Gordonton – the opera

One from the vaults – Number 8 Network’s Annette Taylor spent a day talking to folk in and around Gordonton for a special feature in the Waikato Times. Photographer Donna Walsh accompanied her and the piece ran in August 2009.

Here it is again, with some extra comments as well.  

End of an era: Peter and Shirley Blank first started selling veges from their front gate in 1977. Photo: Donna Walsh
End of an era: Peter and Shirley Blank first started selling veges from their front gate in 1977. Photo: Donna Walsh

SECONDS AFTER Donna Walsh has taken his photo, Peter Blank begins to remove the signs advertising vegetables from his gate on Gordonton Rd.

“Those signs have hung there a long time,” Shirley, his wife, says to me. “Our daughter hand painted them for us.”

The Blanks have been selling organic vegetables from their Gordonton property since 1977. Dressed in his bib overalls, the Dutchman has been a common sight, out in his garden in all weather. Now his health is declining and the garden, he says, is too big for him. The vegetables will no longer be sold from his gate.

It’s an end of an era, but Gordonton has seen many changes through the years. On the other side of Gordonton Rd is the old dairy factory, which is now home to hairdressers, a fish and chip shop and the Firepot Café, where Shirley likes to go for her morning coffee after driving the school bus.

KYLIE GUNTER, head chef at the café, loves Gordonton. “There’s something about country people and this place. The locals bring in things, like fresh lemons, it’s great.” She came here from Rotorua four months ago to be with her family, and always wanted to work away from a city.

Big sellers: Firepot Cafe chef Kylie Gunter's lemon muffins never last long. Photo: donna Walsh
Big sellers: Firepot Cafe chef Kylie Gunter’s lemon muffins never last long. Photo: donna Walsh

Owner Michelle Bishop says the café was built ‘from nothing’ 31/2 years ago.

“We were tiny, half the size when we opened. We had no idea how busy we were going to be. I thrive on it.”

Much of the business comes from the busy road – “We get a lot of Aucklanders. The locals are extremely supportive, and the Farmer’s Breakfast on Wednesday has been a real hit.”

Every Tuesday they offer a special deal – $5 for a coffee and a muffin. “This is a way we can give something back to the local community.”

Harry Jansen from Wairere Nursery, at the south end of Gordonton, dashes in for a macadamia brittle, which, he says, are to die for. He and Lloyd Houghton have been “adding a gay touch to Gordonton” for 20 years. “It was a bit of a ghost town when we first got here, but now it’s just grown and grown; everyone says it’s the new Tamahere.”

Wairere in Times
Green fingers: Wairere Nursery’s Harry Janssen, left, and Lloyd Houghton with Zac. Photo: Donna Walsh

NEXT DOOR AT Coastal Connection Mich and Yorng Dul know about being busy. Originally from Cambodia, the husband and wife came to New Zealand from a refugee camp in 1986. They took over the fish and chip business last May and work seven days.

Mich says you work harder in New Zealand. “And you receive more. In Cambodia, during the communist time, I worked hard and received nothing – not even enough to eat.”

The hardest thing for the couple to adapt to was the different diet. “It took us by surprise, we thought people would live on rice, but you don’t. We eat rice three times a day.”

Yorng Dul takes a break from preparing food and tells me she likes living in the country. “I grew up as a rice farmer, even now I don’t like to go to Hamilton, this place is good for me.”

Now, she says, they will even eat hamburgers – once a month.

Open seven days: Coastal Connection hard workers Mich, left, and Yorng Dul. Photo: Annette Taylor
Open seven days: Coastal Connection hard workers Mich, left, and Yorng Dul. Photo: Annette Taylor

The old dairy factory they operate from, for many years, sold fruit and vegetables. Former owner John Bridgman, whose family came to Gordonton in 1914, joins me for a chat on the deck.

“I bought it from the dairy company 24 years ago. We grew potatoes on Woodlands Rd and brought them up to grade and pack. When the kids left home we opened up the front and ran the shop.”

As chairman of the district committee (“It’s in the Bridgman genes… my father forefathers were involved with the community…”) he keeps an eye on the area and gets involved in local projects, like painting the old Gordonton school which was built in 1891.

“I was in the last year at that school. It’s still used today, the playgroup meets twice a week but the school has moved down Woodlands Rd.”

JOHN’S FORMER TEACHER, Leon Geddes, came to Gordonton as a 21-year-old to teach in 1959.

“I was a railway kid. My dad was an engine driver on the railway, I had nothing to do with farms or the country. I started my working life as an apprentice fitter and turner on the railways, and I thought, this is a dirty, filthy job, fancy doing this all your life. What would be warmer, dryer, with more holidays? Teaching. I had a ball as a teacher. It was fun.”

He spent about 30 years teaching, and of course, got to drive the school bus.

In 1962 he bought Leslie Coaches from the original owner, who named it after his daughter. “We carried the name on. Four years ago we finally sold out to have a quieter life and retire.”

That retirement hasn’t happened yet. Now he builds Spaceships, the little orange camper vans seen zipping around the country. “They’re all made here, every one. When you’re a grey-haired old fella like me and you go and tell people that you build spaceships, they look at you sort of peculiar.”

With a staff of full-time staff of five, they export to Australia and England, as well as supplying the domestic market.

“I don’t think our organisation would work in a city; it only works because it’s here, in Gordonton. The locals have always been a part of it.”

Many in the district, including Shirley Blank across the road, have driven the school buses.

“Sonny Rota, well, I taught Sonny at Gordonton School, then he worked for me for 20 years, and now he’s building spaceships. It all works together, it’s a good atmosphere, I like the community.” There’s no recession in Gordonton, he says.

“I like Gordonton, or I wouldn’t be here. I like the people; we go to Coastal Connection for fish and chips, the Firepot for coffee.”

COLLEEN BAKER, living and working in the heart of the village, at what used to be Midway Nurseries, is not so sure. The furniture shop next to them is empty and they found the winter hard. “We had to shut down our tearooms in February. We’re determined to carry on, we’re now selling pots, palms and landscape rocks, things we know people want.”

Colleen and husband Ross came here two years ago, after running a garden centre in Rangariri and live behind the shop. “It’s very relaxed living, very rural. We can get up in the morning and smell the rural smell – we were farmers and love being here.”

Jenny Smith, who lives just around the corner in Garfield St, agrees.

Out shopping: Jenny and husband Chris at the market. Photo: Annette Taylor
Out shopping: Jenny and husband Chris at the market. Photo: Annette Taylor

“Chris and I rented in Hillcrest then went on a tiki tour to see where we might settle in New Zealand – we’d just arrived from Herefordshire and thought Gordonton looked very nice. It was much more rural; Garfield St was still in metal and there were no street lights. We thought it was nice and quiet, with views across the paddocks and lovely big oaks.”

They moved here in 1982 and for the last 27 years Jenny has worked at the local vet depot, which is now operating out of the former Gordonton Service Station, on the main road north of Leon Geddes.

“I started off with Chartwell Vets, who had an old shop by the dairy company – it was flipping cold there down. Now I’m at what was the old Gordonton garage, run by Barry and Heather Ruck, and his father Snow before him. I’ve been here for three years now, and I ride my bike or walk to work – keep fit, that’s my aim. Not too bad for someone who is nearly 63.”

She says it’s a close-knit, little community, which has widened with new folk coming in. “It keeps getting bigger and bigger. I know most of the farmers in this area.”

She’s now serving the next generation of farmers at Anexa Animal Health. “The children, who have grown up, I used to serve their fathers before.”

SUCH AS John Riddell, who farms the land behind.

“The story goes that Snow Ruck walked out from town in about 1948 and asked my grandfather if he could buy a little bit of land for a petrol station. I suppose my grandfather might have been the first person to say yes.”

The Riddell family have been in Gordonton since 1905. “My great grandad bought the first car in the district in 1916, and I believe that grandad used to run out to the gate to see a car go past when he was young.”

He’d been told that it took his grandfather two hours to get to town – “They’d have to stop and chop down pongas to put in the wet muddy holes. The road wasn’t that great.”

His mother Gwen used a horse and cart to do the herd testing. “She’d go and herd test at Mr Clarkin’s farm, which is now Clarkin Rd.”

In those days, Robbie Ward’s store, where Colleen’s shop is today, was the focus of the village, with the petrol shop and butcher next door. His father Jack, who died last year, remembered seeing old Maori ladies dressed in black, sitting outside the store smoking.

“Then the supermarkets opened in town, the businesses here couldn’t compete. It’s always changed, and now people will drive from Hamilton and around, go and have a coffee at the café, visit Wairere Nursery or play cricket at Woodlands.”

John says Gordonton is a fantastic place to farm, to live and bring up children. “My son Chris can go out into the paddocks to play, we catch eels in the creek. He loves to hit thirstles with a stick, he’s been doing that since he was very small. He thought he was Aragorn killing orcs. Now he’s a very good hockey player.”

John will be happier when the new bypass is built. “It used to be just Gordonton Rd, now it’s State Highway 1B which means we have a large amount of traffic. Which is the lifeline for the businesses, but we’d like it a bit quieter.”

It’s a really solid community that revolves around the school. “Chris goes to Gordonton; it’s a great school, with great atmosphere. Around here you see the same people at the tennis, hockey, school events, fundraisers and machinery auctions. I like that.”


The name: The area was originally called Hukanui Huka meaning foam or frosty and Nui meaning big. The name was changed to Gordonton, after John Gordon who was manager of Woodlands homestead from 1885.

Interesting fact:  Gordonton was one of the first towns in New Zealand to build a war memorial, construction began during 1914.

Best find: Crunchy lemon muffins with lemon curd yoghurt from the Firepot Café. Be in quick because they sell fast.

To do: Indoor bowls every Tuesday from 7.30pm, and line dancing on Wednesday, from 7pm, in the Gordonton Hall.

Best ice cream: Coastal Connection

Oldest school: The Puke and Hopa families were largely responsible for the first school of the region being built in 1891. Before this lessons had taken place in the Hukanui Hall. Before that children had to ride their horses to Taupiri.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

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