Think about the life and times of Andrew Mitchell
Few luxuries - few enough creature comforts, let alone luxuries. Ten kids - raised, fed and educated in a cottage small enough to fit into many modern living rooms. No electricity. No running water, radio, or television, and hardly any printed material. At least two days to get to Dunedin.
A Shetland Islander, Andrew arrived in Central Otago via the Victorian goldfields about 120 years ago, having also spent some time mining in the Wakatipu. Following his cousins and brother to Tuapeka, he stopped and did some prospecting at Bald Hill, found gold, and stayed to mine.
Tens of thousands of people followed similar paths to this district in the sixty years from 1840, lured by the romance of successive gold rushes and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig their way out of hardship and penury.
What was different about Andrew Mitchell was his remarkable skill with stone.
We know he had a unique gift, because the drystone cottage at Bald Hill (now Fruitlands), that he took almost 20 years to build, still stands in almost perfect condition.
Cared for by DOC, part of the Otago Goldfields Park, Mitchell's Cottage is a work of art, meticulously constructed, built by a man who clearly valued high craftsmanship.
Andrew Mitchell's mining business was successful. With his brother John and his cousins George and James White, he operated the Whites Reef Gold Mining Company, with up to 20 men on the payroll - my great grandfather probably among them. Later, Andrew and John sluiced gold from Bald Hill Flat, also making good money. He could have paid someone to build a house.
The Mitchell's world was pretty unsettled. People made and lost fortunes. Land was washed away, changed for ever, in the search for gold. Miners and their families came and went. It was a lawless world of insecurity and uncertainty.
I think Andrew Mitchell spent 20 years building his cottage, stone by hand-carried stone - while his increasingly large family lived in a tin shack nearby - as both a personal monument and a statement.
He was a Scotsman, so it probably went unsaid, but I like to think that he knew his cottage would live on long after he was dead. It wasn't built only for his family. It was an anchor in an uncertain world, an act of faith, built to preserve and pass on the unique skill of a master craftsman.
Thursday, November 19, 1998
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