Aerial view of the buildings the make up the Hayes Engineering workshop complex

An introduction to Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead

Ernest Hayes was the original Kiwi innovator, backyard boffin and all-round No 8 wire Einstein. A millwright by trade, he had to re-invent himself when the railway came to Central Otago and almost overnight killed off demand for locally-produced flour. At his Oturehua farm, he uncorked his creative genius and set about devising and manufacturing a series of brilliantly handy agricultural tools, from rabbit bait cutters to wind turbines to wire strainers. The latter, a patented implement for applying tension to wire farm fences, is still in production and can be seen in use on farms the length of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Red windmill against blue sky.

Photo: Dave Comer

Hayes found a ready market. By 1895 when he established his enterprise, the landscape of farming in this country had just shifted as the Liberal Government enacted laws to break up the big estates and create multiple smaller farms. Very often these were one-man bands, and these time-poor farmers were eager to get their hands on anything that promised to make life easier. Assisted by an energetic sales force of one in the form of Ernest’s wife Hannah, who cycled great distances from farm to farm marketing their wares and taking orders, Hayes’s fortunes rose, and the little ad hoc workshop soon evolved into a fully-fledged engineering works.

What will strike you first when you visit is the quiet setting. The Hayes complex, which includes stables and a dairy in addition to the works and homestead, is set well back from the Ida Valley-Omakau Rd, backdropped by low hills. As hubs of industry go, it’s very pastoral. Rail-trailers, who in recent years have adopted the site as a prime stop on the multi-day cycling route, often describe it as an oasis.

Walk into the factory, however, and the tone shifts. When your eyes have adjusted to the dim light, you’ll start to discern the inner workings of the Hayes’ empire. Benches. Lathes. An overhead appartus of shafts, belts and pulleys. A rough forge. Drawers and boxes and further drawers crammed with tools. At first glance it may seem a jumble of items, but on further inspection you’ll see the system of production by which Ernest and the works staff machined his bright ideas into practical products. A lot of the fun lies in puzzling out how it all went together.   

Wander over to the 1920s mudbrick homestead, where Ernest and Hannah retired after most of their nine children were grown. Like the factory, it was powered by electricity generated by a water-driven Pelton wheel, and is a showcase of Ernest’s restless ingenuity. He devised a way to pipe radio into the back bedrooms, adding a pioneering in-home sound system to other before-their-time home comforts such as an overhead shower and a flush toilet.    

You can take a self-guided tour of the site, but it’s also possible to book a guided tour in advance. If your schedule’s flexible, time your visit for one of the operational open days when Ernest’s works are reanimated in all their whirring, clanking glory. The complex has an inhouse café that serves a more than decent cuppa, and that famous southern delicacy, cheese rolls!

Also of interest in the neighbourhood is the wonderful Gilchrist & Sons General Store, servicing Oturehua since 1902. Visualise an old-time wooden counter and floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with memorabilia and contemporary goods. If you fancy a short stroll, Oturehuvians recently opened a 2.5 kilometre walkway that follows the Ida Burn stream and loops the village. Then drive 20 minutes to the old mining town of St Bathans with its haunted Vulcan Hotel, historic hall, gold office, former post office and school ruins, and otherwordly Blue Lake.

Dark shed with anvil in a pool of light.

Photo: Dave Comer