Livingston Baker couldn't get away from history even if he tried. At ninety-three, he belongs to the land and his memory is honed and sharp. The past seems to reside in Livingston Baker's bones.
Ena has been married to Livingston for 53 years and no one knows him better than she does. "It's remarkable. He remembers all these things. He might have forgotten to pick up the groceries in the days where we were mobile but his memory is unbelievable."
The Bakers live at Whenuakura, near Pātea, but Livingston grew up at Ararātā, inland from Hāwera, where his father arrived on horseback as a single man to take up farming during the 1890s. "My father came at the age of 24, sometime in 1891. It was newly opened up virgin country, hill country, and he felled it and broke it in. As different neighbours got sick of it and left, he took their sections on and ended up with about 1700 acres [688 hectares], I think, which is still Baker land."
In 1909, his father married Janet Elizabeth Livingston - which is where Livingston's name comes from. The second of their three children, he was born in 1913. "Ararātā is a big farm, but not more than a reasonable sort of living. It's hill country. At that time, it would have been about 1400 acres [566 hectares]. I was about two and a half when we left."
After leaving Ararātā for Hāwera, Livingston says, they lived a good life. "We didn't have duties like some kids do now. A lot of our contemporary kids would have to get up and milk in the morning and night. We were probably the envy of the neighbourhood kids. My father was a racehorse man. He used to breed racehorses. In earlier times, he used to run them, but after he married - and I think this was one of his great regrets - he had to give up his racing. He still bred horses but it was against mother's principles to race them." His father bred Lincoln sheep, as his father had before him, and took up dog trialling instead.
Livingston can mark his earliest paternal British roots by pointing out three prized portraits on his lounge wall which have been passed down through the family over the years. One is of John Harrison, born in 1776, the year America won independence, and the other is of John's wife, Anne. A third portrait, of the Harrison's daughter, Isabella, has been sent off for restoration. Her presence in the room is keenly missed.
John and Anne's son, Henry - Livingston's great-grandfather - arrived in Wellington in April 1840, on the barque Bolton, one of the first half dozen New Zealand Company ships, after sailing with wife Henrietta, two children, John and Henry, and Henry's brother Robert. "The whole family came in this one ship" Livingston says. "Accompanying Henry was his ploughman, his pantry maid, his dairy maid, and all his female and male staff."
Livingston cannot imagine why Henry Harrison, who was a graduate from Cambridge and who had also earned the title of Reverend, would have wanted to move his entire life and trimmings to far away New Zealand. He has never uncovered a reason. "He must have been pretty well off and well known where he lived. It's a mystery" he says.
Ena agrees. "When we went looking in Britain for their graveyards, we couldn't find them, because Henry Harrison was one who had been buried in the church and not in the churchyard. He was important."
Livingston's maternal grandfather was James Livingston, born in 1840, who came to New Zealand in 1859. James farmed near Hāwera at Tokaora, which literally means 'the living stone,' a name bestowed on the land after the Livingstons sold it. Prior to that it was known as Waipapa - a name stamped on all their documents.
James fought for the British during the Taranaki War. Though his total service lasted only a couple of months, he rose quickly through the ranks to sergeant and distinguished himself at both engagements at Te Ngutu o te Manu which saw some of the bloodiest battles.
He later won a contract to cart stores for the troops at Pātea camp. As Justice of the Peace, he turned down a request to stand for parliament, though he was elected one of the first members of the Pātea County Council. "I only have the very vaguest memories of him" Livingston says. "I was only a little more than two years old when he died. He was a very agreeable fellow. He was, in all honesty, a big man, and strong, according to all accounts."
On his 75th birthday, the residents of Hāwera presented him with a phaeton (carriage) and an illuminated address - a framed photograph of which was given to each of his three children. "He was too modest to apply for his New Zealand War medal - he held the view that if they wanted to give him a medal, they knew where to find him - so the Veteran's Association applied for it for him. On his next birthday, they had a parade for him and presented the medal. I think he was a bit impatient with the whole thing, and that was probably the only time he ever wore it."
"It's a strange thing" Livingston says. "I knew my maternal grandmother, I remember her all right. We were living in Hāwera when she died in 1923. All the goods and chattels from Whanganui came to our place - a large quantity of them did, interesting stuff that we kids didn't think very much of. I was 10 years old at the time and there were huge bundles of letters, documents, that nobody was the slightest bit interested in. But we kids, my sister and I, we had the school kids' craze of collecting stamps, and we went through this heap of stuff like vultures, tearing the stamps off. There were those blue, full-face Queen Victoria stamps, the first ones ever issued in New Zealand."
He knows now, from the ones that miraculously survived, that those papers would have been of national importance. "There are letters from Sir William Fox, Isaac Earl Featherston, all sorts of notable people like that and goodness knows what else would have been amongst them! My last recollection is of them rotting under the tank stand. But you know, those papers would have been as important as the Atkinson papers."
Livingston Baker, while almost being a slice of history himself, enjoys history of the broadest kind. Not only has he read extensively but he owns an enviable library. "He started to catalogue his books last year" Ena says, "and he's only up to 800 so far."
His favourite book is A History of England, but mention pretty much any tome and Livingston is sure to have read it. Asked what he'd do in the event of a fire, and his answer comes back fast. "I'd grab as many books as I could carry in both arms."
Though he's never been tempted to write a book himself, he turned out a popular historical column for the Pātea Mail every month for 25 years. He also wrote several short biographies on early identities to be included in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Unfortunately, some of the subjects failed to make the cut, though the one on James Livingston made it through. "I did Henry Harrison but he was not accepted. Don't know why. He was in the 1940 volume but not in the more recent one. I wrote about Dr George Home of New Plymouth, too, who was a relative and a very interesting man."
Livingston himself falls neatly into that same category - he's a very interesting man. A little frail these days, he admits he's getting on in years, and the worst thing about that is the loss of independence. But in the past, he has always managed to keep more than one finger on the community pulse, always doing his bit, and then some.
Over the years he has belonged to the Young Farmer's Club, Federated Farmers and several committees, including the Hall committee. He was a founding member of Farm Forestry and remained active in the organisation all his life. A constant member of the church, he was Chairman of the Whenuakura School until his youngest child left. Later, Ena went on the High School Board.
He belonged to the Pātea Heritage Working Party, and helped list all historic buildings in the township, and was also a founding member of the Pātea Historical Society. In 1967, along with Ian Church, Margaret Leslie - and of course Ena - he began developing the Pātea Museum, which still operates today. "We started with a historical society" Livingston says. "We started to fill a void. Once people got to know, they began to think about giving things away, and it soon became pretty important to have a proper place to display and keep all these things."
There was also a mandate to have as much Māori involvement in the museum as possible. "John Heremaia and Mrs Kershaw were keen to participate, and we gave them whatever area they thought they'd like for a Maāri display. They chose one quarter of the building."
When some good tōtara turned up on the beach, Livingston took it to the Waverley mill, where it was cut to iwi specifications for wood panels. The plan was to have them painted and hung between tukutuku panels. "They were all set to start work on Anzac Day, 1973, and no one turned up. Sadly, it transpired that Mrs Kershaw had died in her sleep the night before. I thought perhaps the museum project would die with her. But after a terrific tangi, it went ahead as a special tribute. Instead of painting the timber to resemble carvings, they decided to do actual carvings. So that's what happened and it's quite an impressive Maori section."
Though it was hard to find a place for a museum at first, Livingston's brother donated a property on the main street and the Jaycees worked on the restoration and conversion. By attending conferences and striving always to keep up with the latest information from top institutions, Livingston and his dedicated team produced a museum to be proud of. "We kept in touch with things. Went where the best information was kept, read the most recent publications. We knew what the trends were."
The South Taranaki Museum opened to the public in 1974. Though Livingston is no longer involved, people still come to him with historical questions. He can usually supply the answers. As Ena says, "Livingston is unique, with his knowledge of the district. There is no one else to fill that gap."
In 1979, Livingston was awarded the Queen's Service Medal, in well-deserved recognition of his work.
Today, Pātea, which once boasted a thriving Freezing Works industry, is at a standstill, neither moving upwards or downwards but stuck in a sleepy groove. But asked what he considers the most significant episode in the town's history was, Livingston gives a surprising answer. "I don't think I'd put the freezing works at the head of the list. I think the Electricity Works would be pretty important because, not only did it supply light and power from early times, but when the thing finally packed up they sold it to the National Electricity Department - or whatever they called it then. It made money for them and that allowed them to tar seal all the streets, a big thing in itself."
Livingston says, if given a magic wand, he would reverse the course of history. "In the first instance, when the railway was being built, Pātea was the important place. Pātea was the terminus. But then Pātea was finished and Hāwera was the place to be. They all flocked to Hāwera and Manaia even before the railway was finished. The importance of Pātea was taken away, even before these places had been built. It makes me sad. Pātea should have been an important place. It wasn't until 1883 that the railway was completed to Manutahi and Manutahi became the terminus. Everything was affected, with Hāwera growing stronger and Pātea falling away. There was a move towards Manaia at the same time."
When it comes to Pātea's future, he's just as forthcoming. "I see Pātea as a dormitory town for Hāwera, if only Hāwera would realise that. They go on expanding things in Hāwera instead of doing something towards developing things in Pātea."
He feels, perhaps the only option now is to get more help from Hāwera. "I've thought it over a lot" Livingston says. "I went to a meeting some time ago in the Hāwera Community Centre and council staff wanted everyone to agree to extend the boundaries of Hāwera and they gave all their reasons. All available space for building was taken up, the only thing to do was to extend, they said. At the conclusion of the meeting, I said, 'Pātea has exactly the opposite problem, plenty of available buildings and land to build on, plenty of community facilities. Why not seal Hāwera off at its present dimensions and make use of available space in Pātea. And they thought it was a huge joke. People laughed."
Given a chance to add a last word, Livingston Baker says thoughtfully, "They'll probably just keep making Hāwera bigger while we just go on the way we are."
Footnote: Sadly, Livingston Baker died in 2006, not long after this article was published.
Fischer, P. (1982). Patea and Regional Development: an inter-regional reconnaissance report. Wellington: Ministry of Works and Development.
Lovegrove, C.L. (1971). Patea Historical Society and Historic and Scenic Drive. Pātea: Pātea Historical Society.
Pātea Borough Council (1985). It's Worth Investing In Patea. Pātea: Pātea Borough Council.
Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Livingston BakerLink