This ‘Kerouse’ hawkers van that plied Manawatū district roads for about 60 years, selling everything from a needle to an anchor, has a special place in the history of the Coach House Museum. The 120 year old built-up wagon, that was pulled by one horse, was presented to the museum society on 9 May 1964, the same day the society was formed. It was presented by Hugh and Lorna Robinson, and restored by Mr and Mrs Bill McBride.
The van was built in Wellington in 1900, and was used by Peter Kerouse, a Syrian, until around 1957. He travelled the districts’ roads selling anything and everything. Peter has lived on, as one of the district’s colourful characters, and was also known on the East Coast. It is therefore possible that his selling area extended to Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa.
The vehicle can be entered from the back through flaps, and once inside, along the centre is a narrow space – space for one person. Peter is known to have slept at night, and sat in it during the day. Both sides also have flaps that open to reveal shelves and display space. During its working life, the shelves would have carried a veritable emporium of assorted household goods.
As a 20 year old, Peter emigrated to New Zealand, well away from his birthplace of Yakshoush, Mt Lebanon, in Syria. Why and how he came to settle in this district is unknown, although there were many Syrians in the country at that time. He also had Lebanese friends in Palmerston North; the Maree family who had a drapery on Main Street. Their address also served as Peter’s mailbox for mail he received from overseas.
“Peter started as a pedlar on foot, carrying on his back a large wooden box with lift-out trays containing bolts of cloth, reels of cotton, lace needles, pins, socks, ribbon and other useful bits and pieces. The Marees were also hawkers, and it is possible the box trays he used, had once been used by them.
In November 1908 Peter successfully became a New Zealand citizen. But he never settled in one place, nor opened a store. It was rumoured many women on his routes found him attractive; but he didn’t waiver from his solitary ways.”
In 1920 he sailed back home to Yakshoush and married his childhood sweetheart Mary. He was happy with Mary and settled with their eventual four children on a small farm of his own. But he wanted to return to New Zealand with his family and arrived in 1927 on his own – it was speculated that Mary didn’t want to come to a strange country and language.
He resumed his pedlar’s trade using the special covered wagon. He bought a reliable half-draught horse to pull his portable shop/home. In later years he formed a close relationship with the Simonsen family at Rongotea, where he had mail redirected. Son Gordon Simonsen remembered Peter staying at the family property about four times a year. “Usually he would stay a night, two if his horses were in need of shoeing, or repairs made to his van, which he parked in the paddock next to the house.” Peter ate with the Simonsens; played cards with them in the evenings, but always slept in his own bed in the van.
As Peter entered his late 70s, his health deteriorated and he was often ill. Gordon last saw Peter in Taonui in 1959. After that he left the road and stayed with Hugh and Lorna Robinson at Carnarvon.
He expressed a wish to go back to his homeland, and in 1961 the Robinsons’ saw him off on a bus to Wellington. His vehicle was left with the Robinsons who in 1964 donated it to the museum.
But what happened to Peter after that, no-one really knows. A search of death records in New Zealand found nothing; did he get home to Syria to live with his daughter? Or did he die in New Zealand, and his daughter took his body back to Syria? None of his friends received any letters from him. The best scenario was that he made it home and lived out the rest of his time happily with family.
For now, Peter the Pedlar’s story ending still remains a mystery.