Each Christmas, Dunedin gets obsessed with pixies -  little wooden elves about the height of a coffee cup who have been living out their weird and wonderful lives for a century.

Almost 100 years ago, an eccentric Nelson man with a troupe of performing monkeys began carving animated scenes of wooden pixies.

Some are charming, like a swing band and an amusement park.

Others are outrageous - like a dentist pulling out teeth while another holds the patient's ears, a headmaster spanking a student, and a nudist colony relaxing while a Peeping Tom pops up over the fence.

Caption: A Pixie Town scene of a nudist colony, where they lather each other up in sunscreen and eat sandwiches by a fire while a Peeping Tom looks over the fence. Footage: Re: News

You may not have heard of Pixie Town, but for much of the past 100 years it has been a beloved part of the New Zealand Christmas tradition - touring all over the country, and the world.

And Dunedin is keeping that tradition alive - with the Toitū Early Settlers Museum displaying the wholesome part of the collection every year since 2004, while a local man gives tours of the more outrageous sets at his manor outside of town.

The history of New Zealand pixies

The Pixie Town sets were first created by Nelson man Fred Jones in the 1930s. 

Jones was an eccentric and celebrated part of the Nelson community - also creating Coney Park, a popular Nelson amusement park, putting on shows with his troupe of performing monkeys, and is considered one of New Zealand’s first photojournalists.

But his most enduring legacy is Pixie Town.

Caption: A scene with a swing band, and another at a school where the headmaster spanks a student and another rubs his bum. Footage: Re: News

His early sets of these mechanical pixies quickly became popular in Nelson, and Jones was asked to build dioramas for department stores all across the country.

By the 1950s demand was so large that Jones had to open a factory to produce them, where he employed six carvers, a seamstress to make their clothes, and a painter.

They ultimately created three different Pixie Town displays. Each of these Pixie Towns had roughly 15 different scenes with a total of 140 animated figures, and weighed 4500 kilograms.

In today’s dollars, they cost almost half a million dollars each to make.

The three Pixie Towns would tour the country, and also ended up going to Australia and Singapore.

After decades of touring, in the 1970s the sets were bought by department stores where it became a Christmas tradition to display them.

The Dunedin pixies

It’s not clear what happened to two of the three sets. Some of the pieces are displayed at the Nelson Provincial Museum, and it is thought the rest were broken up and sold to collectors - some are even thought to have been purchased and shipped to the United States.

The most complete remaining collection is in Dunedin where until the 1980s it was displayed in the Dunedin DIC department store (which would later become Arthur Barnett).

Caption: A scene where a group of firefighters put out a house fire, and another where a dentist yanks a patient's tooth, while another holds his ears. Footage: Re: News

In the 1980s the Dunedin set was moved into storage by Arthur Barnett, and later sold to a toy collector, and then to the Otago Early Settler Society.

The society purchased the 13 different sets which are still displayed at Toitū Early Settlers Museum today.

The scenes in this set include a hotel, a carnival, a playground and a marketplace - all filled with animated pixies who have been going about their same routine for more than half a century.

The complete set

However, it turned out that it was not the entire set that the society had purchased in the 1980s, and what is thought to be the rest of the Dunedin Pixie Town set would later be sold to local man Ray Beardsmore in the late 1990s.

Beardsmore keeps his collection on his and his wife's property, the Woodside Manor, outside of Dunedin.

Here, Beardsmore has conducted private tours of his collection for decades.

Many of Beardsmore’s scenes feature more risque elements, such as a nudist camp and a teacher spanking a student.

“I once had a group of kids through, and when we got to the nudist display one of them turned to me and said ‘my teacher wouldn’t like this’,” he says.

“I asked them why, and they said ‘because they don’t have sun hats on’.”

Caption: A scene following the process of milling flour from the field to the completed bags. Footage: Re: News

Beardsmore was actually part of the Early Settlers Society when they bought the first half of the set in the 1980s, and took the lead on fundraising to buy the collection.

He says Toitū has approached him a number of times over the years to enquire about purchasing his part of the collection - particularly the pieces in poorer condition.

But he says he doesn’t want to part with his portion of the collection.

“I’ve been through so much with Pixie Town, and I like what I've got,” Beardsmore says.

“I’m a reluctant parter of things.”

The future of Pixie Town

Toitū curator Peter Read says they are considering what the future of Pixie Town will look like at the museum, especially with the sets getting older and starting to degrade.

Toitū has experts who tend to the collection but there is only so much that can be done. 

One of their sets, a troupe of performing monkeys likely based on Jones’ own, has been retired as it had stopped working properly. 

Caption: A hotel scene where guests sit around drinking and smoking, and another of a shipping yard with a welder and a painter. Footage: Re: News

To preserve the sets they have, they only display eight of their twelve scenes each Christmas, and have a break during the days they are displayed to turn the machines off.

“We do need to think about how we're going to keep Pixie Town going, because as they age it's harder to keep them going,” Read said.

“Whether that involves finding more, restoring more, or making new ones, that's yet to materialise.”

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