Thirty-seven years ago, Eletheria Jones asked her husband if he could build her a little roadside fruit stall so she could read books in the sun and sell some fruit from the family orchard.
“Well, I haven’t read a book yet,” she laughs. “It was a funny thing. A bus stopped and when they were leaving the driver said Mrs Jones you better get some more fruit, two buses coming tomorrow.”
Today the bustling business is a tourist attraction in its own right with some groups being driven there from Queenstown Airport straight off international flights, then back to the resort to check into hotels, head to Milford Sound and tick off other South-Island-whirlwind-tour highlights.
The stall hums everyday with hundreds of visitors who come to see and to sample the elaborately displayed goodies, and to meet Mrs Jones.
It was the government’s worker recruitment programme of the mid-1960s that bought her to Cromwell from her home in Crete. It was quite the adventure in those days, travelling halfway across the world then finding a job in the Hotel Cromwell, waitressing and housekeeping. Here she met Doug Jones who had set up a crayfish and venison export business in an old rabbit processing factory and was staying at the hotel.
A few years down the track, when ten barren, rabbit-infested acres came up for sale near the entrance to the Kawarau Gorge, the couple bought it with orcharding in mind.
“Everyone said you’ll never grow anything on that, it was so rough and dry, only rabbits and briar bushes. Doug, he was very determined and worked so hard.”
They persevered with their challenging block until trees were established, then bought more land on nearby Ripponvale Road and planted that out.
In the early days of the stall, women from throughout the region would make an outing of their annual fruit buy-up for preserving. Many would swap recipes with Mrs Jones and today some of their children now bring their own children to the stall.
Suncrest Orchard in Ripponvale was added to the Jones’over the years operation and the stall has undergone three major expansions. The couple have two children, Michael and Christina, who are fully involved in the business, as is Michael’s wife Dianne.
The property now covers 70 hectares, Michael says, including 55 hectares of cherries. The balance is planted in nectarines, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and in grapes.
The fruit stall carpark would now occupy almost half a rugby field and when that’s getting full, Mrs Jones says, she sometimes sends a few buses down to the Cromwell Heritage Precinct with instructions to come back when there’s more room.
At the peak of the busy summer season the Jones’ can have up to 280 people on the payroll. They provide accommodation for up to 180 and many staff come back year after year.
During summer Doug opens the stall at 7.30am and closes it at 8pm. It’s always been his job and even now in late winter, the apples, pears and multitude of other goodies are still attracting customersfinding buyers until he closes up in the dark at 6.30pm.
“He’s good like that. I was lucky with him. But we are all workaholics, the whole family. It is very hard work and long hours and everyday busy but we enjoy the people and we all get on well together. We are very lucky to live here and because we are a family orchard.”
Mrs Jones says she doesn’t advertise and never has. She believes stone fruit in Central Otago simply tastes better than anywhere else in New Zealand and that is what keeps the people coming.
The other major attraction is, of course, Mrs Jones herself. Some of the longer serving bus drivers and tour leaders call her Mum and she greets everyone like an old friend. Mrs Jones’ smile has appeared on Chinese television, in countless visitor ‘selfies’ and doesn’t seem to falter even after eight hours on the shop floor.
Twelve years ago when a block came up for sale next door, Mrs Jones quickly claimed it before her husband and son could line it up for more fruit trees. She finally had a chance to realise her dream of creating a formal English garden. Doug planted the roses -all 1500 of them- set amongst classical statues, neatly clipped buxus hedging and formal walkways.
The garden and her three grandchildren aged 15, 13 and 9, are great sources of joy for Mrs Jones. She travels to Crete every second year to visit family and the couple enjoy cruise ship holidays as a way to unwind from the frenetic pace of summer. Sadly the migrant crisis in Europe has prompted them to postpone travelling to Crete this year.
That human tragedy is a reminder of how lucky people are to live in Central Otago, Mrs Jones says, and of the importance of tolerance, being kind and of making our visitors feel welcome.