Fifty years ago today, the North Otago Farmers Co-operative department store went up in flames. The events of November 15, 1969 live on the the memory of thousands of Oamaru residents. Oamaru Mail reporter Gus Patterson talks to some of those who remember dramatic fire which reshaped central Oamaru.
When Diana McKay finished a busy Saturday morning at her hairdressing salon in the North Otago Farmers Co-operative, she thought the stressful part of her day was over.
It was November 15, 1969 and Mrs McKay had popped home for her lunchbreak.
Then, she received a call from a friend who told her the department store was on fire.
When she arrived back to her salon, Salon DeLuxe, the building, where Countdown supermarket is today, was completely ablaze.
“[My father and I] shot into town and we were stopped at the end of the trees where Warehouse Stationary is. We couldn’t drive any further,” Mrs McKay said.
“So we ran down the street to try and get into my salon but the police wouldn’t let me in.”
While most other shops were closed on Saturdays, Mrs McKay opened her salon and was often busy doing hair for weddings.
She remembers seeing staff putting up a Christmas tree and lights in a window display on the day of the fire.
“That’s where the fire started,” she said.
Mrs McKay lost everything in the blaze.
“It was devastating for me really. I lost everything.
“I didn’t have a pair of scissors or a comb, but that Saturday evening a colleague of mine, Billie Mudge, rang and said ‘Diana I want you to use my salon on Monday morning’ – so really I wasn’t out of business.”
A few weeks later she was back in her own salon, this time in the Stringer & Co building, before moving again to the rebuilt North Otago Farmers building once it was completed.
The Oamaru Mail published a special edition in the evening of November 15, 1969.
It detailed how the fire, which started shortly after 1pm, gutted the building within half an hour.
“The fire was so intense that the Oamaru Volunteer Fire Brigade could do little but try and contain it as flames rose hundreds of feet into the air and were accompanied by explosions caused by cylinders, petrol and paint,” the Oamaru Mail reads.
The roof of the building caved in at 1.13pm.
At 2pm, Mrs McKay’s salon “erupted into a roar of shattering glass and exploding tins of hairspray”, the Oamaru Mail reported.
“Because my salon was full of chemical stuff. In those days we had massive-sized hairspray cans,” Mrs McKay said.
“They all exploded and they were like bombs landing on the main street.”
Smoke was visible from as far north as Waimate, and a large crowd gathered on the street to grab a glimpse of the action.
Firefighters worked to contain the blaze from spreading to the nearby Otago Motors Ltd and hundreds of people formed a human chain to shift equipment and goods before the fire consumed them.
A larger explosion was avoided when gelignite, blasting powder and ammunition was removed from the back of the building, shortly before flames devoured the section, the Oamaru Mail said.
It was estimated at the time that damage cost about $500,000.
Fortunately, no-one was hurt in the Saturday blaze. During the week, the store was staffed by 79 people.
Oamaru real estate agent Tony Spivey jun, whose father, the late Tony Spivey sen, was the manager of the store, was only five years old at the time of the fire, but said he remembered a lot about the day.
“It was extreme. The whole town seemed to be there from what I recall,” Mr Spivey said.
“We were 15-deep, everybody standing at a distance watching it.
“The fire-fighting division was a little bit different to what they have these days, but they did a pretty good job from what I recall.”
He estimated about 3000 people came to see the inferno, and said the cordons “were self-imposed”.
“It was a major thing because obviously that was a very important building. North Otago Farmers was a major company in the town at that time.
“It was a different set-up from that time on.”
Dawn Murphy, whose family owned the Excella Milk Bar across the road from North Otago Farmers, recalled being called in to work by her father on November 15, 1969.
“We were run off our feet with onlookers wanting ice-creams and drinks,” Mrs Murphy said.
“It was a hot day, and there was a huge crowd that came to look at the fire.”
After the street was closed, the milk bar stayed open to provide refreshments for the firefighters and police officers.
It was a day of great trauma and sadness for many of those who worked at the department store.
Demolition started on the Farmers building the day after the fire, and two years later, on October 27, 1971, the replacement building was opened. It is now home to the Countdown supermarket.