A letter home from New Zealand; 69 years ago.
Early in September 2020 when readers of a northern Californian community newspaper needed something else to think about as they battled huge forest fires and the coronavirus, an 88 year-old columnist gave them Balclutha and New Zealand – circa 1951.
Mrs Jean Willard Barton said before the pandemic shut everything down she wrote a weekly column in the Red Bluff Daily News and “it was about anything I wanted to write about.”
Her muse was her family and her passion for cattle ranching in the wider Tehama rural community, two hours north of Sacramento.
“Well, with no meetings, no travelling, and a family who didn’t want to be written about every week, so I thought of my trip to NZ. People said they have enjoyed reading about my experiences…perhaps they were just being nice,” Mrs Willard Barton said.
Digging into her trove of memories she began a series of articles about her trip 69 years ago to New Zealand where she took her readers back to 1951, a time of contrast between rich and affluent USA and New Zealand, a country still gripped by post-war austerity measures and quaint Anglo-customs.
From an historical Californian sheep and cattle family her trip south was to discover the rural side of New Zealand and reviewing her extensive diary’s and letters she provided her readers with a keen and very descriptive insight into 1950’s era New Zealand life.
Her eight month-long learning experience was organised by the International Farm Youth Exchange under the USA 4-H Program and the New Zealand Dairy Board.
Today pre-Covid, it would have taken her over 22 hours flying time to get from her home to Balclutha, back then she had a lot of fun on her 21 day 10,000km sea journey in a non air-conditioned cabin aboard the RMS Aorangi, and that only got her as far as Auckland by August 22, 1951.
Over the next eight months she stayed with 28 different farming families from Invercargill to Napier, and along the way visited large sheep stations, grain farms, dairy farms, and smaller sheep and cattle farms, toured Queenstown, Mt Cook, Rotorua, Wellington and Auckland.
Late in the evening of Tuesday Oct. 16, 1951 after an exhausting day-long journey south from Darfield, she met Hillend property owners Tom and Vera Burnside, and their family, daughters Noelene 23, Jean 21, Netta 18, Betty 11 and son Robbie 16, her hosts for the next four days before she headed off on the next leg of her journey.
This was typical of her whistle-stop tour of New Zealand farms: Here today, gone a couple of days later.
Now retired, the former chairman of Primary Producers Co-operative Society (forerunner of Silver Fern Farms) Robbie Burnside said he remembered her coming. “Dad was always involved in the A&P Society and had offered to host her, she spent more time with my older sisters but I remember her coming down to the South Otago High School and talking about herself and life on a cattle ranch in America,” Mr Burnside said, “I remember her as it was the year of the big wharfies strike.”
Mrs Willard Barton said she also visited Duke and Dot Bissett of Wangaloa to look at their herd of Newstead Ayshires, spoke at the Balclutha Rotary Club ladies night, attended her 12th dance in succession and dutifully recorded everything she saw in her diary’s.
Her visit continued on to Central Otago, to stay with Mr Henry Stokes and his family at Tarras, driven there by Bert Lunn, a 1949 All Black who worked for the Dairy Board.
She said it was an “awesome experience for a 19-20 year old girl.”
Jean Willard Barton stayed with the following families in 1951: Otago area:
Burnsides in Balclutha, run sheep in tussock
Stokes in Central Otago area, run sheep
Hunt family also in Central Otago, diversified farm and purebred Galloway cattle, and Hampshire sheep
Mackenzie family in Southland, sheep & dairy
Kirkpatrick’s of Gore, pure-bred Romney Marsh sheep and Hereford’s.
The Young family on the Taieri Plains, dairy and diversified farm
Upon her return home, Jean Willard Barton resumed her studies, graduated, married and raised two daughters all while continuing her passion for cattle ranching.
She became the president of California Cattle Women Association in 1995 and also won many awards for her work promoting her community and cattle farming in the USA including the 2010 Tehama County Cattlemen’s “Man of the Year” award, and 2010 Common Threads Honouring Women in Agriculture.
She said she took up journalism in 1996 because she felt that “we needed to tell people about agriculture and ranching.”
Her very descriptive tales of life in 1950’s rural New Zealand can be found at www.redbluffdailynews.com in the lifestyle / travel section.