|Tight, or just Scotch?
In pioneer times, people had to be careful with their money
and possessions - it was a matter of survival. In Otago and Southland, this pioneer
imperative was amplified by traditional Scotch cannyness.
Even in a Scottish community, the MacGibbon stores were renowned
for being tight, if not mean in their approach. And for being canny.
The best stories are about Ebenezer MacGibbon,
who managed the East Gore business. The stories are undoubtedly exaggerated, and may be
more apochryphal than real, but where there was smoke there was probably fire.
Eb would measure a pound of nails to the very
last nail. And if that last nail took the weight over the pound mark, he would substitute
a smaller nail. He would cut a potato in half, if the whole potato was likely to take the
measure over the specified amount.
The full flowering of Eb's cannyness came on the
day he found a rat drowned in a barrel of treacle. He kept bulk treacle to fill billies,
which customers would bring to the store. Did Eb throw the barrel out? Not likely! He
picked the rat up by the tail and squeezed the last drop of treacle back into the barrel.
Then he threw the rat away.
While the MacGibbon stores were tight, their
proprietors were certainly generous when times were tough in the community. During the
Great Depression of the 1930s, they extended a great deal of credit to local farmers, to
their own serious detriment.
Earlier than that, the family's quiet generosity
was acknowledged. In 1915, a Mataura Ensign obituary for Ebenezer MacGibbon noted:
"It could be said of him that his left hand did not know what his right hand did.
Many a poor creature in this town never knew where help came from in their hour of
distress. The orphans never knew who supplied their physical wants. Neighbours never knew
how many times the heart of their brother went out in sympathy and practical form towards
When John Jr died in 1925, the Mataura Ensign
wrote that he had also "...practised hiding from his left hand the welldoing of his
right." The obituary continued: "Many in and around Gore and Mataura can vouch
for his goodness and self-sacrifice, once his sympathies had been enlisted. These traits
he never advertised, but a large number today will mourn the passing of one who in their
direst need proved a friend indeed."
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One day, at the store in East
Gore, Ebenezer MacGibbon saw a man steal a pound of butter and hide it under his bowler
hat. Eb had the last laugh, after he invited the man to a warm corner for a long chat...