For almost 60 years, Carol Wells has been mowing the lawns at the picturesque 152-year-old East Takaka Church and Cemetery in the Nelson Tasman region.
She was born, bred and worked on the East Takaka family farm where she still lives, and has an easy way to describe its location.
“I’m two doors down from the cemetery.”
Carol (74) is a descendent of the first European to settle in Golden Bay and alongside other established families, she has been very involved in local life. She started cutting the church grass when she was 15 and motor mowers were introduced. Fellow local Sue Baigent also put her hand to the task.
“We actually wrecked a few mowers there, I think,” Carol confesses.
One day three men came to help and she laughs as she recalls that none of them knew how to start the machines, nor how to fold them up to store them. The mowers folded away just like prams, she says.
These particular lawns take more time and muscle than most home ones.
There’d be a few quarter-acre sections in it.”
Using an ordinary motor mower, the job used to take four people three to four hours. Sue stopped cutting the grass when Carol’s uncle bought a ride-on. Now, with friend Terry Brooby steering the ride-on and with Carol using the mower, it takes two hours.
“That is flat stick, actually – not mucking around.”
Nowadays Carol uses a Husqvarna self-propelled push mower.
“I bought myself a posh mower.”
The church and cemetery lawns need done fortnightly during the growing season and require consistency, so if she’s going away she must consider when the next mow is due. Winter brings a brief respite.
“We have a wee spell between July and the beginning of September.”
They work closely with the local hall. “We mow their lawns too.”
The historic church no longer holds weekly services, however hosts special occasions such as baptisms, weddings, funerals and country gospel sessions.
Carol finds the building and surrounds peaceful. Her great-grandmother, four grandparents, parents, husband and brother are all buried in the cemetery and she goes up there some evenings. The tūī are often singing.
“It’s really a lovely little spot.”
A larger story
The lawn mowing is part of a larger story which combines local history, strong family connections, commitment and an overgrown graveyard’s transformation.
Under the steady, hard-working hand of the East Takaka Church Trust, the Heritage New Zealand Category 1-listed wooden church has been painted and re-roofed.
A local woman, Lou Spitall, left money to the trust and Carol says this has secured the building and cemetery’s welfare.
Hidden, overgrown graves have been located, cleared and cleaned, and stonemasons removed, repaired and returned historic headstones. Carol regularly sprays headstones to keep them clean and like her Dad before her, takes bookings for grave plots. About six years ago, the trust installed 115 plaques for unmarked graves.
Over time, the grounds have been significantly tidied and there’s now much more lawn to mow.
“That’s now all just a lovely lawn.”
The cemetery’s complete restoration should make it easier for future generations to maintain.
“We tried to futurise it, my daughter puts it that way.”
Years ago, Carol remembers waiting for her grandmother to pick her up in an old Rugby car. She helped her granny clean the church one Saturday a month and Carol hasn’t stopped yet.
The pit-sawn timber building still has its original pews. One day someone shifted them for a wedding and Carol needed to lug them back into place. That was when she discovered that each pew had a specific home.
It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle!”
She now asks people who get married there to refrain from shifting the pews if they can.
Carol’s aunty, Beryl Rogers, wrote a history of the church and cemetery and Carol believes it is important to preserve such sites around the nation.
“There’s some lovely cemeteries around if you can find them.”
The East Takaka spot receives lots of visitors who are often researching their family trees.
One recent traveller passing by was Dunedin resident Russell Lippert, who describes Carol as an amazing woman who is “real salt of the earth – just a wonderful, wonderful back country local”.
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