In episode three of Get It to Te Papa, a Lightbox Original made by The Spinoff, Hayden Donnell starts a valiant campaign to move the country’s most famous sign to Te Papa: the Deka sign in Huntly.
The first thing most people notice about Huntly is the Deka sign from afar. The second thing is the Deka sign up close. Many people never notice the third thing – Huntly itself. I was mostly ignorant about the town when I arrived on a summer afternoon in February. As a middle-class city dweller, I assumed it would’ve been infused with cash from Aucklanders fleeing the housing crisis; young professionals buying up three-bedroom properties and demanding good coffee in close proximity. But if gentrification is coming for Huntly, it’s travelling slowly. At the moment, the town is dealing with hard times. Its Solid Energy mine shut down in 2017 as global coal prices crashed, and its iconic power plant has reduced operations. Hundreds of jobs have gone.
By most reports, increasing poverty has been accompanied by increasing crime. I lost count the number of people who saw us filming and made some version of the joke: “What are you making? Crimewatch?” One of the most desirable features of our motel was that it had a secure carpark. This Stuff report paints a picture of a town overrun with gangs of marauding teens.
I hadn’t found out about those issues when I set up a sandwich board reading “Petition to Take the Huntly Deka Sign to Te Papa” on the main street of town, and started appealing to passersby for signatures. My stunt was meant to provoke. But would a belligerent, entitled Aucklander’s efforts to steal a beloved local landmark actually send this already embattled town spinning into a paroxysm of rage? The answer was, to some extent, yes. Several people stopped their cars in the middle of the street to scream at me. One man yelled “fuck Te Papa”. Another stood by his jeep staring at us for 45 minutes. A group of teens camped out by my petition table, making fun of me and announcing they weren’t legally required to move – which was annoyingly accurate.
For the most part though, people were kind and sympathetic. A member of the town’s RSA patiently explained the sign’s value to the community and even helped talk down the afflicting teens. A 95-year-old war veteran grinned, gave me a powerful handshake and refused to sign my petition. One woman simply smiled and gave me the fingers.
Every single one of them – even the teens – were justified and correct. Any town would be improved by my not being there. Huntly dealt with me as reasonably as anyone could expect. I was in the wrong.
But I wasn’t there just to annoy everyone. If I’m honest, we’d already realised there would be logistical issues with transporting the entire Huntly Deka Sign to Te Papa before we arrived in the town. I was there seeking a more transportable, but still important treasure: the original letters from the sign, which had been taken down by the ZM hosts Jay, Flynny and Jacqui in a 2013 radio stunt.
Those letters had always been our real target. We wanted to secure them, and had arranged for me to appeal to the sign’s owner, Sid Patel, to give them to us on our last morning of filming in Huntly. The interview went well. Patel agreed to hand them over. Then as things drew to a close, he dropped a bombshell. He’d never given consent for the letters to be removed. He’d gone outside his store one day to find a group of men in a cherry picker taking his sign apart. He remonstrated with them. Why were they altering a sign that he’d loved and maintained for more 20 years without getting his consent?
Patel eventually gave in and let them go ahead after seeing how happy many Huntly residents were with the light-up letters. It must have been a huge sacrifice. Patel bought the Deka sign after driving past it while he was moving to Auckland. He was going through a divorce, and the sign reminded him of his old life, where he’d run a Deka together with his wife. The men on the cherry-picker gave him the letters they’d taken down as compensation.
I was outraged. Surely messing with someone’s property without their permission was against some kind of law. How had this happened?
It turned out it was a misunderstanding. I talked to Jay Reeve of Jay, Flynny and Jacqui about the lead-up to the stunt. He said the team had worked with Patel’s son to set up the light-up letters. It was meant to be a nice surprise. “He rolled up to a crowd of 2000 waiting to see its get switched on. It was gone for a week getting refurbed by a crew in Hamilton and he was none the wiser,” Reeve said.
The stunt had been well-meaning, but it meant a nationally significant artifact was changed forever. Now every time you drive by the Deka sign at night, and see those four letters glowing against the Huntly dark, you’re seeing a tack-on – fun, but not part of the Deka canon. The true letters of the Huntly Deka Sign are the ones that sang out across State Highway 1 to a fragile Sid Patel more than 20 years ago – and those are the ones that travelled with us to Te Papa.
Read more about Get It to Te Papa and its genesis in Hayden Donnell’s brain right here.
Get It to Te Papa is a Lightbox Original, made by The Spinoff. Episodes 3 and 4 premiere on October 16th at midday on Lightbox.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.