How Greytown icons Mr and Mrs Blackwell got bitten by the small-town bug
A couple so in love with their picturesque village can’t help but come up with ideas to make it even better.
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: Tessa Chrisp
Pete Buttigieg, United States presidential hopeful and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, may not have convinced enough Americans to win the presidency in 2020. Still, he won over a couple from Greytown on the importance of thriving small towns.
In 2018, Millie and Adam Blackwell listened to an audiobook of Mayor Pete’s autobiography, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future, while on a long road trip in the United States — their home and place of work for six months each year.
The pre-pandemic pattern of their lives was a working summer based in St Helena, a town of 5000 in California’s Napa Valley (he with clients of his advertising agency, Stun, and she with clients of her software company, Showcase Workshop), followed by another summer in the 3000-resident town of Greytown in South Wairarapa. It was a pleasant existence these self-styled “WairaNapans” had in the good old days.
Their life in the slow lane of a small town had come about by accident rather than design when they fell in love with a large villa on a leafy backstreet in Greytown during a Sunday drive and thought it would make a perfect weekender. The combination of a Monday-Friday life in Wellington’s inner-city Tory Street seemed to dovetail perfectly with weekends in Greytown.
On weekdays they lived two blocks from their office and across the road from the grocery and food emporium, Moore Wilsons. What could be better? Within a few years, the answer to that became: Not to leave Greytown at all.
Mr & Mrs Blackwell, as they had begun to style themselves in the manner of old-fashioned townsfolk, had increasing difficulty with the return commute over the Remutakas. By 2016, they’d given up trying, and what has happened since has surprised them almost as much as it has Greytown locals.
“We have both discovered, individually and as a couple, how much satisfaction there is in thinking about our town and the region, rather than just thinking about our own businesses,” says Adam. His successful career in advertising means he has spent a great deal of time thinking about other people’s businesses but generally for a fee. Millie thinks their talk of a greater good might sound a bit on the grand side, but it is what drives them these days.
“This is exactly what we think about and talk about all the time. How can we help more people know how awesome our region is? How can we contribute to it with our businesses as well as marketing initiatives?”
Mayor Pete’s drive to restore his community in South Bend had started them thinking about their own small town of Greytown in a much more protective way. And their ambition to visit all the United States national parks (26 down so far) provided a monumentally stark lesson in what happens when small towns are left to fail.
“Visiting national parks takes you to lots of small US towns. What an eye-opener. The more towns we saw, the more things became clear, and the stronger we felt we must contribute what we’d learned to our community,” says Millie.
“The towns that had got themselves sorted and knew who they were and where they were going with a clear identity were flourishing,” says Adam. “The towns that hadn’t were neglected and in a tragic state.”
This information and sense of purpose stimulated the couple, whose conversational currency is ideas; the bigger, the brighter and the bolder, the better. Much imagining, plotting and planning on how they could help Greytown followed.
While their town was far from needing “revitalization” as it already had a reputation for pretty, colonial architecture and interesting shops, even so, they saw it could be better. “It became our mission,” says Millie, “to never let our town and our region suffer the same fate as what we were seeing.”
Adam says bad planning, bad leadership and a lack of vision are the biggest threats to small towns — plus slow internet. “The biggest risks are people presuming what they’ve always done will continue forever, not innovating and not having a sense of who they are. Trying to be everything to all people doesn’t provide any distinctiveness or reason for people to visit a town.
Both Mr & Mrs Blackwell (the identities they are happiest assuming) are originally from small towns. Her family grew apricots on Jocelyn Road (her maiden name) near Bannockburn, and he is from Silverstream in Upper Hutt.
Village life sets their hearts aflutter for several reasons; there’s the chance to achieve change and feel empowered, for starters. “Somehow in small communities, politics are closer, and you realize how much ability you have to influence in a way you might not feel in a larger town,” says Millie, who campaigned to save a giant gum tree that leans precariously over a local church.
The church could not afford the bracing required to hold the tree safely, so Millie and others raised the needed $10,000. She turned to sock monkeys to earn her share.
Sock monkeys? These depression-era children’s toys were originally made from discarded clothing but Millie’s are made with the finest, brand-spanking New Zealand-manufactured socks. By hand, naturally. She’d learned this uncommon skill when, as a Canterbury University art history student, she had a neighbour who grew up in an American commune in the 1980s, where such habits were prized.
The sock monkeys are a perfect emblem for the life Mr & Mrs Blackwell now choose to live; a light footprint on the planet, a big commitment to their community and actively embracing a slow life, including the arts of yesteryear.
Adam, a consummate ad man who can’t stop the flow of his forever-scheming mind, threw himself into creating a brand for Greytown (Country Village Heaven) and soon had 60-plus retailers along with him on the bandwagon. He’s a chap who likes to spruik things a bit and enjoys people disagreeing with him.
“I’m Mr Enthusiastic bounding into town,” he says, “meeting the response of, ‘Ahh, you Wellingtonians, coming over here with your fancy ideas.’ I totally get push-back, mostly from people who came here for a quiet life and feel a little aggrieved that the town is so busy now they can’t get a park outside the pharmacy to collect their prescription. There are people who expected to live in a quiet town, and now they don’t. Then there are people who just don’t like change in general or dislike my kooky ideas.”
“There is overwhelming support for what we get up to,” points out Millie. “I know, but I still like the protagonistic approach,” counters Adam.
The proof is the regular retailers meeting to discuss where the town is going and to ensure anyone who speaks for Greytown does so with a consistent voice. “When you first started Country Village Heaven, the members were hesitant, but now it seems as though any idea you bring to the group, you can see it in their eyes, they’re thinking: ‘I am not really sure about this idea, but if Adam thinks it is going to work, then let’s just do it,’” says Millie.
The Greytown Festival of Christmas was a concept that struck Mr & Mrs Blackwell when first staring down the barrel of Covid-19 in early 2020 and grasping at ways to help their town to survive. Wairarapa used to suffer tourism death in winter, seeing just a few thousand visitors each month from May until August. Mr & Mrs Blackwell put on their thinking caps and came up with a plan.
“Greytown Festival of Christmas in July was a real punt. We started in 2020 by getting out everyone’s old Christmas lights, decorating the town, running night markets like in Europe with twinkling lights, musicians, workshops and food stalls. People loved dressing up in their warm winter clothes and going out at night in an atmosphere that resembled a northern hemisphere Christmas. Some shopkeepers said they’d never seen business like that before. It was Christmas-level business in July.”
Both now have a busy main-street business and their advertising agency and software sales companies (operating both in New Zealand and the United States). Adam’s Blackwell & Sons sells beautiful British cycles — Pashleys — and he also has a bike repair shop, while Millie’s Mrs Blackwell’s Village Bookshop opened in late 2020 to much acclaim and has been a gratifying success since.
“Once you get bitten by small-town life, you don’t want to go back to cities. We’re in love with our small community and how fulfilling that is,” says Millie. “It wasn’t the reason we moved here, but there is a lot of fulfilment involved in doing that.”
So much so that Mr & Mrs Blackwell have recently been on an extended South Island road trip looking for a southern base to extend their businesses. Lucky be the town that tugs their heartstrings. How is your internet connection speed, Lawrence? Just a heads-up on that one, as a slow connection is a deal-breaker.
“People just won’t come if they can’t work in a town,” says Adam. The distinctive southern architecture of the Clutha-side town has caught the eye of Mrs Blackwell, and the town’s proximity to the busy Clutha Gold Cycleway interests Mr Blackwell, as does its closeness to Dunedin.
So there’s that scheme fermenting away in the fertile brain of Mr Blackwell, plus a couple of other projects such as the launch of a boutique gin brand. Scallywags Gins will honour some of the Wairarapa’s less honourable characters. There’s a chicken house to construct, or, rather more accurately, a chicken coop to be built by someone other than Mr Blackwell, who is, he says, like all writers quite useless at anything practical (no offence taken by this writer).
“No, no,” interjects Mrs Blackwell, “no more projects. Gin, chickens, a new store in the South Island, that’s enough new projects for now.” Mr Blackwell finds it hard to put his brain into idle, but for love of Mrs Blackwell and a new fondness for the Covid-slowed pace of life, he’s trying. He hasn’t quite taken up jigsaw-puzzling yet, but maybe one day soon.
Mrs Blackwell’s Village Bookshop was once the Greytown Library and is known for its range of quality books, puzzles and pieces Millie hopes will outlast the purchaser.
During the summer, a fierce competition broke out between Mr Blackwell’s shop (Blackwell & Sons directly opposite) and Mrs Blackwell’s bookshop as to who could sell the most jigsaw puzzles. Mr Phillip Matthews (below right), the bookshop manager, is proud to announce the bookshop is the clear winner.
“Everyone in my shop is known as Mr, Mrs or Miss — it’s just the way we like to do things,” says Millie. Her summertime relaxation (after a winter of making sock monkeys to raise money for charitable causes) was viewing The Waltons, a 1970s American television drama about small-town life in Depression-era Virginia.
Blackwell & Sons, once home to the Greytown Borough Council, also did years of service as an antiques and homewares shop before local architectural designer James Mackie converted it into Adam’s idea of a bike shop based on the Guinness beer factory in Dublin.
When Adam imported a Pashley cycle for Millie’s Christmas gift many years ago they were stopped three times on their inaugural ride and asked its origin. He vowed he would one day own a bike shop selling Pashleys. And he does. Trish Longstaff (second image) is the retail manager of Blackwell & Sons and, a few doors along the main street is Blackwell & Sons Bike Repair Shop run by Young Adam (Birchall).