You can’t help but feel Te Mata farmer Matt Sweetman’s understating things somewhat when he admits to “a bit of local knowledge” that helps him sell rural real estate on the side.
After all, the 72 year old’s not only been farming in the Raglan area his whole adult life but is also a third-generation descendant of pioneer district farmer Charles Sweetman, a carpenter who way back in 1885 walked into the Crown Lands Office in Auckland and purchased sight-unseen a block of scrub near Te Uku.
Charles may have wanted a life of reading and studying away from the rat-race but instead he and his wife Caroline – who as historian R T Vernon describes it “was to adapt to the pioneer life as her husband never did” – sowed the seeds of quite a family farming dynasty here.
The Chronicle caught up with Matt at his 550-acre drystock farm, the entrance to which is on a tricky blind corner about a kilometre down Ruapuke Rd. It has expansive views from gently rolling hills all the way out to the Te Uku wind turbines and beyond.
Matt’s equally well known other half – Pauline, a senior teacher and assistant principal at Raglan Area School where she herself was once a student – was away in Wellington, but his 77-year-old brother Tim happened to be visiting from rural Tamahere where he’s in “semi retirement”.
On the day the Chronicle visited Matt had been busy around the farm feeding out silage that he hadn’t planned on using until midyear.
He and Pauline, who met at a party in Raglan and wed in 1973, have been in their current farmhouse since 2001; previously they were “up the road” – slightly closer to Ruapuke – on a farm in the Mt Karioi foothills.
Matt said that farm, along with other family land in the vicinity, was now in the hands of fourth-generation Hardy Sweetman, the son of Matt and Tim’s elder brother Phillip.
Phillip and his wife Joyce – who also had three other children including Lara, a local teacher, and Lee who has recently returned to Raglan – retired some years ago to a water’s-edge property in Nihinihi Ave, Raglan West, and he died there late last year.
Hardy’s named after his grandfather, who with his wife Jean had six children in all: besides Phillip, Tim and Matt they also had daughters Penny, Juliet and Nina. The original Hardy was determined to settle his three boys on farms – and succeeded.
While much of the Sweetman family’s more recent history centres on the Te Mata and Ruapuke districts, Te Uku loomed large in earlier decades.
Matt said the original Sweetman property was “up in the hills” behind Te Uku. “There’s a Sweetman Rd still up there,” he says. “On maps, not signposts.”
Tim and Matt did not know their pioneering grandfather as he died in 1935 – before they were born – but heard he was a hard man. They pointed to how he allowed Hardy, his sixth child, to remain at school only until Standard 6. After that, he worked on the farm and around the district.
In contrast, Tim and Matt recall a more idyllic upbringing at ‘Riverside’, a property just east of the Waingaro turnoff where their father built their home about 1930. Besides having swimming spots “all around”, they’d go waterskiing in the harbour from Waingaro Landing and whitebaiting only a short walk away down Waingaro Rd.
They recalled that an aunt worked at the nearby Te Uku Post Office, where the postmaster was Ernie Moon, a “cripple” who was a colourful character about the district. Ernie, they said, was also a great mate of their dad, Hardy, who took him away on holidays back in the 1930s.
The three sons went to Te Uku School, then to New Plymouth High as boarders.They all played rugby but Matt insisted Tim was “the best” (Tim himself recalled playing for a championship-winning Frankton team).
Tim revealed he now lived on a 10-acre lifestyle block at Tamahere with his daughter Genaya and son-in-law Jason Macklow, one of the two ‘Good George’ founders. They use the grain from the Frankton-based brewery to supplement cattle feed on their lifestyle block.
Having been around Raglan most of his life,Tim confessed he became “a bit nostalgic” on his occasional visits back to see the family.
Matt and Pauline have a son and daughter, but Matt said neither were interested in farming. He himself is still happily farming – and enjoying “helping people out” through his part-time work for L J Hooker, which he’s done for many years now – but conceded he “can’t stay here (on the farm) forever”.
And what did the brothers think of how Raglan had developed?
“I liked it better 30 years ago when we knew everybody,” said Matt. “It’s gone from a sleepy little town to tourist destination, almost too popular for old settlers (like us).”
Tim – more diplomatically – said “it was a backwater for such a long time”.
Matt: “And now (downtown) it’s a street full of strangers.”