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Wowzers: The intriguing history of soft drinks in Wairarapa

Greytown’s Gary Hall, author of Wairarapa Wowzers – a history of the region’s at-times scandalous soda industry. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

A new history book pops the cap on rise and fall – and multiple scandals – of Wairarapa’s soft-drink manufacturing industry. Erin Kavanagh-Hall reports.

Huge profits, underhanded business practices and suspected black market dealings, high-profile court cases, and an illicit brewery masquerading as an innocent carbonated water plant: Wairarapa’s once-thriving soda industry had all the drama and intrigue of an episode of Boardwalk Empire.

The meteoric rise, successive “skulduggery”, and eventual demise of the region’s top soft drink producers is captured in Wairarapa Wowzers – a new book by Greytown writer and long-time antiques collector Gary Hall.

Wairarapa Wowzers, Hall’s first self-published project, delves into New Zealand’s soda-making boom – which, for close to a century, saw manufacturers spring up in almost every town of 500 or more people.

From the 1860s to the mid-20th century, Wairarapa was no exception, with each major town – from Martinborough to Pahiatua – housing at least one aerated drink factory.

The Dixon Brothers factory on Chapel St in Masterton – where the Departmental Building is now. PHOTOS/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE

Some were phenomenally successful, producing almost 10,000 units on a daily basis. Others less so, “disappearing off the map” after being squeezed out of the market, or falling foul of the law and public opinion – and some suspicious fires.

Hall was partly inspired to research and write Wairarapa Wowzers by his life-long love of vintage soda bottles – and his extensive collection of locally-branded receptacles, found discarded on farm land, behind hedges and under old houses.

Having previously helped a friend with research for a book on New Zealand soft drink manufacturers, Hall decided to dig deeper into the Wairarapa scene – spending the 2020 lockdown researching the sales figures, product evolution and colourful characters behind some of the heavy hitters.

He hoped Wairarapa Wowzers would “help spark an interest” in a lesser known – but no less engrossing – aspect of local history.

“It’s a portrait of rural New Zealand – and an insight into an industry that’s now practically defunct, but was once a significant employer in Wairarapa,” he said.

“Plus, it’s fascinating stuff, especially with all the skulduggery going on.

“Several factories went bankrupt. A few ended up burning down – some people suspected something to do with the insurance. One factory owner had to make a public apology for illegal behaviour.

“It’s an interesting snapshot into a part of Wairarapa a lot of people won’t be aware of.”

Soft drink production in New Zealand began in earnest in the 1840s and gained particular popularity in the early 20th century – with 164 factories established around the country by 1918.

Wairarapa boasted some of the top performing manufacturers, among them the Fuller Company in Greytown and Masterton’s Dixon Brothers and WACO – filling, at their peak, close to 650 dozen bottles per day.

Though profits were high, so were recorded injuries on the factory floor – the result of exploding glass from gas pressure during the carbonation process.

“Some people would wear fencing masks and gloves to work. But there was no real compulsion to wear protective gear, and there was no such thing as ACC,” Hall said.

“A few people got quite badly injured.”

Also causing a headache for manufacturers were the bottles themselves. The original stone receptacles were outlawed by health and safety legislation as they were difficult to clean, and their glass equivalents – introduced in the 1870s – were expensive to reproduce.

Factories relied on consumers to clean and return the glass bottles after use: But this proved challenging, with children smashing the bottles to retrieve the marble [used to seal the carbonation inside], and people using them for clandestine home brewing, or illegal trout fishing.

“They’d place bottles filled with calcium carbonate in the rivers, which would explode and kill the fish,” Hall said.

“It was a major problem. People wanted fizzy drinks, but there’d be no bottles to store them in.

“Factories would advertise in the paper for people to bring their bottles back. At one point, anyone destroying bottles would be charged a £2 fine.

“Eventually, they introduced a deposit system, where people would get cash for returning bottles. But I strongly suspect there was a bit of a black market — people bringing bottles over the hill, and selling them for a premium.”

In the absence of containers, some factories resorted to less-than-ethical tactics.

George Vincent, owner of Martinborough’s soft drink factory, with his delivery truck, circa 1918.

All glass bottles were branded with the manufacturer’s name – though that didn’t stop some businesses using a competitor’s bottles, covering them with their own labels.

Eventually, Joseph Dixon of Masterton took Pahiatua factory owner F Holder to court for his thievery of Dixon Brothers’ property, and Holder had to make an apology, printed in the newspaper.

“I guess they thought the odds of them being caught weren’t high. Plenty of others got away with it.”

The Dixon brothers would later court controversy themselves after clashing with a beekeeper – who discovered their honey developed a “raspberry after-taste”, thanks to their bees feasting on the Dixons’ raspberry syrup.

In Pahiatua, factory owner Alex White, a usually “reputable gentleman”, found himself in literal hot water, after he was discovered washing bottles at 1am during a severe water shortage.

More scandal followed in 1915, when wealthy Wellington wine and spirits merchant Harold Brown arrived in Carterton, and bought the soda factory.

At the height of the prohibition era, Brown used the factory as a front for what became a lucrative beer brewing and bottling operation – which continued until 1919 when the law caught up with him.

“I don’t think he made a lot of soft drinks!” Hall said.

“He kept it going for a while – clearly, the profits outweighed the risks. In the end, he was fined £50, which was a lot of money back then.”

Hall said Wairarapa Wowzers was made possible with a treasure trove of information from Papers Past, the Wairarapa Archive, and the soda bottle enthusiast community – who were particularly helpful with sourcing photos.

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