Frozen in time


The Shed - - Contents - By Bob Hulme Photograph­s: Bob Hulme and Adam Croy

Visit the shed of an Auck­land re­frig­er­a­tion man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness which has shut its doors for the last time

Ijust love nos­ing around other peo­ple’s work­shops to see what they are mak­ing and what gear they have, and I re­cently just had the spe­cial op­por­tu­nity to look at a man­u­fac­tur­ing workshop that was about to be sold up and, as a bonus, learn about its his­tory.

Macdon­ald Re­frig­er­a­tion surely has a place in Auck­land’s her­itage as a pi­o­neer in its field. The fac­tory has been closed for some time now and it has been hard for the fam­ily to let go of all the gear, but it is fill­ing a lot of valu­able space. Prop­erty leas­ing is the main fo­cus for the busi­ness now and prospec­tive ten­ants have been push­ing them to make this build­ing avail­able in the sought-af­ter sub­urb of Grey Lynn in cen­tral Auck­land.

His­tory of Macdon­ald Re­frig­er­a­tion

Re­frig­er­a­tion was in its in­fancy when Al­lan Macdon­ald de­cided to start his own busi­ness ser­vic­ing com­mer­cial and do­mes­tic re­frig­er­a­tors. He had com­pleted a fit­ting and turn­ing ap­pren­tice­ship at Win­stone’s workshop in Auck­land and had the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit to take on this ex­cit­ing new field. It was in 1938, the year his son Ian was born, that he took the plunge.

As re­frig­er­a­tion was new and there were no cour­ses or qual­i­fi­ca­tions yet avail­able he had to learn as he went. He de­vel­oped con­nec­tions with Amer­i­can brands such as West­ing­house and Beech for ser­vic­ing their prod­ucts. Of course in those days most house­holds still used a safe and re­frig­er­a­tors were re­garded as a lux­ury, so there were very few ser­vic­ing spe­cial­ists. Be­ing in­volved early in any field in its in­fancy is al­ways an ad­van­tage, par­tic­u­larly when it has so much po­ten­tial. Those early years would

Those early years would have been a strug­gle, with the re­wards com­ing later

have been a strug­gle, with the re­wards com­ing later.

The com­pany ini­tially worked from premises at 1A Al­bany Road, Herne Bay, Auck­land, con­cen­trat­ing on ser­vice work, but with the de­ci­sion to add man­u­fac­tur­ing to the busi­ness, it moved to Weld Street in nearby Free­mans Bay.

Don’t plan on look­ing Weld Street up though, as it no longer ex­ists. It was dug up and is now cov­ered with build­ings. It was a link be­tween Napier and Union Streets. At that time there were neigh­bours, in­clud­ing the ware­houses of Farm­ers Trad­ing Co and Walker and Hall. There was also a row of small houses that the Mac­don­alds bought as they be­came avail­able to use for stor­age. Their fac­tory had 70 em­ploy­ees man­u­fac­tur­ing do­mes­tic re­frig­er­a­tors as well as com­mer­cial units for butcher’s shops, ho­tels, hos­pi­tals, etc. Many of these were cus­tom-made units, such as re­frig­er­ated win­dow dis­plays for butcher’s and fish shops.

Im­port­ing ma­te­ri­als

Be­ing a man­u­fac­turer also meant be­ing an im­porter of the ma­te­ri­als needed to build the units. These in­cluded com­pres­sors, elec­tric mo­tors, and the re­frig­er­ant flu­ids. Or­ga­niz­ing ship­ments had to be co­or­di­nated with pro­duc­tion. Of­ten goods would be shipped to Aus­tralia first, then on to New Zealand. With labour strikes

at docks on both sides of the Tas­man oc­cur­ring from time to time the co­or­di­na­tion was of­ten frus­trat­ing. An un­der­stand­ing bank man­ager was vi­tal then, just as is today.

Im­ported re­frig­er­ant gas was typ­i­cally shipped in tall cylin­ders, which were then de­canted into smaller ones that were eas­ier for ser­vice­men to han­dle on site. Typ­i­cal re­frig­er­ants in those early days were methyl chlo­ride and sul­phur diox­ide.

With re­frig­er­a­tion be­com­ing more pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially for re­tail busi­nesses, the need to travel out­side Auck­land to ser­vice cus­tomers was vi­tal. Ser­vice­men from Macdon­ald were sent as far north as Kaitaia (Ian tells me that he once went there and back in a day to do a re­pair job) and as far south as Hast­ings and Palmer­ston North.

Fa­mous clients

One of Macdon­ald’s cus­tomers was Adams Bruce, who had a chain of shops that served de­li­cious ice cream, choco­lates, and bis­cuits — at least they are the things I re­mem­ber buy­ing there as a kid. Each shop had a freezer for the ice cream of course, but Ian re­calls that the Adams Bruce ice-cream fac­tory was in Colling­wood Street, in Free­mans Bay, and ice cream was sent to the Bruce shops on New Zealand Rail (NZR) Road Ser­vices buses. This was achieved by pack­ing the ice cream in round steel cylin­ders that had a gly­col hold-over tank with dry ice un­der­neath — all wrapped in an in­su­lated can­vas jacket. Be­fore the ad­vent of courier com­pa­nies most pack­ages were han­dled by NZR Road Ser­vices buses.

Af­ter has­sles with the Auck­land City Coun­cil rezoning the area where the fac­tory was in Free­mans Bay and the coun­cil flip-flop­ping on that zon­ing, Macdon­ald Re­frig­er­a­tion de­cided to move. In 1968, it moved to a new fac­tory the com­pany built in Rich­mond Road, Grey Lynn. The site was pur­chased from the well-known lo­cal Warnoch fam­ily, who had a soap fac­tory next door, on a hand­shake deal — to­tally un­heard of today. Staff numbers at this time were 42.

I felt like a kid in a lolly shop wan­der­ing around the Macdon­ald fac­tory. There was such a range of met­al­work­ing ma­chines that I didn’t know where to start. There were fold­ers, guil­lotines, a press brake, and power presses. Even a trusty Dyco drill press (brands such as Dyco and Tan­ner are very de­sir­able today as they are solid and re­li­able). I was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in an old Philips arc welder. It can be set for AC or DC weld­ing, and on closer in­spec­tion I could see large, old glass vac­uum tubes in­side, pre­sum­ably for rec­ti­fy­ing the power. I was told that the welds it pro­duced were won­der­ful and it is still in work­ing or­der. Smooth fin­ish and deep pen­e­tra­tion were typ­i­cal of the out­put. I have never seen one like this be­fore — amaz­ing. All the ma­chin­ery has ob­vi­ously been kept in good con­di­tion and some ap­peared to have been mod­i­fied to im­prove out­put. I no­ticed a guil­lo­tine driven by an old, but solid, elec­tric mo­tor and looked closer to see that it was John Heine brand — the same as the two power presses that were there. Heine is rec­og­nized as one of the very best brands of presses. I have worked with this brand of power presses and they are so solid and re­li­able that they seem to keep go­ing for­ever. Even their fly press was a John Heine! Ed­wards is an­other brand that was once revered as a maker of top-qual­ity equip­ment and Macdon­ald had an Ed­wards folder. This was a fine ex­am­ple of a folder made with a cast-iron frame, mean­ing that it has great rigid­ity.

With labour strikes at docks on both sides of the Tas­man oc­cur­ring from time to time the co­or­di­na­tion was of­ten frus­trat­ing

There was an­other folder of more re­cent man­u­fac­ture with a fab­ri­cated (welded) frame. I don’t want to give fab­ri­cated fold­ers a bad rap as they do work quite well, but my pick would be the old Ed­wards. An­other Ed­wards ma­chine was a foot­trea­dle-op­er­ated small guil­lo­tine — ideal for small jobs like cham­fer­ing cor­ners on sheet-metal items. Yet an­other Ed­wards ma­chine was the press brake. No, it doesn’t break things, it bends them. The top blade moves down onto a fixed die block to bend the sheet metal be­tween the blade and the die block. By chang­ing the blade and the die-block shape (the die block can be ro­tated to bring dif­fer­ent forms to play) it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate dif­fer­ent bends or even ra­diused shapes.

Ev­ery fridge has a story

I saw sev­eral ex­am­ples of the com­pany’s do­mes­tic re­frig­er­a­tors in stor­age to­gether with fac­tory equip­ment when I vis­ited. Some had a story be­hind them. I saw a red-coloured fridge and a match­ing chest freezer. Ian re­lated the story of the lady who bought the red fridge new from them and when it needed to come to the fac­tory to be ser­viced, she fol­lowed the truck in her car to make sure that her beloved red fridge did not get scratched. When she passed away some years later the fridge and freezer came back ad­dressed to Fraser Macdon­ald, Ian’s son, who had as­sisted the lady when her fridge had needed re­me­dial work. He had given such good ser­vice and she loved that fridge so much that she felt it should go back to the com­pany.

An­other old-timer was a dou­ble-door fridge that I rec­og­nized as one sim­i­lar to a model a rel­a­tive of mine had had years ago. This also had been be­queathed to the Mac­don­alds by a sat­is­fied cus­tomer. In­spec­tion showed that over the course of its life, all that it had needed was a new V-belt for the drive from the mo­tor to the com­pres­sor. Ev­ery other part was ex­actly as it was when bought new. Amaz­ing!

Fill those freez­ers

The pro­duc­tion of do­mes­tic re­frig­er­a­tors was even­tu­ally dropped as com­pe­ti­tion stepped up from other com­pa­nies, as well as im­ported prod­uct, but Macdon­ald estab­lished a niche pro­duc­ing chest freez­ers and was a pi­o­neer in the field. How­ever, the com­pany was ap­proached by a com­peti­tor, Bon­aire, which also made chest freez­ers, and was of­fered a deal to sell its prod­ucts. The eco­nom­ics stacked up so they did the deal. This was a time when it was pop­u­lar to buy a whole beast and store it in the home freezer.

Many Auck­lan­ders will re­call butch­ers like Al­bany Meats, which sold whole­sale and in bulk to the pub­lic. Ian tells me that the butcher would sell di­rect from the fac­tory and on the week­ends peo­ple would of­ten ar­rive with an an­i­mal car­cass in the back of their car need­ing a freezer right away. They sold as many as 27 chest freez­ers per day at the height of that era.

How­ever, com­mer­cial re­frig­er­a­tion was seen as the back­bone of the busi­ness and even­tu­ally Macdon­ald con­cen­trated solely on that mar­ket.

Man­u­fac­tur­ing in New Zealand

Most of my own ca­reer has been in man­u­fac­tur­ing in New Zealand and I am sad­dened to see so many busi­nesses close their work­shops and in­stead be­come im­porters of prod­ucts man­u­fac­tured in low- cost coun­tries. It seems wrong that we al­low our in­no­va­tive Kiwi com­pa­nies to suf­fer against im­ports of items from coun­tries where their gov­ern­ments prob­a­bly sub­si­dize them so that they can over­run the com­pe­ti­tion. How­ever, I am heart­ened by the sto­ries I do hear of New Zealand man­u­fac­tur­ers mak­ing a go of it even in this cli­mate. Just last week I heard of a lo­cal man­u­fac­turer mak­ing riv­ets for ex­port to China and an­other mak­ing fish­ing gear and sell­ing suc­cess­fully in many other coun­tries.

Come on, Ki­wis, you can make stuff on home turf and if you can’t think of some­thing clever to make just yet, at least try buy­ing lo­cally made things in the mean­time — the stan­dard of living for all of us will im­prove. Ahh, I feel bet­ter now I’ve had my rant.

She fol­lowed the truck in her car to make sure that her beloved red fridge did not get scratched

An Ed­wards press brake

Spot welder

The fa­mous John Heine brand fea­tured large in this man­u­fac­tur­ing shed. Here is a John Heine guil­lo­tine

Even the fly press was a John Heine!

This Philips arc welder uses glass vac­uum tubes for power rec­ti­fi­ca­tion

Large fab­ri­cated frame guil­lo­tine

A sturdy Lo­gan met­al­work­ing lathe

Macdon­ald was a man­u­fac­turer of fridges and freez­ers — this meant the com­pany had to im­port com­pres­sors, elec­tric mo­tors, and the re­frig­er­ant flu­ids

A power press by John Heine, rec­og­nized as one of the very best brands of presses — solid and re­li­able

One cus­tomer felt that, when she passed away, the fridge she had loved so much should go back to the com­pany that made it, Macdon­ald Re­frig­er­a­tion

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