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Heriot, West Otago Historical Musings

Heriot, West Otago is a small town in New Zealand, where I grew up. It is an apparently diminutive little town in the middle of nowhere on the South Island but a town that few know was pivotal in New Zealand’s Commercial and Farming heritage.
Growing up in Heriot in the 1970's was great time but is was also very much the end of an era. For starters there was the railway station and the daily freight train from Gore (I have to say that as this is a Railway Transport blog after all). This gave the town a sense of importance and also connection to the larger world out there. The Heriot to Edievale railway extension had closed at the end of 1967 and Heriot was now the terminus of the Tapanui Branch Railway line which in of itself lended the town some importance on the national railway network.
As a town In the 1970's and early 1980's Heriot had a Bank (BNZ), a Post Office (with another bank POSB), a Newsagent and sweet shop, another bigger shop that sold just about everything from groceries to hardware to toys to clothing, travel agents (where I used to go and pick up brochures and dream of traveling away from Heriot), four farming supply shops (Wrigthson NMA, Donald Rieds, Otago Farmers and Dalgety's), a Motor Garage selling petrol and maintaining motorcars and farm appliances, Fertiliser stores and a general truck transport company (West Otago Transport).  It also had several churches, a town hall, a fire station, a public library, a concrete works manufacturing factory, and a primary school equipped with a public swimming pool. It had public tennis courts, a pre-school facility for toddlers, various sports fields and a pretty 9 Hole Golf course. There was a course also a Hotel with restaurant and public bar attached. It was in fact quite a town all for about 300 people that lived there in addition to those that lived nearby on the surrounding farms.
However, like many small towns in New Zealand it has suffered greatly from the changes that wreaked havoc to rural New Zealand that started in the 1980's about the time I left home to go to the big city to work and study. When I left Heriot in 1981 it still had much of its vibrancy but it’s importance had already started to wane. The first big loss was the closure of the Railway in late 1978 that occurred due to the big flood damage in October of that year and the drop off in freight tonnage. With trains no longer coming to Heriot, the town, I believe, had lost part of its soul. Sure West Otago Transport (the local trucking company) helped fill the gap but Heriot slowly started to seem somehow less relevant in the bigger scene. Where once there was action in the railway yards there was now a deathly silence - a harbinger of things to come.
As Heriot entered the 1980's the protectionist economy that supported small towns like Heriot could no longer be sustained as our greatest export market for primary produce (the United Kingdom) had ten years previously joined the EEC and so one of NZ's biggest export markets was curtailed. The Government started a drastic reform program that was similar to what happened in many other parts of the world - here it was known as Rogernomics (named after NZ's Minister of Finance), in the USA it was Reaganomics and in Britain it was Thacthernomics.
In the early 1980's Wrigthson NMA and Dalgety shops closed. The bank shut up shop. The news agent closed next and Donald Reid and Otago Farmers stores merged into one store. The concrete works closed down. By 1988 the Post Office had closed and other services disappeared forever like the public library.
What remains now is West Otago Transport, http://www.westotago.co.nz, a farm machinery garage only, the Fertiliser stores, a much smaller general store with a farm supplies agency that is struggling to survive, a Community Center, the Golf Course, the Sports fields, School and Public Hotel. One church still runs as does the Fire Station. Heriot is very much a shadow of its former self. Some contracting businesses like Heriot Earthmoving still remain.
However Heriot is special as it was from here that was born perhaps New Zealand largest private commercial enterprise - the Todd Group. The former Todd historic homestead happened to be our closest neighbor in Heriot across the paddocks. The Todd business had started in Heriot in 1885 about the time the Railway came to town. From it grew New Zealand biggest motorcar assembly company and what remains as New Zealand largest Oil and Gas Exploration company - Todd Energy. Many other company's and investments make up the larger the larger Tood Corporation.
What a great way to remember the little town - the Todd family are especially proud that they came from Heriot and they have never forgotten where they came from and neither will I! Heriot was a great place to grow up and build from dreams.
The following is a news story taken some time ago from the Christchurch Press about Heriot and its often forgotten place in New Zealand’s Commercial and Farming history (it was also the cradle of the famous New Zealand sheep breed, the Romney, now exported all round the world).
Farming and fortunes
Heriot is proof that small-town beginnings can lead to great riches.
A ramshackle building stands halfway down Heriot's main street. When the light strikes at a certain angle, you can make out the name: Todd Brothers Grain Store.
This vintage structure seems at home. Heriot, hub of West Otago, is 150 years old this month.
The Todds launched businesses here which led them to become reputedly New Zealand's richest family. They built an empire in tiny Heriot that included a wool scour and fellmongery, stock and station agency, motor garage and car assembly.
When the Todds moved to the big cities, they became national leaders in vehicle assembly (Humber, Hillman, Commer, Chrysler and, later, Mitsubishi), motor fuels (the Europa brand) and oil and gas exploration.
But they never forgot where they came from. The Todds still donate prizes to children leaving Heriot School each year and they contribute to community causes. They are supporting 150th anniversary celebrations. And they own and maintain the little whitewashed cottage where it all began.
George and Nola Garrett live in the Todd Cottage. They say that since it was given Historic Places Trust registration, they have had many visitors pop in for a look.
Charles Todd left the goldfields near Cromwell and moved to Heriot in 1864. The settlement had already been visited by a disappointed Gabriel Read. About 1860 this Tasmanian prospector sought the prize on offer for a find of gold in economic quantities. Striking nothing in West Otago, he was heading back to Dunedin when he stuck his shovel into ground 50km away and made the discovery that sparked the Otago goldrushes.
Todd set up a wool scour and fellmongery, part of which still stands, at Heriot. He then left the business to his son, Charles jun, and returned to Central Otago. Charles jun married a local woman and they raised four sons in the little cottage. These sons became the Todd Brothers. They brought the first car into the district, in 1908. They established a motor garage and gained the franchise to import "knocked-down" Ford cars, which they assembled and sold throughout New Zealand.
Heriot township, strung along a main street, has never been big. About 300 people lived here in its prime and today's population is only a third of that. But the surrounding area, a broad valley of rolling hills, north-east of Gore, has always been intensively farmed. This healthy and highly productive land is the cradle of New Zealand's romney sheep breed.
Heriot resembles many small towns. Rickety verandas lean against derelict shops; the banks and post office are boarded up; two of the five former churches still stand; a store sells basic items and a transport company sprawls over former railway yards.
It was a busier scene when George Garrett arrived from the Isle of Man in 1958. Nola was working in the grocery-haberdashery, which was "extremely busy". Regular stock sales brought hundreds of farmers to town. Three taxis shuttled fencing and shearing contractors to pubs at Waikaka and Raes Junction in prohibition times. And six stock and station firms operated agencies.
The names of these firms read like a roll of honour: Donald Reid, Otago Farmers, Dalgety and Co, NZ Loan and Mercantile, National Mortgage, Wright Stephenson and, of course, Todd Brothers.
For most of their shopping, residents make the 30-minute drive to Gore. Caught in a never-never land halfway between Invercargill and Dunedin, they are Otago-ites not Southlanders. When they "go to town", it is to Dunedin they head.
Heriot residents tend to avoid visiting nearby Tapanui. Farmer Gloria McHutchon says rivalry between Heriot and the forestry town at the foot of the Blue Mountains has always been strong – sometimes bitter. Teenagers go to Tapanui for high school, families may go there for medical services, but that is all.
Farmer and local historian Peter Herbert says the government bought and subdivided land to establish small farmers as the goldrushes petered out and again after World War 2, which boosted Heriot. The town's fortunes were built on farming families that settled the 200-acre blocks carved up in the 1870s. These fortunes spawned the stock and station agencies, many of which "carried" their clients through hard times.
Todd Brothers was such an enterprise.
"They were very genuine people. They had a sound relationship with their staff and were very generous," Herbert says.
The Todds moved from Heriot in the 1920s. Their cottage passed through several owners until the Garretts bought it in 1964. They sold it to Bryan Todd in 1978. He restored it, then leased it back to them. So, in a way, the Todds have never left.
Their influence will loom large at Heriot's 150th anniversary events: a social evening on May 18, street parade, gala and dance on May 19 and bus trip and church service on May 20.

5 Comments to Heriot, West Otago Historical Musings:

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Stuart Barnett on Wednesday, 16 July 2014 1:02 AM
I grew up in Crookston, just down the road. I played rugby for Heriot under 16, my Dad was a Dalgety client & our groceries came by truck from Otago Farmers in Heriot.My Great Uncle Geoff was the headmaster there, & I vividly remember travelling on the last train from Heriot to Edievale. I was back a few years ago & it looked so small & a sad place now. It's great that somebody remembers it & has such enthusiasm for a place that is such a deep part of my history.Thank you Michael.
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errol steel on Saturday, 7 February 2015 10:09 PM
spent most of my life in heriot. my father sold the section to michael's father where he still resides.the photo of rail line looking back to heriot there is a pole near end of trees was the turntable to turn engine so it faced forward on return journey
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Raewyn McRitchie on Tuesday, 9 June 2015 3:56 PM
Enjoyed reading your blog on Heriot My husbands grandparents owned a mens hairdressing and tobacconist in Heriot-c 1940s and also their home was burnt down c 1929. I have been trying to find out more about that fire as have a photo of the burnt building-i think on the corner of main street and road going down to Todds cottage.
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Auckland Accountants on Saturday, 20 August 2016 6:13 AM
It's Really informative for all. Everything is very open and represents very clear explanation of issues.Thank you so much for your useful information.
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Edmund moscrop on Monday, 19 December 2016 10:19 AM
Hi.....Is there any connection historically between Heriot in New Zealand and Heriot in the Scottish Borders I was born(1936)and raised in Heriot Scottish Borders until l left in 1970 Heriot also is in the middle of nowhere mostly sheep and cattle country it is about 1000 feet above sea level it is the highest point between Edinburgh and Galashiels on the A7 moterway.there used to be a bank,post office and the local shop now all gone one good development has took place the railway line(known as the Waverley route) reopened two years ago as far as Galashiels it used to run to Carlisle hope this is something to find out if there is any descdents came from here and settled in Heriot New Zealand.......Edmund
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