General Manager Jon Everitt shows me around the first of many dusty cavernous barns that are full of examples of early transport vehicles. Yaldhurst Museum has amassed an eclectic mix of road transport including one of the largest and finest collections of horse-drawn vehicles in the country.
“This one’s of great interest to many,” states Jon, pointing to a 1886 glass-sided hearse, said to have carried the body of New Zealand prime minister Richard Seddon at the time of his death in 1906. It’s one of two left in the country. A motorised hearse replaced it in 1922.
The museum was opened on Boxing Day 1968 by Alfred Thornhill Cooper (locally known as ‘Jake’), great-grandson of John Taylor who originally built the grand homestead on the Yaldhurst Museum site. In the early 1960s, Jake bought the 1877 homestead and the eight acres of land as a location to realise his vision of setting up a motor museum; he had been interested in old vehicles for some years and acquired a piecemeal collection of old cars.
“He was a bit of a hoarder,” confides Jon. “He wouldn’t try to seek out any particular item or hunt for certain vehicles, but he spent plenty of time looking in suitable places and then he would buy on impulse.”
In this way the collection gradually expanded. As the museum became more established, people came to know about it and the passion of its owner, they began to offer items that were special to them but that needed to find a good home. Wherever possible, items in the collection were retained in their original unrestored condition and can be seen like this today.
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“This is where the magic is,” smiles Jon. “The philosophy of the museum is to do the least restoration necessary in order to preserve the character and antique charm of the past.”
And the museum is certainly achieving this ‘charm’ in bucket-loads. It is packed to the rafters with an extensive collection of motor vehicles, fire engines, motorcycles, tractors, agricultural equipment and more. It showcases many rare and interesting items not on show anywhere else. But beyond the ‘cobwebs and madness’ is a sensory experience that gets us immediately in touch with our past.
“The magic of this place is that it has been left pretty much untouched since Jake Cooper and his volunteers built the place in 1968. There’s been no major money put in. It’s not been improved or renovated. The doors still creak. It’s run down and cluttered. Things would disintegrate if we moved them!”
However, out of this state of disrepair comes an ambience that money can’t buy: the smell of old cracked leather, the musty barn atmosphere, and the soundtrack playing in the background of blacksmiths at work on their anvils and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. All these atavistic sounds and sights create a feeling of being stuck in the 1960s and earlier.
Highlights for car enthusiasts include a Dodge Brothers Roadster (1917), one of the oldest surviving hand fire pumps (1864), a six-cylinder Leyland fire engine with one of the largest pumping capacities of 1150 gallons per minute (1924) – the last one left in the world – and the New Zealand-built Logan Special racing car (1948).
“One of my personal favourites is the 1926 V8 Cadillac service car that originally belonged to Newman Brothers,” states Jon. “It was first found in pieces under some trees at Tapawera, inland from Nelson. In the 1920s and 1930s Newman Brothers purchased secondhand cars from the USA. They then cut them in half and extended them, much like a stretched limo. They became the first petrol-powered paying-passenger vehicles in New Zealand, servicing Nelson to Greymouth. After six or seven restoration trips by Jake and his son Grant, the vehicle reached Christchurch. Kiwi ingenuity at its best.”
Jon has been manager here since April 2016 when he was asked to get involved by the new owners. A Chinese family, Mr and Mrs Yu, bought the museum in 2015. Mrs Yu apparently fell in love with the place and recognised its heritage significance. Now run by Jon, one part-timer and a handful of volunteers, it’s a shoestring operation but slowly and steadily they are limping forwards.
“Our ticket sales have continued to rise since 2015. We have a storage facility onsite for people wanting to store their classic cars; this makes up about 50 per cent of our business, but we still face many challenges,” says Jon.
Challenges such as recruiting and retaining volunteers, keeping the museum name in the public eye and resolving arguments about what was ‘on loan’ and what’s ‘for keeps’.
“Sadly one of our volunteers died last year. He was an incredible gardener,” reminisces Jon. “I’ve tried recruiting for a new one, but so far no luck. Norman would be turning in his grave if he could see the place now – there are fallen leaves everywhere, something Norman would not have tolerated!”
But Jon is not resting on his laurels. He is seeking out small and complementary side businesses, to enhance the museum and drive footfall.
“We run various workshops throughout the year. We have a blacksmith who comes down from Auckland three times a year to offer forging workshops. They are really popular. On day one the participants make their tools, and on day two they make a knife or something similar. People clearly want to connect with the past, and what better location to do it in than this,” grins Jon.
The printing collection and display started following a visit in 1972 by two printing enthusiasts who came to see Jake and Grant about an old printing press that nobody wanted. Realising the significance of this opportunity, an obligation was felt to save it from destruction. After many hours of restoration, the magnificent ‘Wharfdale’ press, manufactured in 1863, and thought to be the only one of its kind left in the world, now stands behind another of those nondescript doors at the museum. Volunteers continue to give their dedication and enthusiasm to these relics and also run workshops for students interested in learning first hand how changing technology has impacted on our society.
It’s these extra revenue streams that supplement the ticket sales and mean that Jon and his team can do the basic restoration and repairs.
The buildings look ramshackle; some displays sit rust-covered in long grass. And still Jon and his small team see the opportunity.
“One of our employees, Aubrey, came up with the idea of ‘Rust in Peace’. We’ve got paddocks full of old vehicles. When the lupins come out in spring it just looks so peaceful. So we now offer the site to photographers and artists for inspiration. The beauty of our incomplete and imperfect paddocks are a nice contrast for photographers coming with their perfect products or beautiful models,” says Jon.
“We also offer children’s birthday parties and holiday activities, which are quite a hit when the kids see our collection of fire engines. The children can actually touch things and they are just delighted when they’re given that permission.”
So what does the future hold, if that is not a defamatory word in this establishment?
“We want to make some repairs to our fire engines and open up the old school house. We have so many amazing old computers and household items such as old vacuum cleaners, washing machines and the like. They all tell a story. They’re all in storage sheds at the moment, but we’d love to get them on show and increase what the public can see,” says Jon.
The size and significance of the collection at this museum is testament to the dedicated effort of Jake Cooper over many years. In its unique rural setting close to the centre of Christchurch, this gem is certainly worth a peek. It is bound to continue to touch the hearts of the elderly and excite the young. It’s an important repository of New Zealand heritage that needs the recognition. It has a charm that cannot be duplicated. To say it’s scruffy or rundown would be to miss the point.
As Jon says so poignantly, “Anybody can build a new building and put shiny cars into it. Yaldhurst Museum was built for purpose but you can’t replicate it. It’s the years, the forgotten nature of it all, and the 50 years of petrol spilt on the floor. That’s what makes this place unique.”
So much more than just a ‘stretch of legs’, this is a place to get lost in and be absorbed by.
26 School Road, Yaldhurst, Christchurch