Mill House owner Karen Bleakley outside the historic
building at Waianakarua. Photo by Sally Rae.
Flicking through a property guide while visiting her
parents in Christchurch last year, Karen Bleakley spied an
advertisement for the Mill House in North Otago.
The historic landmark, built as a flour mill in 1879 and
later turned into an accommodation and restaurant complex,
was being offered in a mortgagee sale.
A friend suggested that it would do no harm to have a look
and, in August last year, Ms Bleakley found herself the owner
of the property, 25km south of Oamaru, attracted by the
potential she saw in it.
It was a major change, both in lifestyle and career, for the
40-year-old who had spent about 17 years in the navy and was
living in Wellington.
Coincidentally, Ms Bleakley was born in Oamaru and later
spent a year studying at Waitaki Girls' High School.
Built from locally quarried stone by German settler Ernst
Diehl, the mill began operation on May 12, 1879. Less than
two years later, it was badly damaged by fire and stood
unoccupied for several years until it was sold and renovated.
It was later purchased by the Dunedin-based Phoenix Company
which operated it as a mill until it closed in 1939.
The mill and surrounding land was sold to the Boy Scouts'
Association in 1958 and the mill itself was unoccupied until
1969, when it was purchased by Bernard Esquilant and Bill
After extensive restoration work, they opened it as an
accommodation-restaurant complex in 1970. A block of motel
units had been added in the 1970s.
The property, which is situated alongside the Waianakarua
River, later had various owners.
Ms Bleakley moved south in March this year and the complex
remained closed while she undertook improvements, before
opening at Labour Weekend.
She also had an opportunity to continue her involvement with
the Defence Force by doing some project work for the navy.
She enjoyed maintaining contact with colleagues and she also
enjoyed catching up with friends who dropped by during the
recent Southern Katipo military exercise.
Ms Bleakley recommended a career in the Defence Force, saying
it provided great opportunities.
She had enjoyed the challenges and variety that the work
involved. She spent a ''fair amount'' of time at sea,
including deployments to the South Pacific, Southeast Asia,
Australia and Afghanistan.
It had also given her various skills that were useful in her
new role in the hospitality industry.
Although Ms Bleakley was more used to living in cities, she
had found the local community to be very welcoming, friendly
She had never had a particular ''life plan''; rather she had
been open to opportunities as they came up, she said.
Taking over the Mill House was quite a change and she
admitted she might have initially been a little naive about
how much work was involved.
''I needed a bit more work-life balance, I think. I'm just
waiting for that to come,'' she said, laughing.
However, she had a much more fulfilling personal life now, as
previously she had been very much focused on work.
She had learnt a lot over the past few months and was keen to
''do what we do well'' and then progress as the demand arose.
Ms Bleakley said her tenure at the Mill House was ''not a
short-term thing'' and she realised that passion and
enthusiasm were needed to make the venture succeed. It
required putting ''your heart and soul'' into it, she said.
''I'm not going to be bored for a few years,'' she said.