The Founding of Founder's Park

Last updated 25 November 2022

The Founding

The impetus to establish a heritage park came from a number of Nelson Residents, in 1974, who wanted local storage for their heritage items to keep them in the district. In 1976, the Newman family donated $50,000 towards a regional transport museum to be called “The Founders Transport Museum” with the site in Atawhai Drive finally approved by Nelson City Council in 1980. A charitable trust was established to set up the facility and form an operations committee, to oversee the management of the park when it was officially opened in 1986.

A rainy day at Founder's Park

Since Sir Jack Newman was a charter member of the Rotary Club of Nelson, and a member of the Founders Museum Trust Board , fellow Rotary members Jack Auton became Trust Chair with Arthur Bradbury, who remains a club member today, joining the management committee.

Funding for operations, as well as development, were major challenges and Amy Brook, who managed the park, ran the first Book Fair in 1988 with this making a profit of over $5,000. Amy is credited also as having raised the idea of a Book Fair. This remains a highly successful annual event, having grown from a 3-day to 9-day event with opening day scheduled each year as the Saturday of Kings Birthday Weekend in May.

Founder's Park annual book fair - and the line gets longer.
The Energy Centre, a group hire venue popular for large events and location of the annual book fair.

In 1995 the park was taken over by Nelson City Council with Arthur Bradbury continuing his involvement in the operating committee during the first years after the transition.

During the early years, the Rotary Club of Nelson was involved in building a maze and then repurposing the former wharfinger’s shed, donated by Port Nelson, to become one of the first railway stations on the line. Rotary members also later gave a funding grant to council for $3,000 and planted 1,000 trees to develop the "Newman Grove” on the rear boundary of the park and between the Founder’s Railway line and the current cycleway. 

As the Book Fair developed, the Rotary Club of Nelson also became involved again from 2007 in helping unpack the books and then in providing security at the sales venues over the busy opening days on the Saturday through to the end of Monday with the Rotary Club of Whakatu, in later years, providing volunteer support on the Sunday.

Barry from our Rotary team volunteering security at the Energy Centre, the mainstay of Founder's book fair. 

A Functioning Attraction

A glorious windmill welcomes visitors to Nelson's Founder's Heritage Park

The first thing at Founders that captures your interest is the windmill (smock mill) that houses reception at the entry to the park and is a replica of one built by Dr Bush on a town acre in Trafalgar Street in 1852. Dr Bush died in 1865 and the windmill and land were purchased by John Scott, a builder and contractor. The mill was burnt down in 1867.

History records that Dr Bush was appointed in 1841 as "Surgeon Superintendent" on the barque, Lloyds with responsibility for the health, but also the physical, religious and moral care of the wives and children of the Nelson Expedition men who had travelled on an earlier ship. The passengers included 73 women,139 children and one male servant aged 15. Sadly, Dr Bush was deficient in his duty with insufficient victuals on board, much of which was also unsuitable for children. Scurvy was rife amongst the passengers prior to rounding Cape Horn. During the voyage 65 children died of whooping cough and gastro-enteritis. There was also a breakdown in the morality on board between the captain, crew and some “dozen or so wives” to the extent that Arthur Wakefield later described the ship as a “floating bawdy house”. On arrival, the New Zealand Company refused to pay the ship owners, the master and Dr Bush. Dr Bush as a result ended up indebted to them for his passage and expenses. Though an enquiry was held, it was later described as “a farcical enquiry whereat all concerned were whitewashed.” Dr Bush set up in practice and subsequently purchased the land from the New Zealand company for the smock mill. The mill, which was to grind flour, was never profitable a fact that Dr Bush blamed on the lack of a consistent wind.

Markets and Entertainers at Founder's Park

Founders Park is a visitor destination that caters well for families with train rides and exciting child-friendly exhibits including the model railway, the playground adjacent to the café, the Bristol freighter they can climb into and the Mr. Science exhibit to name just a few. The lawns and gardens provide some great spots for picnics.

The Bristol Freighter ripe for adventure
Sunny days are perfect for a train ride around the park

In all there are now 42 buildings and structures on the site, a mix of relocated buildings, scaled replicas e.g. Rutherford Cottage or purpose-built e.g. The BaIgent workshop and Baigent Museum. The relocated buildings were mostly houses and/or business premises in early Nelson with a number of displays based on historically important businesses. 

The park’s heritage focus is on a collection of items from 1880 to the 1930’s.

The highlights include:

  •  A Hop and Beer Museum reflecting the role of Nelson/Tasman as New Zealand’s only commercial hop growing region. 
  • Newmans’ Coachlines -Transport was key to linking the region to Marlborough, Christchurch, Buller and the West Coast with the history of passenger services brought to life through vehicles, photographs and videos which take you through the golden age of coach travel from stagecoaches to service cars and then to the development of buses as the company grew to own a nationwide bus network. The photos and interpretation panels show Newman’s early encounters with aviation that eventually lead to the company moving into airline operations to compete with Mt Cook Airlines Ltd, which later formed a base for Ansett’s entry to the New Zealand market in 1987.
  • Cycling. This was also an important means of transport within the city and the display of rare bicycles donated by the Winn family, whose bike shop operated in Nelson from 1906 to the 1980’s, takes you through the early development. 
  • A Bristol Freighter, originally operated by Safe Air out of Blenheim, is on display and visitors can climb up into the fuselage. Safe Air commenced operations in 1950 providing a key link to take NZ Rail’s inter-island freight by air across the Cook Strait. Despite the introduction of the inter-island ferry services in 1962, the company continued to operate services successfully until 1983.

Founders Heritage Park is strengthening its financial performance through development of multiple revenue streams including 22 leases for office and retail spaces, venues for hire for private hirers (weddings and functions) and business (functions and conferences). It also operates as an events centre catering for a number of festivals and some touring events.

Rotarians unpacking books

A selection of arts and crafts made on site are on sale at the Windmill Gift shop at the entry to the park along with other products and a regularly changing selection of secondhand books. High value books are also separated out for separate sale through Trademe to add to the annual returns. The total sales revenue from books including Book Fair Sales has now exceeded $150,000 per annum.

An overwhelming number of books are donated every year.

Artisans who are onsite also add to the visitor experience since they operate as open studios where visitors can see them at work. The Atkins Gallery has original artworks: paintings, photographs and ceramics by local artists including paintings by the late Sir Toss Woolaston, a renowned modernist artist. The Armarie Room in the Nelson Mail Building uses letter press printing techniques to produce a range of works from small wedding invitations to large, fine art prints . Their work is inspired by heritage and utilises a family of restored vintage printing presses and is one of only a few printing “presseries” still operating in New Zealand.

The Presserie at the Nelson Mail Building

There are also a number of the buildings which are available as venues and can be hired for private or for corporate/association functions and conferences. The use of the park for events, shows and festivals is growing with these advertised through "It’s on -Founders"

The major annual events include: 

  • Cider Festival – 10 November  22 - over one hundred New Zealand made ciders
  • The Great Christmas Market - 20 November 22 
  • Evolve Festival - 3 day event. 27 - 29 January 23– New Zealand’s longest running wellness festival ( Jan 23 it will be the 33rd anniversay).
  • International Kai Festival -6 February 23 - Waitangi Day (New Zealand Day) celebration,.
  • Marchfest Craft Beer & Music Festival - 4 March 23.
  • Book Fair - 4 June to 12 June 2023

Founders will continue to develop as an activity centre for Nelson and a must visit for locals and visitors.

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