Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

19 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 27. Mitchell’s Cottage, Fruitlands, Central Otago

I wrote and illustrated ‘New Zealand House and Cottage’. It was published in 1997. It’s a snapshot of some historic New Zealand homes - both grand and modest - as they were preserved at the end of the 20th century. I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.

Central Otago is one big builder’s yard, a colossal litter of a remarkable construction material from which every conceivable type of building has been erected since European immigrants moved across the face of the land.

It’s that fine-grained, metamorphic rock called schist, in whose lasagne-layers wink and sparkle promises of Central Otago’s mineral wealth. It’s a stone that will split but not break across its grain, wonderfully suitable, in a variety of lengths and thicknesses, for horizontally-raised cottage walls, door and window lintels, quoins, chimney breasts and stacks, and even the odd roof, it makes walls and fence posts, bridges and cattle troughs, and even in its unquarried state it provided overhangs and cave-like niches for itinerant gold seekers stranded in winter’s fury. Artistically it’s a gemstone, providing texture and form to tempt the pen, and offering to the palette the rich ochres, browns and greys of the lichened landscape from which it springs
Completed in 1904, Mitchells’ Cottage at Fruitlands, above the winding highway from Alexandra to Roxburgh, is an outstanding example of the drystone mason’s craft. It was built with painstaking skill, each stone carefully considered and cut so precisely that no mortar was used or needed. It was made by men who knew of no other way to work - no short cuts, no shoddiness - simply the best.

From the Shetland Islands by way of the Australian goldfields Andrew Mitchell arrived in New Zealand in 1866, followed by his brother John in 1872. They worked around the Otago goldfields until, in the 1880s, Andrew discovered a quartz reef on the hills of the Old Man Range above the Clutha Valley. Unlike most gold mining ventures it prospered over a long period and John and Andrew, using skills they’d learned from their father, started to build the cottage below the mine. What is now the foundation was quarried for the building’s schist and as they worked meticulously they yet found time to carve, in situ, a solid sundial platform from rock in the garden.

John and his wife Jessie brought up ten children in Mitchells’ Cottage (while Andrew lived nearby, alternating between a small stone cottage close to the mine shaft and a smaller iron hut next to John and Jessies’) and although the mine was sold in 1890 and John died in 1922, the cottage stayed in Jessie’s ownership until 1929. It is now in the care of the Department of Conservation.

Schist stone fenceposts are a common sight in Central Otago; this one is in the garden of Mitchells’ Cottage.


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By Don Donovan