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The rise and fall of John MacGibbon & Sons

The MacGibbon family developed a substantial merchant operation, becoming big fish in the small pool that was Eastern Southland. They were the biggest show in town for perhaps 40 years, and their fortunes followed a classic pattern: generation one started it all, generation two expanded and consolidated, and generation three lost the lot.

By the time the last shop shut its doors in 1962, the firm had been an Eastern Southland business fixture for 90 years. Following are some extracts from this section of the book:

Developing the business
The MacGibbons were in the right place, at the right time and with the right experience. The area was opening up to smaller scale farming, after the proclamation of the Mataura and Tuturau Hundreds. The family business developed quickly. It was a classic country general store, where you could buy anything from a bolt of cloth to a pair of shoes, a box of nails and a bag of potatoes. But it was always strong in rural servicing - a forerunner to the stock and station firms of today.

John MacGibbon and Sons traded in rural produce. In the early years this was mostly wool, grain and cattle products. They would have usually sold on farmers' behalf for a commission fee, although sometimes they bought produce outright and on-sold it.

1888 advertisement for John MacGibbon and Sons

Oddfellows march past the MacGibbon general store

MacGibbon and Sons established a third branch in 1883, buying this store on the corner of Gore's Main and Mersey streets from Kelly and Mullaly. The Gore Oddfellows are marching past to their 1885 picnic. This store was later replaced by a substantial three story brick building. (Click here to see a bigger version (28K) of the Oddfellows.)
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 them."

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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Ebenezer and the man with a pound of butter
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...

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Last modified: October 31, 2004