The story of Gilchrist’s Store is one of endurance, community and surviving against the odds.
For nearly 125 years, the store has been a cornerstone in Oturehua — and the wider Maniototo — servicing communities and providing a central hub for rural folks.
It has survived World Wars 1 and 2, the Great Depression and witnessed the beckoning — and closure — of railway in the Maniototo.
Twice the community have stepped in to save it, rallying cries ringing through the Ida Valley as people dug deep to rescue their beloved general store.
Based on account records, it is believed to be New Zealand’s longest continuously operating general store.
Now the store has been immortalised in a new book detailing its history, written by author Paula Wagemaker, local historian Judy Beck and store business owner John Hellier.
Thomas Gilchrist and Sons Limited of the Maniototo looks not only at the store and its ups and downs — at its peak the business included groceries and haberdashery, bakery, farm store supplies, accommodation and fuel pumps and employed 12 people — but also the wider social fabric of the communities and people that have called the Maniototo home.
“What we were trying to do was not only trace the history and the story of the families and the story of the community, but also to give a sense of the social history of a general store,” senior author Ms Wagemaker said.
The store was started by Thomas Gilchrist in 1902 and was passed on to four generations until 1989 when it was sold.
Selling was not easy — a buyer was found but they only wanted to buy part of the business package.
Faced with closure, the community stepped in and raised about $46,000 — the equivalent of more than $100,000 today — to buy the building and all its memorabilia, allowing the Gilchrist’s to retire with dignity.
The store was put in to a trust and new business owners Grant and Mary Rolston continued to provide for customers in the same manner as the Gilchrist’s until 1995.
Facing closure again, the community stepped in to save the store.
In 2014 Southland farmers John and Helen Hellier were looking for a change and took hold of the opportunity to take on the business at the store.
They are now the longest serving owners of the business aside from the Gilchrist family.
“It’s outlived the railway. The first stores were here just as the railway was beckoning — it seen it coming and seen it go,” Mr Hellier said.
As well as continuing to serve the surrounding community, Gilchrist’s Store is a popular stop for cyclists on the Otago Central Rail Trail, with customers regularly asking about its history and the memorabilia on display.
After years of answering continuous questions a book on the store was suggested.
“I suppose there is a story in all of us — it felt like a good idea,” Mr Hellier said.
And Gilchrist’s Store has many tales to tell.
Originally a small project was envisioned, but the group soon realised there was so much to tell.
“Traditionally this store was built on the back of those that saved it … the book tells the story of the saving of it twice.”
The result is 328 pages of history, a story of defying the odds and the importance of community.
The book is set to be launched at the Oturehua Hall on September 3 with a community celebration.