Uncle Bill’s legacy
By Jenny Tanner
Uncle Bill was a family member who was one of the original settlers of the Orautoha Valley, more than a century ago.
William McNie, his father Malcolm and his brother Fred were each successful in gaining a 200-acre block of land in a government ballot in 1895. Bill was 23 years old. Malcolm took ownership of the 200 acres for his son Frank, who was not yet old enough to own it.
All land balloted in this way was leased from the government at 4% of the capital value. Strict conditions were put in place to ensure that improvements were made within the first two years, including clearing of bush, fencing, and planting of grass or crops. Failure to do this would mean a settler forfeiting the land. Land could only be made freehold after 10 years. So being successful in a ballot meant you were committed to a massive amount of hard physical labour with no guarantee of a return.
Malcolm arrived on the property at Christmas 1896, and started cutting the bush. When the three boys arrived a month later, they pitched their tent in what is today the paddock beside the mailbox.
The men lived in calico tents while they gradually felled the native bush and cleared the land. Although today native timber is much sought after, in those days the bush was just burned. There were no sawmills in the valley, and access out of the valley was very difficult, especially in winter.
When the brothers were not felling bush, they were employed as navies, forming the road through the valley, using only picks and shovels. This road eventually went all the way to the Bridge to Nowhere.
The first whare the family lived in was built of split slabs from a rimu tree felled on Frank’s property. Gradually, as the bush gave way to arable land, sheep and cattle were introduced. When time and money permitted, a cottage homestead was built, as were others throughout the valley. Although they would have thought themselves kings to have a house to live in, there were none of the comforts we take for granted today.
Over the years, neighbouring land was gradually purchased, adding to the family’s acreage, until it reached the 1200 acres that the farm consists of today. Some 200-acre blocks were bought because when the original owner arrived to take possession, he declared that the land was too tough and steep to farm. One 200-acre block was already partially felled, and regenerating in fern. Pigs were brought in to root out the fern, and then later trapped and sold to the butcher in Raetihi.
Around 1924, at the age of 52, Bill purchased a neighbouring 200 acre block complete with two-bedroom cottage, from about a mile down the road. Being a bachelor, Bill decided it was time to have his own house, instead of living with his brother and his wife. He decided to move the house closer to where most of the work happened on the farm. Bill demolished it board by board, brick by brick, sledged it across the Orautoha Stream, loaded it onto a house-drawn dray, and carted it home.
Bill then set about rebuilding the cottage, complete with brick chimney. He enlisted the help of a local man, Jack Attwood, to rebuild the chimney, but was unhappy that it smoked. Deciding he could do better, he demolished half of it and rebuilt it. Unfortunately, after all his hard work, the chimney still smoked! You can still see the effects of all that smoke on the kitchen ceiling - it is deeply ingrained in the timber.
Bill spent many years clearing bush on newly purchased blocks of land. Late winter and spring would be spent out in the bush, felling it, with summer spent at home doing stock work. Come autumn he would be back out into the bush to burn all that had been cleared. Week after week, he could be seen on a Monday heading out with his packhorse loaded up with his swag and supply of damper, not returning until Sunday.
Sundays would be spent doing his week’s washing, cooking enough damper to last him the following week, and catching up with the newspaper. These newspapers were not wasted when he had finished reading them, for he used the interesting parts as wallpaper in his bedroom, kitchen and hallway. Some of these can be seen today, left on the wall where they were pasted, to give you a snapshot of another time. They make fascinating reading!
Although a very independent man, Bill was known as ‘Uncle Bill’ to all in the valley, and was always ready to help anyone who needed assistance. He was an active member of the Rabbit Board, trying to rid the countryside of this pest. Family legend has him driving home one night and seeing a rabbit on the road. While trying to run it over, he succeeded only in driving off the road and through a fence. Uncle Bill was also renowned for his prize-winning Hereford longhorn cattle, which were his pride and joy.
Preferring the single life, Bill remained a bachelor. He took an active part in the running of the farm up until his death in 1961, at the age of 88. After his death, the cottage remained empty for a time, until being used as the shearer’s quarters.
Eventually when travel became easier, the shearing gang decided they no longer needed to stay over at the cottage, and the cottage sat empty for a long time. The weather took its toll on the place, and when doors would no longer stay shut, birds, possums, rats and the occasional mob of cattle would find their way in and leave their mark. “Derelict’ seemed a flattering description.
In 2003 after years of having to drive around and around the cottage while mowing hay, we decided it was time to do something about the old house– but should we demolish it, or restore it?
After two minutes of discussion we decided it was a treasured piece of family history that should be retained, ensuring that memories of Uncle Bill and his brothers would be kept alive for future generations.
Rather than leave it in the best part of the hay paddock, we decided to move it to a more appropriate setting, so that work could begin. Renovations began in early 2004, and ‘Uncle Bill’s Cottage’ opened in July the same year.
While modernising some of the cottage, we have kept many of its original features - the windows, wooden ceilings and floors, for instance. The doors at the main entrance are situated where the fireplace was, and you can still see the charred floorboards where logs have fallen from the fire. We like to think of Uncle Bill beside the fire, sitting in the haze, as he thought his thoughts and dreamed his dreams. Unfortunately Uncle Bill’s wire-wove bed has not made through the years, and has had to be replaced.
Uncle Bill’s Cottage is a testimony to the hard work, courage and perseverance our early family members showed in the face of many hardships.
We are very happy to share it with you, and trust you will enjoy the peaceful setting and relaxing atmosphere.
Bill McNie and siblings
Bill’s legendary wallpapering
The cottage, pre-renovation
The cottage today
The verandah overlooks the river