“A little acorn that’s grown into a big tree,” is how 92-year-old Greytown resident France Skeet describes the Martinborough Fair, celebrating its 40th year in 2017.
Longtime member of South Wairarapa Rotary, France Skeet has been involved in every Martinborough Fair since it began in 1977. He recalls how fellow Rotarian, Bill Fetch, returned from Europe in the mid-1970s fired up about holding a fair.
“Bill had seen fairs in German towns and villages, and thought it would work well here as a fundraiser, especially in Martinborough Square,” says France.
“Every Rotary meeting he would bring it up, until we realised that there was something in it. Bill and his mother also asked craftspeople from all over the lower North Island whether they would come to Martinborough if they held a fair. Most of them agreed.”
The first Martinborough Fair opened with 35 stalls filled with crafts, produce, preserves and baking, and drew around 200 customers.
“Then word of mouth got out and it just kept on growing,” he says.
Broadly speaking, the ethos of the fair is similar to 40 years ago, but goods are “better quality and there’s a much wider range now,” says France.
With two separate fairs, each with at least 400 stalls, Rotary ploughs the funds back into community projects.
“In the early years, the market was not so regulated. Greytown orchardists would bring up a truckload of apples or nectarines, and you could buy crayfish from the back of a ute,” says France.
“The fair runs like clockwork. It’s amazing how it has evolved over the years – we used to work out the plan for the stalls by hand, now it’s done by computer,” he says.
“The biggest gamble is the weather but we have been damn lucky – it’s only been called off once.”
Just occasionally things go awry – like the time a Portaloo had to be shifted out of the way. It was picked up by four men, put in place… then someone stepped out of it.
Named after an uncle who died in the Somme in WWI, France has the energy of someone 20 years younger. His eyes twinkle with a keen sense of humour and interest in the world around him. He likes the teamwork involved in putting the fair together – something that might stem from his stint in the Navy in World War II. At aged 16, France left the family dairy farm to become a gunner on a light cruiser.
“I had a good life in the Navy – it was like a grand tour, we went all around the world. An air raid in Liverpool was my first experience of the war, but we went all over the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean and never lost a ship.”
His most traumatic experience was liberating a Japanese prisoner of war camp – something still raw in his memory.
Returning to the Wairarapa after the war, France settled back into dairy farming with his wife Bernice. Together, they raised four children, two of whom still live in the region. He now lives in Greytown, in a house full of photos and memories, surrounded by an impeccable garden.
“I’m not one for sitting down and reading books all day. I used to do a lot of hunting and deerstalking when I was younger, now I work in the garden,” he says, putting his longevity down to an active life.
“I always say that I’ve come from the horse and cart to landing the man on the moon. I’d love to come back in 200 years and see what they are doing then.”