Ever seen a scarecrow walking a tightrope, or drinking a Tui at the barbecue?

Take a drive around Gladstone this spring, and you may spot a couple. And why not spend an afternoon learning how a horse- drawn buggy, straight out of Victorian London, is made. Or call into the local watering hole – whose patrons once battled to save their favourite booze from a fire.

Gladstone lies 15km south-east of Carterton on the Mangahuia Stream, where the Tauweru and Ruamahanga rivers meet. It is predominantly a farming area, but has also emerged as a centre for viticulture, with soil from the old Ruamahanga riverbank proving ideal for grape growing.

However, ask the townsfolk, and they’ll say Gladstone is synonymous, not just with a good tipple, but with creatures made from straw and burlap sacks.

The Scarecrows Big Day Out, each November, is a high point in Gladstone’s calendar – with residents displaying their hand-fashioned strawmen in front yards, along fences, and throughout paddocks, attracting “busloads” of curious onlookers, long-time resident Ali Lang says.

Scarecrows come in all shapes – blokes in Swandris doing “jobs” on the farm, Disney princesses and irreverent politicians, to name a few. Ali says the festival was founded about 15 years ago, to “put Gladstone on the map”.

“Scarecrows are cheap and easy to make from any old junk. “That first year, everyone had one at their front gate.”

At first, the scarecrows were easy targets for vandalism – “but we’d just make sure they were a bit further back in the paddock,” Ali says.

“Everyone gets really arty – we had one guy who strung up a rope between a couple of posts, and made a scarecrow walking a tightrope. We had another sitting on a dunny with its pants around its ankles. Great country humour.”

The scarecrow festival ties in with the Scarecrow Fair, the major fundraiser for Gladstone School – which, principal Margaret Hyslop says brings in “thousands” each year.

The school has a roll of 142, including children from Carterton, Masterton and Martinborough. Margaret says parents love its rural setting, where the children get to explore “the great outdoors”.

“They climb trees, they go barefoot and play in puddles. They can just be kids.”

Also iconic is the local pub – The Gladstone Inn, or “The Gladdy” to its regulars. The Gladdy was originally the lodgings of the local Ferryman who, in 1871 once the Gladstone Bridge was built over the Ruamahanga, re-opened the premises as a hotel.

The inn enjoyed regular patronage until 1934, when it was gutted by fire, co-owner Lisa Burch says.

“The local legend has it that people were running back and forth to save the beer. However, they neglected to save the cash register.”

Today, the renovated Gladdy continues to serve as a popular meeting place. A “locals’ night” is held every Wednesday – and the rows of gumboots at the door are usually an indicator of a good crowd.

Another Gladstone institution is up the road – the Wheelwright Shop, founded in 1994 by Ali Lang and husband Greg. Greg was trained as a wheelwright, a craftsman who makes and repairs wooden wheels and horse-drawn vehicles, and Ali in coach painting, while living in the UK. On returning home, the Langs saw the old Gladstone Store was up for sale and decided it was the perfect place to set up shop.

“We believe there was a blacksmith working in the building way back in the day – so it’s come full circle,” Ali says.

As well as hosting tour groups of the workshops, the Langs are mostly kept busy with restorative work for museums – recent projects include the renovation of a 1904 tram, one of the old grip cars from the Wellington Cable Car, and historic steam engine carriages.

“Though we will get locals who end up with old vehicles just sitting in the back of their sheds,” Ali says.

“We had a farmer who’d inherited a carriage from his grandfather that he had no idea what to do with – and his daughter wanted it in her wedding.

“We did it up and it looked beautiful.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall