Of oak trees, bullocks and Brylcreem

John and Louise under the oak tree
John and Louise under Archer’s oak

John Bridgman has worn many hats over the last six decades. Dairy farmer, contractor, committee member, spud grower extraordinaire – he talks with Annette Taylor about a life well lived in Gordonton.

“They’ve shortened the days, haven’t they?” John replies to my question asking if there’s anything he misses from the old days.

“We worked long hours: sometimes 24 hours a day contracting, growing spuds, running two dairy farms, a shop – I wonder now how I got all those jobs done?”

Not that he’s slowed down much, says wife Louise over a cup of tea in their sunny kitchen.

Born in Hamilton, John, a youthful 67, came to Gordonton when he was five. He and Louise live in a new house built where the old Bridgman homestead stood on Piako Rd.

In the lawn is a massive oak tree, planted in 1914 by his grandparents to mark the birth of Archer, John’s father, in 1912.

“He was born in Auckland and they collected an acorn from Cornwall Park, which was brought here as a young seedling. He was two at the time and lived all his life in Gordonton.”

John can vaguely remember polo being played on the paddock which is now Chartwell Square (aka Westfield Chartwell.) Thanks to Archer the oak trees which once lined the paddock opposite Chartwell still remain – he argued against them being felled many years ago.

Like Archer, John attended the old school in what is now Hukanui Park, where the Gordonton Country Markets are now held. One of his jobs on chilly mornings was to light the potbelly stove in the corner of the room.

He was somewhat puzzled when he got to secondary school in Hamilton.

“All the blokes combed their hair and put Brylcreem in. No one from a country school did that, why would you do that?”

A highlight of secondary school in the city was getting there and back in Jack Colvin’s buses.

“You’d never know if they’d break down on the way or not. You’d be going home and there’d be a diff in the back, just in case.”

Jack was a bit of a Gordonton character, running Leslie Buses, named after his daughter.

“One time Jack was stopped by the transport department who wanted to see how many kids were travelling that day. The cop was standing there counting them, and Jack was round back, poking them through the emergency exit– it took the bloke a while to work out there couldn’t have been 100 kids.”

There was no question about John’s future career – “Dad was a farmer, there was a farm, what else do you do?”

After school, he spent a year at Flock House, near Bulls, learning all aspects of farming and began milking cows on returning to Gordonton.

This photo of swamp clearing was taken in 1900 on the land the Bridgman's built their house.
This photo of swamp clearing was taken around 1909 on the land the Bridgman’s built their house. Photo: Hamilton City Libraries

“There was a lot of tea tree and rushes, we had to work to develop the land. I can remember dad digging all the rushes out and burning them so he could plough. We didn’t have motorbikes, I used a pushbike or a horse to get the cows.”

He bought land on Woodlands Rd, and took on a sharemilker while he did a little contracting – then in the late 1970s he bought a combine harvester, and drove it from Christchurch to Gordonton.

“I’d never driven one before, it had no cab and did less than 20 miles an hour.”

The trip took “a few days” but he got to see the countryside. “I parked on the front lawn out front of the pub in Kaikoura, and slept in a tanker truck because the pub was full at Mangaweka. You could do those things in those days, it was good fun.”

John contracted for the next 15 years and then, after rolling the combine harvester, decided it was time for a change.

“I thought I’d grow potatoes. I’d looked at deer farming, and thought not really- I’ve got to do something I don’t know a thing about.”

He and Louise put in 80 acres and in the early days hand-picked the crop with a gang of workers who stayed with him for many years.

“Those were good times, we worked hard though.”

More space was needed to sort and store the potatoes and he bought the derelict Gordonton dairy factory in 1984.

“It had been sitting idle for some time; we knocked down walls, put in doors and stored seed potato there.”

John was one of the first to grow Agria potatoes in the Waikato, which is a grand spud for making chips. “We found ourselves supplying most of the fish and chip shops in Hamilton as a result.”

From the factory they sold potatoes, then onions, and it seemed logical to set up a bit of a shop.

“We didn’t realise how well it would take off,” says Louise. “Actually, we had to shut down and start again, with council consent – so we could sell bread and milk, pies, school lunches, groceries…  Locals put in their orders for the ‘Gordonton hamburgers’ on Fridays,” says John.

Local artist Andrew Bird painted cartoon vegetables on the front of the factory which eventually were painted over but provided a talking point, as did Maurice the goat.

‘Inherited’ from Leon Geddes, Maurice was kept on a long chain and was fond of jumping on car roofs. He’d get off every now and then and was injured in a goat vs truck accident – “his horns were loose and the vet put a big bandage on him and we kept him on a special bed inside the shop.

“The visitors he used to have – all the guys would come see him and hand feed him treats. He had more visitors than most of us would get in hospital.”

In addition to the shop, the factory supplied potable water to various houses, until town water arrived in the village.

“Des Hopa sold fish and chips from a caravan out front, inside we also dehydrated kiwifruit, at one stage we had teams going 24 hours a day.”

Even today Louise says she bumps into former customers while shopping. “People would drop by and chat, bring in their first-born baby to show us.”

John became a representative on the Vegetable Federation, and chairman of promotions, involved in setting up the 5+ campaign.

“It was a good break to go to the beach for a weekend. Although it wasn’t so good when someone back at the shop would ring up and say the freezer had broken down and all the ice cream had melted.”

Eventually the shop was leased to Bill King who started selling fish and chips, then the building was bought by Don Riddell and two others.

“We realised the potential to develop the front but felt it would be good for someone else to do,” John says.

Market LR18
John and Kirikaa Proffit cut the ribbon at the very first Gordonton Country Market

He went back to dairy management for a while and redeveloped the home farm. He still hasn’t retired.

Like Archer before him, he’d always helped with community projects and has chaired the Gordonton District Committee for the last 10 years.

“I got involved with what was known as the Beautifying Society back then, we’d clean up the concrete around the cemetery or work on the domain. Everyone was involved – you never actually joined, you just turned up.”

He’s served on the Woodlands Trust, the Gordonton School Board and Hukanui Marae.

“There were times, especially when the children were young, when we’d pass each other on our way to various meetings,” says Louise.

John says he just followed on from what his father did.

“We are just caretakers of our district. Keeping an eye out, asking why is that happening or not and doing something about it.”

John Bridgman is thoroughly settled in Gordonton and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, looking out at the old oak tree.

“There’s the question of the future of the village: do we open the village up for residential development. It was said at the recent community meeting that Gordonton can’t progress until an effluent system is put in, we don’t have the infrastructure for more growth yet.

“I’m quite happy with the size of Gordonton as it is. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

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6 thoughts on “Of oak trees, bullocks and Brylcreem

  • May 21, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    Wonderful story … wonderful bloke! Maestro Bridgman you are a treasure.

    • May 21, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      Hear, hear Caz, Number 8 Network totally agrees with you!

  • May 27, 2014 at 9:41 am

    great story on a great couple, great family. All the best to you John and Louise. You can also be proud of the role Archie played in the construction and maintenance of St Marys. Warm regards, Alan

    • May 27, 2014 at 9:46 am

      They are a great couple, and family Alan.

  • May 27, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    Being reminded of some Gordonton history of was
    very enjoyable reading, well put together

  • July 6, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Magic guy, the mayor of Gordonton


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