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The Deer Cullers’ Mailbox

The old board-and-batten mailbox stood beside the Lewis Pass Highway for over 50 years helping to provide government-employed shooters of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) – then later, the New Zealand Forest Service hunters – a link with family and the wider world.

I cannot ever recall seeing others like this example, and it’s probably a safe bet that it’s the last remaining one. It outlasted the professional shooters and stood unused and staunch long after they moved on. Built roughly to the same dimensions of a long drop toilet, this survivor has pretty much retained its original Internal Affairs livery and labelling.

Throughout it’s working life, the mailbox was situated on the southern side of the road, adjacent to the early established Public Works Depot known today as Engineers Camp, which was about four miles from the government shooters’ headquarters – in those days referred to as Boyle Base.

In the Beginning

The deer-reduction campaign commenced in this area in 1932, five years prior to the opening of the road linking Canterbury and Westland. During those times, communication and contact with shooters operating in the field was invariably a difficult and delayed mission, which was never helped by the geographical isolation or the unpredictable weather.

Transmitting of information, as well as travel throughout the region, improved somewhat following the Second World War when the early 1950s saw the New Zealand Railways Road Services (NZRRS) buses carrying passengers, goods and mail on a regular schedule over the Lewis Pass – eventually running from Christchurch to the West Coast three times a week.

Consequentially, a Post and Telegraph Office was established at the Works Depot in the private residence of Guy and Lavinia Paterson. Mrs Paterson had, for some years, operated a tearooms and refreshment stop at the camp, and the telephone they manned there was both the end of a party line and the terminus for telephone contact.

A Better Working Environment

The DIA recognised the loneliness experienced by their employees and appointed ‘Skipper’ George Yerex, who was already in charge of deer control, to start upgrading the problematic aspect of contact and mail delivery in order to create a better working environment.

The telephone and postal service – conducted from the Works Depot, which was situated midway through Lewis Pass just short of the Doubtful River Valley – was considered the most logical junction for the purpose of mail and urgent telephone contact for the departmental shooters.

Before long, the NZRRS bus was delivering a locked canvas bag marked “Private” to the Post Office tri-weekly where it was sorted for onward distribution to the handful of roadmen and small band of cullers. The hunters’ mail, goods, home baking and innumerable other items which arrived for them were then deposited in the deer cullers’ mailbox to await retrieval by a passing government shooter or the Boyle Base field officer, who often rode by on his horse leading a pack team. The parcels and eagerly awaited letters were transported in all weathers to the base or remote camps in the Boyle, Waiau, Hope and Doubtful River valleys for distribution.

Should the men require mail to be sent home or to another destination, then the field officer would simply reverse the process and deliver it to the postmistress on his journey out. At the Post and Telegraph Office, it was stamped and placed in the bag ready to be uplifted and returned to Christchurch.

What’s in the Box?

It appears that while all manner of goods, perishables and even a tipple likely found their way to the most remote locations around the pass, it was baking, chocolate and tobacco which were the most popular items regularly placed in the mailbox.

I recall a shooter, Gordon Roberts, receiving one of the first transistor radios I ever saw on a day when the field officer, Keith Purdon, riding Blue, handed him a red-inked package labelled ‘Fragile’; it contained a tiny purple Zenith-brand radio, which had been brought in from the USA. Gordon soon discovered the possibilities of it bringing the wider world into the wilds; unfortunately, his hopes and plans were doomed to failure due to the geography of the area.

The odd haunch of venison was also often hung from the shelves of the mailbox by shooters to await prearranged collection by either family or friends.

Long before our current climate of technology, the now aged wooden mailbox served a most useful and innovative purpose during a time when honesty prevailed, as for most of its tenure, the box was seldom locked. The well-being of all those early ‘hired guns’ benefitted from the accessibility of the mail and also the ability to receive and make urgent telephone calls from Telephone No. 12W Lewis Pass.

Final Days

Early in 2000, the box was finally removed to become a roadworker’s chook house but was later abandoned and dumped in a shingle pit.

Sometime later, it was retrieved by the two partners of Motor Cycle Exhausts, a business currently situated at Engineers Camp in the Lewis Pass, who converted it into a convenient toolshed, so it’s security and sheltering virtues were once again appreciated.

Eventually, the box’s historic connection with early deer cullers in the Lewis Pass was pointed out to the partners who were more than happy to relinquish it for posterity.

Today, the mailbox reclines in a secure environment and has become a treasured item within a private collection of early deer shooting memorabilia.

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