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Historic moment . George and Carol Berry were presented with honorary life membership of Heritage New Zealand for their contribution in North Otago at Totara Estate last week. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

Without George and Carol Berry, Oamaru’s heritage may never have been preserved. The couple, who have dedicated the past 40 years to heritage projects, were last week recognised with Heritage New Zealand honorary life membership. Oamaru Mail reporter Kayla Hodge finds out what drives their passion.

It all began with Totara Estate.

The property George and Carol Berry have called home since 1972 started a lifelong passion for protecting and restoring historic buildings in North Otago.

Their dedication led to them being awarded Heritage New Zealand honorary life membership at their beloved estate last week.

The couple said they were humbled, surprised and deeply touched to receive the accolade.

“It’s almost a little embarrassing,” Mr Berry said.

“So many other people work so hard – it’s very humbling.”

Their love for heritage was a “happy accident” that happened when the homestead they bought on the estate came with historic buildings that were “largely forgotten”.

It became their project to restore them and, with the help of former MP Allan Dick, they transferred ownership of the buildings and adjacent land to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, which agreed to manage the restoration of the site into a farming and meat industry museum.

In 1982, the museum opening and centennial of the first shipment of frozen meat to Britain was attended by the governor-general, prime minister and diplomatic and industry leaders and was an “incredibly special” moment, Mr Berry said.

They were fierce advocates in setting up the trust’s North Otago branch committee, and its merge into the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust.

“There was a real heritage movement … the committee was extraordinarily successful,” he said.

As old Victorian fireplaces were removed from Tyne St buildings, Mr Berry felt it was “the beginning of the end” and the Victorian precinct needed to be protected.

The committee helped ensure just that and Mrs Berry said the buildings would “live on for decades” and it had become “a bit more fashionable” to marvel at their beauty.

Their work did not stop there, and soon Mrs Berry was helping to reinstate Janet Frame House, the New Zealand author’s former home.

She was on the Janet Frame Eden Street Trust, and although it was was a significant task in the early 2000s, it was one she remembered fondly.

“It was just wonderful.

“I remember two priests from England walking into the place and bursting into tears – it was humbling.”

Then, for much of the past decade, she pushed to restore Oamaru’s historic Phoenix Mill, and in doing so raised $200,000 for the project.

“We found people were really interested in it – tradesmen gave hundreds of hours of labour for nothing,” she said.

It had become somewhat of a tourist attraction since its rejuvenation in 2018, and something she was incredibly proud of.

Protecting North Otago’s history for future generations was a driving factor in the couple’s involvement.

Celebration . . . George and Carol Berry were awarded Heritage New Zealand life membership at a special event at Totara Estate last week. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

“It’s knowing where you come from, to know where you are going,” she said.

“It’s the respect for the ancestry.”

Mr Berry said learning the history provided a sense of identity, and it would have been “tragic if history wasn’t preserved”.

Heritage New Zealand board chairwoman Marion Hobbs said Mr and Mrs Berry had ensured “the joys of North Otago are there for us, and for our grandchildren, forever”. She thanked them for their contribution.

Chief executive Andrew Coleman said Heritage New Zealand wanted the story of Totara Estate included in the New Zealand school curriculum, and due to Mr and Mrs Berry, it could become a reality.

“We’ve been allowed to do that because of the work that you’ve done, and we are truly blessed by that,” Mr Coleman said.

There have been numerous projects, functions, late nights and hard work, but there would always be one holding a special place in the couple’s hearts.

“Totara Estate – because it nearly vanished,” Mrs Berry said.

“It’s an icon of national importance, with social and economic importance, with the history of the frozen meat sale – it was a social revolution.”