Small stories – the odyssey of Assid Corban

Dhour  al Choueir ( ضهور الشوير ), or Shweir, is a small town on the flanks of Mount Lebanon, looking down on Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, some thirty kilometres to the west. ‘Dhour’ means ‘summit, or top of a mountain. Illustrative of Lebanon’s diverse demography, half of it’s inhabitants are Eastern Orthodox and the other half Melkite and Maronite. It lay on the front line of during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war (see Pity the Nation).

Today, it is one of Mount Lebanon’s favoured summer resorts where well-off Beirutis keep apartments and enjoy the cool fresh air during the hot summer months. It is called the city of skyscrapers, due to its many tall buildings and also because up there on the mountainside, these literally touch the sky. But in the last century, people from al Choueir migrated throughout the world – and they and their descendants have retained close ties with their hometown through family contacts and visits home. The town is now famous for its annual August carnival, honouring Lebanon’s emigrants.

Assid Abraham Corban was born in Choueir, then but a village, on 25 August 1864, the son of Abraham Hannah Corban, a vigneron from a family of stone masons and wine-growers, and Helene Hannah Bousader. In those days, there was no Lebanon. Predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon was  a Mutasarrifat or governorate of the Vilayet of Beirut, a province of the Ottoman Empire. The empire had another fifty four years to run after which the mutasarrifat and the four others that were to become the Republic of Lebanon in 1943 became part of the French mandate of Syria. Young Assid worked principally as a stonemason, but he also pruned and ploughed the family vineyard. On 22 October 1887, he married Najibie Tanyus Ataia, the daughter of another respected local family. They had two children Khalil (1889-1975) and Wadiye (1891-1982).

In the winter of 1890 both of Assid’s parents died. Inspired by the tales of Lebanese emigrants of fortunes to be made in the New World, he set out on his own in 1891 for Australia, leaving his young family behind in Choueir. After waltzing through the outback as a pedlar, he crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1892 where, still toting his pedlar’s pack, he travelled around the mining towns of the Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. After working for a time as a haberdasher in Waihi, and later in Thames, in 1895, he opened a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, advertising himself as an ‘Eastern Importer of Fancy Goods, Jewellery, Drapery, etc.’ In the same year he became a naturalized British subject, and in 1897 sent for Najibie and the boys to join him.

Aetearoa – New Zealand, on the far side of the world, became the new home of the Lebanese stonemason turned haberdasher. Three further three children were born whilst the family lived in Queen Street. They named their first childborn in New Zealand, Zealandia (1898-1993) to celebrate their new home, then came Corban (1900-1974), Zarefy (1901-1978), and Annis (who died in infancy in 1903).

 In western Auckland,  at at the foot of the North Island’s scenic Waitakere Range, lies the suburb of Henderson. The land once belonged to the Te Kawerau ā Maki, the mana whenua (people of the land) of West Auckland, a distinct tribal entity since the early seventeenth century  when their ancestor Maki conquered and settled the Auckland isthmus and the land as far north as the Kaipara harbour. They sold much of their land of European settlers during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century.

And in 1902 Assid bought a scrubby ten acres of this land for £320 and planted a vineyard beside the O Panuku stream, on what is today the Great North Road. He named it Mount Lebanon Vineyards after the mountains of his birth. This became the celebrated Corbans Winery, one of New Zealand’s oldest. The property had a two-roomed cottage, an orchard and vines of the native American variety Isabella. Assid’s first 3½-acre vineyard was planted in a mix of wine grapes which included the classic red varieties Syrah, Meunier and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dual-purpose table grapes such as Black Hamburgh. It’s reputation was established swiftly. Romeo Bragato, government viticulturist from 1902 to 1909, was very impressed with Mt Lebanon Vineyards, praising it as ‘the model vineyard of New Zealand, and an object lesson to vine-growers’.

Assid, or AA as he was now known in the area, and his growing family first lived the cottage.  work on a three-level wine cellar started in 1903 and was completed in 1907. The first grapes were crushed by hand with a wooden club, and an open hogshead was used as the fermenting vat. By 1908 Assid had a simple crusher and two small presses for his first commercial vintage. Wine-making, however, was an extremely precarious pursuit in early twentieth-century New Zealand. In those early days, the family supplement wine-making with other forms of income: vegetable crops and tobacco were planted between the vines. A produce stall sold from the front gate and a handcart went out to sell fresh goods around Henderson. The industry’s most formidable foe was the temperance movement. Henderson became ‘dry’ in 1909, possibly due to alcohol-related problems at the local Falls Hotel. Assid built a small brick building outside the railway lines bordering his land which formed the dry boundary, and he was able to sell his wine legally from the small whitewashed building that still stands today.

 

The Corbin Winery’s first recorded sale, in September 1909, was to James Cottle of Taupaki who purchased two gallons of wine in his own jar at 10 shillings per gallon. Recognition of the quality of Corban’s wines came swiftly. The company won first prize for unsweetened red grape wine at the 1910 Henderson show. At the 1913–14 Auckland Exhibition, competing against wines from other countries in the British Empire, it won gold medals for its sherry and port and silver medals for its claret and red wine.

The Corban holdings steadily expanded. In 1909 Assid bought a neighbouring 20-acre property, planting the first five acres in vines in 1912. Eight years later he opened a wine depot in Auckland city and in 1923 built a two-storeyed, 17-room family homestead on the Great North Road. By the 1920s the firm was called A. A. Corban and Company.  In 1925 the Department of Agriculture’s vine and wine instructor, J. C. Woodfin, wrote that in the previous year ‘only twenty acres of vines were planted and one brave man was responsible for eight of these’. Corban’s had clearly become the largest winery in the country. It was also very much a family concern and in the 1930s became known as A. A. Corban and Sons Limited.

And there were indeed many sons. Four other children were born in Henderson: Annis (1905-1974), Annisie (1907-2002), Najib (1909) and Helena (1911). Other than Zealandia, all the Corban children lived in Henderson throughout their lives. The size of the family grew progressively as each of the children married and brought their spouses time to live in the homestead. Eventually some family members moved to other houses around the Henderson area. But they still maintained daily contact with the family, and the homestead remained a busy center for the family as well as for the wine business. The cooking of meals and other chores was shared, and all income was pooled. As the families grew, a system developed to fairly manage income and expenses. The costs were allocated with each adult counting as one unit, and with two children as one unit.

Although the arrival of a rotary hoe in 1934, and a caterpillar tractor soon after, greatly eased the vineyard toil, Assid Corban remained a patriarch in the Old Testament mould and a strong believer in the virtues of hard work. His work ethic inextinguishable, he never retired – every day of the year was a working day – except Sundays. His son Corban later described him as ‘well versed in the Scriptures and a staunch adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church’. He used to ‘bring out his treasured Bible and read to the family in Arabic’.

The end of an era came on December 2 1941when Assid suffered a stroke on his way home after a day working on a newly acquired property in Henderson Valley Road. He was in a coma for 12 days before finally passing away. His embalmed body lay in state in the homestead for a week whilst visitors filed past to pay their respects. In January 1943 work was completed on a classical tomb that had been erected in Waikumerte cemetery. And so, in a second funeral ceremony Assid Abraham Corban, villager, traveller, wanderer, immigrant, and pioneer was finally laid to rest. The respect this man commanded was evident in the large numbers who attended ceremonies in New Zealand and his hometown of Choueir where he still retained firm links.

Najibie became the head of the family, and just as her husband had been a powerful patriarch, she become the family’s powerful matriarch, leading it through some difficult times. The company continued to grow as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. For much of the first half of the twentieth century the winery Corban founded dominated the New Zealand wine scene. When she passed away in 1957, the family had grown to include 32 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. As a mark of respect, on the day of Madame Corban’s funeral, the shops in Henderson closed for half a day.

The growth of the winery continued as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. With the ongoing expansion of the family owned winery, other companies began to buy shares during the 1960’s and 70’s. The business became a public company in 1963 and passed out of the family’s hands in the 1970s.y 1978, the Rothmans Corporation owned 78% of the company and took the company over. It remains one of New Zealand’s wine-making giants. The sturdy figure of Assid Abraham Corban, with his magnificent walrus moustache and trademark waistcoat and chains, gazes sternly down from a wall in the entrance to the head office of Corbans Wines Limited.

The Corban Winery continues to play a vibrant role in the cultural life of Henderson. Many of the extended Corban family became key figures in the local community. Most notable is Assid Abraham’s grandson, Assid Corban (Junior), who became the Mayor of Henderson Borough from 1974 to 1989, and the first Mayor of Waitakere City in 1989. When the Corban Estate site was sold in 1992, it was purchased by the Waitakere City Council and by the end of 2001, the Waitakere Arts and Cultural Development Trust had taken on the lease for much of the estate and established the Corban Estate Arts Centre. The land and winery buildings have been converted into a large multi-disciplinary arts centre that is visited by thousands of Aucklanders each year. The homestead is currently home to the galleries and reception area. Members of the Corban family contributed to the formation and development of the arts centre, and Brian Corban remains the Chair of the Trust Board.

References:

Assid Abraham Corban, Michael Cooper, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Corban Estate Arts Centre (CEAC) 2004. A Brief History of the Corban Winery 

Photographs are sourced from the Corbans Wines website.

Adele and Elly amidst the wine vats at the Corban Estate Arts Centre

For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see:  A Tale of Twin Pines  , the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.

On a dry note:

Whilst New Zealand’s iconic band Split Enz once sung “history never repeats”, an official Auckland strategy to minimize alcohol related harm saw predominantly working class “Hindersin” once again designated a “dry zone” in August 2016. The public consumption of alcohol is banned. Only the Waitakere Licensing Trust can operate pubs and bottle shops, whilst supermarkets sell no alcohol. The trusts, administered by publically-elected trustees, return surplus profits to the community through grants, rebates to clubs, sponsorships and other support for community activities. One of the West Auckland-based Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trust’s most significant investments in the “The Trusts Stadium”. It attracts events from fashion shows to rock concerts, community gatherings to local sporting competitions. The venue has hosted several million visitors since opening in September 2004, attracting 600,000 visitors a year, thus making it one of the most accessible stadiums in New Zealand.

Small Stories – A Tale of Twin Pines

One of the pleasures of moving to the Australian bush and living in Bellingen Shire is discovering its often overlooked history. This is the story of Twin Pines. Not as dippy as Twin Peaks, nor as sinister as Wayward Pines, it is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

When I first came to this land,
I was not a wealthy man,
So I built myself a shack,
And I did what I could.

I called my shack
Break My Back,
But the land was sweet and good,
And I did what I could.

When I first came to this land,
I was not a wealthy man.
So I built myself a farm.
I did what I could.

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, some ten kilometers from the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers to to ride the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the rivers and to the wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway that led from the plains beyond the range to Urunga, known to the Gumbaynggir people as a “place of plenty”. So the forest contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

Exploring the history of the forest, I chanced across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the new bridge across the Kalang. It’s a great story of how the road got its name, and of how, in the late 19th century, Moses Lacey, the first selector, ran a store on the river bank. How back then, there was no road along the river, the South Arm (of the Bellinger), and access to farms along the river was by small jetties. South Arm Road was built to serve a quarry, now disused, just west of the present Fell’s Road.

Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from Moses’s deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber (helped by his neighbour Bennett’s bullock team) until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud, and he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children there. It was a hard life on the land back then – one of dedication, hard work, and perseverance. Power did not come to the South Arm until 1959. Many in the Shire still remember Chris and Laura and indeed, went to school with Lloyd, Bill and Margaret. When the kids were young, they went to the small Tarkeeth school house located just west of the present Fells Road junction. There are quite a few folk who remember attending the little school before its closure in 1972. Indeed, since I published the story on a local FaceBook page, and a former pupil published a picture of the Tarkeeth School’s “Class of ’68”, old aquaintances and school chums have reconnected with each other. Here is the History of Tarkeeth School. It can be obtained from Bellingen Museum,

Twin Pines is no more. When Chris could no longer work the farm, Bill took over the business. In 1966, with changes in the dairy industry rendering to business unprofitable, he sold it to the Errington family.They sold it shortly afterwards to Australian Paper Mills who in the early ’80s, sold it to State Forests – now the Forestry Corporation. APM cleared the land and established a flooded gum plantation thereon and on adjacent blocks – today’s Tarkeeth State Forest. That plantation is now being aggressively harvested – clear felled, actually – a matter of considerable concern to us locals and to many in the Shire. in the South, the forest comes right down to the Kalang River, and this too is a cause for concern as the harvesting and reforestation operations involve clearfelling, burning and spraying with herbicide. The consequences of an extreme weather event could be dire.

The farm house was not demolished. When the plantation was established, but was destroyed by fire years later. The school was sold to an Erik Johannsen who lived there for many years with a collection of animals. Tragically, he ended his own life after setting fire to the school. Fells Road puts the family name on the map, and whilst the Errintons did not linger here long, they are remembered in Erringtons Trail, a well-maintained forest track linking South Arm Road to the Fernmount Range Trail and thence the Bellinger Valley. Bennett the bullocky has a trail named for him too. Walking through the Forest Corp plantation, you can still just make out the place where the house stood. There is an old dam in the heart of the bush where tomatoes were once grown. In the the forest, amongst the plantation trees and native regrowth, you will come upon large, old angophera, grey gum, bloodwood and black butt habitat trees, their broad, spreading branches indicating that these once grew in open pasture.

The pines are still there, some ten metres in from South Arm Road. They are not on what is now the Twin Pines Trail, but at the beginning of a trail just to the east of it. A pair of big and beautiful hoop pines. And next to one of them, an old gate post, a dumb signpost to a a vanished past. Furthermore, they have had loads of babies. There are small hoop pines close to their parents, and eastwards along the road towards the new bridge over the Kalang. Nature never sleeps.

Hoop pines at Twin Pines, Tarkeeth

Nothing remains of the Fells farm except some old fence posts, but standing there, it is easy to imagine what it would have been like in those days. But one thing has not changed. Walk into the bush halfway between the pines and Eastern Trail, you will see what Chris Fells discovered back in the ‘thirties:

“Down on the left as you looked out of the house, there was an especially thick, almost impenetrable circle of bush surrounding a small lagoon. Within this, was a haven for all kinds of wildlife such as bandicoots, native possums, snakes, frogs, and and a great assortment of birds: parrots, kingfishers, kookaburras, currawongs, black ducks, bowerbirds, honey-eaters, and by the water itself, the beautiful egrets, ibis and spoonbills. If you peep into the lagoon from the road, its great white paperbark trees, knee-deep in thick green water, gave it an air of mystery and magic”.

And indeed, as the photographs below show, the Tarkeeth Lagoon is still quite special. Folk who grew up on South Arm Road and explored the area as children, still remember the mystery of the place. Those animals and birds still live in the Tarkeeth, but the tall paperbarks have long since fallen and lie as moss and epiphyte-covered sculptures beside the water.

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Read the full story of Twin Pines here in Lloyd Fell’s small but captivating book:
http://www.biosong.org/TwinPinesStory.pdf

Local historian John Lean’s new book “Settlers of South Bellingen and the Lower South Arm”, his “Settlers of the Upper South Arm and Spicketts Creek”, and also, “The History Of Tarkeeth Public School” are available at the Bellingen and Urunga museums..

Chris Fell – The ANZAC Story

A century ago, on 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse charged the Turkish trenches during the Battle of Beersheba in one of history’s last great cavalry charges. The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”.

In his ebook The Twin Pines Story, Lloyd Fell tells how his father served as a mounted machine gunner with the New Zealand forces in the Gaza ampaign of late 1917. His war record reports that he was one of the machine gunners who fought through the day before the famous charge to knock out the Turkish machine guns on the strategic al Saba Hill east of Beersheba. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse  would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.

As Jean Bou wrote in The Weekend Australian:
“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching.
See:
http://specialreports.theaustralian.com.au/888793/a-remarkable-feat-of-arms/

Beersheba War Cemetery, Israel

This post opened with that great troubadour Pete Seeger singing Oscar Brand’s celebrated pioneer song. I conclude with his rendering of David Mallet’s tribute to the simple life.

Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
Gonna mulch it deep and low,
Gonna make it fertile ground.

Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones,
We are made of dreams and bones
Need spot to call my own
Cause the time is close at hand

Postscript – About Bellingen

We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block nearly twenty years ago. Bellingen (estab. 1870), in the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Bellingen is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and in more recent times, as a popular tourist transit between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, with their sand, surf and sun.

Between the two is the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.

Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancy. In those days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease election by election, and the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change. The hippies’ children and the farmers kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined in recent, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism plays a a vital role, whilst Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility. In such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Read read more about ‘Bello’ on wiki:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellingen,_New_South_Wales

Read more about our farm: The Country Life

For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: The Odyssey of Assid Corban, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.