Because I am a historian, people think I spend all my time reading books or poring over documents. I do spend a lot of time that way, but there are things you can learn only by encountering and touching the physical objects of history. A tool, a quilt, a building can teach you things that no writer or lecturer could.
Part of my job is to teach young historians how to discover the past. One of thing I emphasize to them is the importance of material evidence—they need to learn to read objects. What if the documents in the archives tell you one thing, but the material evidence on the ground says something else? In that case, I say, go with the material evidence. Material evidence trumps verbal evidence.
So, a couple years ago we were having a lovely talk with Madge and Max Snow (a fine old gentleman since passed away, bless his soul), retired proprietors of one of the great sheep stations of New Zealand, Morven Hills. Its grand woolshed is said to be the largest in the country. Some point in the history of the station came up, and Madge said, “I’ll just look that up.” Then she brought out three notebooks filled with original documents dating from the 1860s to the 1910s. 562 pages, to be exact—we know because we photographed every page with a digital camera for later study.
Farms and stations in New Zealand long conducted their business through what were known as stock and station agencies. A stock and station agency supplied inputs (wire, fertilizer, and so on), marketed produce (wool, mainly), and extended credit for operating expenses. When the agency that dealt with Morven Hills finally sold out, its representative, instructed to shred all the old records, could not bear to destroy the records of historic Morven Hills. So he gave them to Madge and Max. And Madge showed them to us.
These are immensely valuable records for what they reveal of business operations (statements of assets, land leases, and so on) and of everyday life (inventories of household furniture, for instance). Buried among the records, though, we seized upon one document with promise of things material: “Specification of Works for the Erection of a Woolshed,” 1883. An architect in Dunedin, the major city of the province, had drawn up eight pages of specs for a contractor to build this building where sheep would be shorn and wool stored. We wondered, could this building have survived? Could we still find it?
And we did, on the grounds of Bendigo Station, which once was an outstation of Morven Hills. Knowing the proprietress, Heather Perriam, we asked her if the 1883 woolshed was still there. She replied, “No, well, yes, but it’s all changed around.”
Yes, clearly, the iron-roofed building now standing at Bendigo bears little external resemblance to the specifications in the document, but let’s go inside. There remain some key elements of the old shed-most visibly, the hardwood batten flooring in the holding pens, and under that, original joists and pilings. “2″ x1″ hardwood battens full cut placed 5/8″ apart,” the specs say, “and securely nailed to the joists,” the joists to be “6″x2″ Red pine spaced not more than 20″ from centre to centre.” They are, in fact, spaced 18″.
If you’re an Internet user, you can see photos of Morven Hills and the Bendigo woolshed here – http://community.webshots.com/user/BACKBENCHER