Family trees tell tales

Mark Neilson's farming ancestors have left their own form of historical document: names, initials, pictures and messages carved in two nikau palms on the family property at Longacre, near Wanganui.

Closely surrounded by pines, the nikau died long ago and all that's left are the carved trunks.

"It was my auntie, my father's eldest sister, Irene, who first told me about the trees," Neilson says.

Since then he has carefully studied the names, dates and words etched into the wood with nails and knives.

Unfortunately, the age and declining condition of the trees mean these wooden documents are in danger of disappearing.

One message reads: "Will, remember the time the black bull calf got its head stuck in the bucket?"

The messages are eroding as the wood decays but much of the carving remains and most of it is dated about 1890.

Words attributed to Caesar appear (Veni, vidi, vici), and some messages are carved in a graceful, flowing script, which must have been difficult to do.

Names from the past remain clearly etched but some of the words are hard to read.

They were much clearer when Mark first read them and committed many of the messages to memory.

Some of the writing, although decipherable, is cryptic in nature, such as: "AH and the black one."

Mark's great-aunts Annie and Janet's names are there among many others, many of which have yet to be identified.

There is a chance the trees can be preserved with modern museum technology.

"That's the hope," says Neilson, who intends to ask Te Papa for advice.

The farm dates from when Mark's great-grandfather, Archibald Neilson, who arrived in Wanganui from Scotland in the early 1860s, got word of a land auction taking place in Wellington in 1874.

He walked from his home in central Wanganui to Wellington and bought 360 acres (146ha) at the top of the Longacre Valley.

Mark and his wife, Pauline, a photographic artist, followed Archibald's trek on horseback in 2011, riding as far as Waikanae before returning home.

Archibald and his wife built a home south of the present homestead.

The remains of the original clay chimneys mark the site.

The second house was made of wood and even less remains of that.

Archibald called his farm Mary Hill, after the area in Glasgow where he lived before emigrating.

"This whole area has been settled by people from Glasgow, it seems to me, and they all reckon they didn't know each other," Neilson says.

"Most of it was hill country but they had a good orchard, possibly two, and an extensive garden. It's part of the Wanganui block and was surveyed by the New Zealand Company, who used rivers and streams as boundaries.

"Inevitably the roads ended up on the creek floors."

Archibald's life took an unexpected turn and he took to his sick bed for 17 years, spending much of that time reading the Bible and astounding his grandchildren with long, memorised recitations of scripture.

Yet the farm prospered.

"By the time William [Mark's grandfather] started his farming career, things were starting to look quite rosy," Neilson says.

William's son Noel, Mark's father, was chairman of the county council and on many committees.

Neilson says he was a good organiser on the farm and quick to take up new technology.

When the new science of topdressing began in the late 1940s, Noel Neilson used it on his Longacre farm, by then called Mt Zion.

Mark's grandmother, Christina Neilson, was on the board of the Kaukatea School, which made history as part of the first all-woman committee in the British Empire.

- Hamilton News

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