Publican lessee Helen Fincham-Putter of Stanley's Hotel, Macraes, Dunedin.

Tucked away just over an hours’ drive from Dunedin, inland from Palmerston, is the tiny township of Macraes – population 40 people. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Macraes was a thriving gold mining town of about 2000 people back in the late 1880s when the township’s quaint, historic, 139-year-old Stanley’s Hotel, (originally called Macraes Hotel), first opened.

Built by Thomas Stanley in 1882, it was originally a bustling stage coach stopover, one of more than half a dozen hotels in the town . Thomas also owned Macraes Hotel at the time, which was right next door to the Stanley’s site.

These days things are a lot quieter. Most Friday nights you’ll find a bunch of local farmers solving the world’s problems over a beer while weary Central Otago Rail Trail cyclists tuck into a hearty meal in the bar, eager to overhear the local conversation.

“When we get 40 in here it’s packed,” says publican lessee Helen Fincham-Putter, a former police officer of 24 years. She’s signing off at the end of November, after a three-year stint behind the bar. Helen was the sole country cop at nearby Middlemarch for a lot of that time.

A new proprietor is being sought by the local Macraes Community Development Trust that is in the process of acquiring the hotel from its owner, mining company OceanaGold, which owns and operates the largest gold mine in New Zealand at Macraes.

Helen’s ready for a break. “Covid has really changed the landscape,” she says. And with her miner husband working long hours and difficult shifts too it’s time to spend time with their nine-year-old daughter, she says.

A registered historic place, the magnificent original stone construction is a gem of times gone by, rich in local history. Local legend has it that the beautiful original 1.2m by 4.5m marble flooring centrepiece featured inside – once the ladies entrance, came about over a poker game.

“Part of the marble flooring was apparently destined for Dunedin for the construction of St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin, but according to local legend the guy who was carting it by horse and dray lost it in a poker match on the way through at Stanley’s,” says Helen.

In another delay local legend also has it that the stonemason was paid weekly in the form of a mini keg of beer. “They say it took him 10 years to build the pub as he’d get his mini keg and disappear for a week,” grins Helen. Tom Stanley was also renowned for his unique way of removing unwanted patrons after hours, hauling them out onto the street using a bag hook!

The hotel stayed in the Stanley family until the 1960s when it was sold to a succession of owners before the mining company bought it sometime after opening its Macraes Flat mine in 1990.

Thomas Stanley was said to have fiercely fought for his pub patch against the town’s then only other remaining pub, the United Kingdom, owned by W. E. Griffin. When Thomas died his son had to take over the lease as women were not allowed to hold leases back then. However, Helen says the son was apparently not very interested and his sisters ran the hotel on behalf of their mother.

Many features of the original hotel remain today, including the original old safe and kitchen with its coal range, where Helen stores the wines.

While accommodation rooms totalled between eight and 12 during the hotel’s heyday, it now has just five rooms – four queen and one twin, three which still contain the original free-standing wash basins.

The hotel can sleep up to 12 with shared bathroom facilities. Favourites from the kitchen include the Stanley Burger, pies made daily and muffins, with steak, battered blue cod and baked salmon all among the generous pub portion dinner offerings.

Kids can tuck into chicken nuggets and chips, and just as with any city pub there are gluten free and vegan options too.

A stately old portrait of Thomas Stanley hangs in the front bar with its original flagstone floors, almost 1-metre thick Otago schist internal walls and deep stone window sills. It’s chilly in the winter – minus 8 degrees is no surprise here, but Helen says the large wood burner works overtime inside the original old stone fireplace during winter and the stone floors and walls retain the heat beautifully. The stunning marble flooring feature continues to wow the guests.

“She’s a wee cutie – a beautiful old stone building, but really close to the road so when the trucks go past at night the sash windows rumble a bit,” says Helen.

Stanley’s is more than just the local watering hole. It’s the community hub and meeting place for the local farming and mining communities in Macraes – the heart of the town.

Rail Trail bikers wanting an overnight pub experience get free van transport from nearby Hyde, 20kms away. “That way a lot of women manage to rope their husbands into doing the Rail Trail by luring them in with the promise of a ‘pub trail’, grins Helen.

“We leave our van there in the main street for them and they can drive it over here then enjoy dinner and drinks in the hotel and then they drive it back to Hyde connect with the trail in the morning,” she says.

“Aucklanders are really funny. They ring and ask where they key will be and I say, ‘In the ignition, or if you’re real safety conscious in the ashtray,” says Helen.

So come November, a new chapter in history will begin for this tiny heritage pub. Oh, the yarns that are held within those there thick stone walls.

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