Dentures and detonators

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“Look over here. Not many people know what these are used for,” says Richard Spark, indicating several metre-long steel augers. “Used for drilling holes in rock by hand when you have to place dynamite charges for blasting. I picked them up for $2 each. This longer one was used in limestone. And I actually found that old detonator box. Only one I’ve ever seen.”

I’ve seen them. On Westerns and the odd TV advert, and am hesitant about pushing down the plunger, even if there aren’t any leads snaking out. Imagine being responsible for blowing up this lot.

I’m with Spark in his private museum, Northbrook, on the out­skirts of Rangiora. Precise, businesslike, taciturn, the man is a dairy farmer (380-cow herd), chairperson of the local Methodist parish, and has served for years on school boards and the like.

Over the last dozen years he has somehow found time to accumulate a gargantuan collection of everything pertaining to local history, and to display it in a couple of 700 square-metre sheds near his house. Inside, the paraphernalia stretches from floor to roof, packed in as tightly as fans at a free concert. Tungsten bulbs impart a subdued glow that enhances the nostalgia.

Items of every type and time vie for attention. Well, perhaps not every time. The bulk of the collection spans the 1920s to 1960, although there are plenty of older items. Toys, tobacco tins, 100 chocolate boxes (mostly empty), 80 household irons, pencils, ink bottles, porce­lain electrical insulators, petrol tins, groceries, a manual telephone exchange, hundreds of enamelled advertising signs, books, pills and potions, a butcher’s shop, hot water bottle precursors, veterinary and dental equipment, baby feeding bottles, hand-turned washing machines, certifi­cates, dozens of old cameras, mincers, lawnmowers, scales, household and pet insecticides, bricks, clothes, radios, churns—I’ve scarcely scratched the surface.

In the grocery and household supplies section many of the containers are unopened and full. For quite a few products there may be a dozen pots, each with a label representing a different era. So the seven or eight tins of Clever Mary (“the enemy of grease”) each hears a label in a different style, and ditto with Robinson’s Barley and Robinson’s Groats, the many big tins of baking and custard powder, and hundreds of others. I’m ambushed by shelves of names that lurk in my memory from childhood, but haven’t crossed the threshold of consciousness in decades. Vim. Lifebuoy health soap. Reckitt’s Blue Bag. Creamota. Starch (for stiffening collars and shirts).

In the dispensary section there are dozens of quaint little boxes and tins containing pills of boundless, but unspecified, efficacy—Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pale People, De Witt’s, Beecham’s Patent Pills. If their numbers and variety are any guide, laxatives (including Brooklax, the British chocolate laxative) and enemas (such as the Seamless Enema and syringe, warranted not to split, polished end) seemed to play an indispensable role in keeping a younger nation on its feet.

Ingredients in some of the potions (mercury, opium, arsenic, antimony) suggest that surviving some treatments ranked among life’s greater challenges. A treadle-operated drill in the dental surgery is a monu­ment to misery of a different sort in the good ol’ days.

Many of the bottles whose contents were once of a more spirituous nature carry notes such as “Dog’s Head Nip’—two bottles bought by Ken Rowe, Rangiora, on way to Blenheim, 1936.”

The books—hundreds of them—bear the charm of a bygone, more paternalistic age. There is The Lady’s and Gentleman’s Letter Writer, a guide to correspondence on all subjects; The Young Wife’s Advice Book, a guide for mothers on health and self management; Ward and Lock’s Long Life Series.

Yet another guide, to driving around the country circa 1930, indicates, to my surprise, that routes haven’t changed much, although travel times have shrunk as the surfaces and quality of roads have improved.

Motor vehicles are absent (there is no room), but there is an ample supply of lesser machines. From the days when muscles were built by work, not gym, are chainsaws so vast that even two men must have strug­gled to wield them.

There’s a photocopier from 1958! (Rangiora must have led the world here—the rest of us were inhaling Gestetner fumes for another decade.) An 1880s device for generating smoke to pump down rabbit burrows. Rat and mouse traps. Ancient vacuum cleaners. Wooden wheel chairs. A circular knitting machine (for hats and socks). Such imagina­tion; such boundless manufacturing diversity.

All this absorbing clutteration grew from Richard’s interest in preserving a few relics to do with dairy farming a dozen or so years ago. How does a busy farmer find time to pursue this massive under­taking?

Sparks is candid: “We make time for the things that we really want to do, don’t we, but all this would have been quite impossible without my wife Dawn’s support and help. Every Saturday I go to garage sales and auctions looking for stuff, but these days I have to be pretty selective.

“People now know that I’m interested in preserving this sort of material, and often contact me when they have something of interest, or when an old building or business is being closed. Even some of the auction­eers and antique dealers in Christchurch pass items my way when they can’t sell them.

“That’s how I came by this butter extruder. It would have come from a hotel once. The barrel is filled with butter, and turning the handle squeezes out a dob of butter with nicely sculpted edges for a customer. Beautifully made. Just look at all that gearing.

“Sometimes I’m given items because nobody can remember what they were used for. This thing here took me a while to figure out. It’s a device for helping to get long riding boots off. Saves bending over, and maybe keeps mud off your sleeves.”

Perhaps this fascination with preserving the past is hereditary. Richard’s brother John restores old tractors, and has a substan­tial collection not far away.

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