Massey) had little doubt that Mr Richardson would now give the Opposition the benefit of his giant intellect. (Tremendous cheering, and three paralytic seizures among the ostriches).

He (Mr Massey) was sorry that Mr Richardson was not present that day. The quantity of tea provided was quite adequate to supply even Mr Richardson, and there was any amount of jam, which he (Mr Massey) understood, Mr Richardson liked to spread thick. He was trying to make arrangements to hold another garden party there in a fortnight's time, at which Mr Richardson would speak. (Loud applause, and, wild panic and general suicide among the ostriches). With an intellectual and polished orator like Mr Richardson at his back, he (Mr Massey) would fear no foe. Out of consideration for the disgracefully weak condition of the ostriches, he would say no more, except to prophesy that at the next election the Opposition would go in with an eight to one majority. This last assertion having finished off the last and strongest of the ostriches, it was decided to adjourn the meeting until a stronger assortment could be procured. The party returned to town in the cattle trucks, the atmosphere of which did much to restore the failing strength of the excursionists.

Observer, 22.2.1908

"Visitors at the Helvetia Ostrich Farm, Pukekohe, Auckland, on the occasion of the Garden Party to Mt Massey, February 16 1907," AWNS-19070221-9-1,  Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries

The gathering, another in Massey’s series of garden parties, actually attracted over 4000 people to the ostrich farm, by some accounts, and Massey was presented with a silver salver, a rose bowl and a tea and coffee service by grateful constituents, for whom he fought for better road connections through the electorate from the public works budget. Especially a touring road to a certain ostrich farm …

… which Massey and fellow MP Frederic William Lang, along with Messrs C Shepherd, R Bilbey and John Schlaepfer would have benefitted from when they took over the Helvetia Ostrich Farm Company from the Nathans in May 1908. (Feilding Star, 11.5.1908) The garden parties became a regular party political fixture.

"Ostrich farming in Auckland District. Young Birds inspecting visitors, Helvetia Park, Auckland," 1905, AWNS-190500330-3-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries

In 1911, two ostriches were donated to the Wellington Zoo, only somewhat successfully.

A pair of young ostriches has arrived at the Wellington Zoo from, the Pukekohe ostrich farm. Mr W. F. Massey, who is a shareholder in the company, asked for the birds on receiving & request from Mr R. A. Wright, M.P., and the company willingly complied. The birds, which are worth about £40 each, appeared to be in good condition, but unfortunately one of them has since died.

Feilding Star 14.3.1911

Between 1908 and 1914, the fortunes to be made from the ostriches at Pukekohe dwindled. In the latter year, near the end of the farm as a run for ratites, came the Waiuku Railway controversy.

"The Premier as a navvy: The Hon W F Massey wheeling the first sod turned in connection with the Waiuku Railway", 1914, AWNS-19140226-39-2, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries
Mr. Massey said that the people of this district had been waiting for this railway for over thirty years. It was thirty-one years since it was first surveyed. The people had waited patiently, but if the Local Railways Act which had been passed last session had been in operation, the railway would have been built years ago. He was certain that the railway would prove to be one of the best paying lines in the Dominion … He had seen it stated somewhere that the construction of the railway would affect him personally, but as a matter of fact, it would not benefit him to the extent of a single farthing. Some years ago, in order to prevent a local industry, the ostrich farm, from being closed he had joined with others in putting some money into it. He believed that the railway would cut off from four to five acres at one of the corners of the property, but he would not, he repeated, be benefited by the railway to the extent of a single cent. He and others had held the land for a number of years, but they had not had a copper out of it. He believed that the land should be cut up and settled … "If we get back the money we put into it years ago, 1 shall be very glad indeed," said Mr. Massey in conclusion.

EP 12.11.1914

The Waiuku branch line became known as the “ostrich farm line”, as Prime Minister Massey batted away attack after attack over his apparent involvement with influencing the line of the railway through part of the ostrich farm’s land. Massey, for his part, declared that the railway line had been authorised in 1912, and that the farm itself, no longer as successful as it had been during the Nathan ownership period, was mostly under cultivation. But, it was put to Massey that with an initial purchase outlay to Schlaepfer of £9000 in 1902, a £10,000 mortgage by the company from the Public Trust Office soon after, and another mortgage of £2500 in November 1912, a projected £60,000 value on the property due to closer rail access seemed to be quite a potential profit for the shareholders in 1914, among whose number was included, of course, Mr Massey himself, to the tune of an investment of £1000.

The (ostrich?) feathers over Mr Massey and his railway drifted back to earth over Christmas 1914, and the issue was stone cold dead by the time 1915 dawned. Looking at the subdivision of the farm as surveyed later in 1915, it is almost laughable how much fuss was made politically over such a small area of the farm, and the wee corner affected by such a short line of the total railway to Waiuku.

Detail from DP 10337, 1915, LINZ records, crown copyright

By 1923, Walter and John Schlaepfer held title over parts of the former farm’s area, including the site of the main buildings. (NA383/175). The area today is known as Helvetia – Ostrich Road and Ostrich Farm Road serve as part of the memorials surviving for the country’s largest ostrich farm, the political garden parties there, and fluffy feathers produced for fickle fashion.

1 comment:

  1. I love the bit in the article with the by line (by our imaginative idiot) Brilliant post Lisa. Yes it was quite a controversy over that railway line business. Aren't the photos fantastic!

    Really enjoyed this post thanks for the great insight into Helvetia.