A Life Well Lived


At the age of 80 and 82 respectively, when most people are well into retirement, Peter and Joan Ruthven decided to start a new business.

So they opened the Mount Carmel Basic Health Food Shop in Hamilton, Victoria, where they sold a wide range of legumes, nuts and dried fruits, gluten- and dairy-free products, organic vegetables and a chef ‘s choice of delicious vegan takeaway meals.

This is not Mr and Mrs Ruthven’s first endeavour in the health-food business. Peter’s passion for health and the desire to share his knowledge and experience led him to dedicate his life to making the world a healthier place.

“Health food is my life,” he says.

“I like people and helping them to be healthy and that is one of the things that encouraged me to do this.”

Peter’s journey began in South Africa.

After serving with the Rhodesian Army for six years, he became a cattle rancher on Devuli Ranch, which at the time was the largest privately owned cattle- breeding property in the world. He worked seven days a week managing 250,000 acres of land and 28,000 head of cattle.

Peter’s army training was at times called upon to protect the Hereford beef cattle and their calves from preying lions and leopards. “The leopards I’d shoot with a .22 rifle so the bullet wouldn’t spoil the skins—I didn’t need a big gun as you had to be a marksman in the army.”

He and his men also battled elephants, which tried to drink water from the tanks by ripping out the pumps in the bore wells.

But Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was becoming unsettled, so in 1959 Peter and Joan made the decision to leave Africa and head for Australia.

Peter went to see a stock agent on his first day in Tasmania and began working on a 4000-acre sheep stud the next day.

After seeing how Australian farmers lived and worked, the Ruthvens bought their own dairy farm in Launceston, which they ran for five years. During this time, Peter and Joan became aware of the vegetarian diet.

Peter attended a meeting where the initial subject matter was of a spiritual nature, but it later branched out into health issues.

“I had never heard of vegetarianism, never realised there was such a thing! Then in 1961 Joan and I became vegetarians ourselves and a few years later vegans,” says Peter.

In the mid-1960s, the couple sold their dairy farm and headed back to Rhodesia for a holiday. The holiday ended up becoming a two-year stay, followed by a move to Johannesburg, South Africa, where Peter opened the first vegetarian restaurant in the country.

The call of the country lifestyle brought the Ruthvens back to Australia, where they started a health food business with shops in Stawell and Ararat, Victoria. They also opened the Mount Ararat Christian Book Centre.

“We were aware Ararat didn’t have a Christian bookshop as such in the main street and felt it was something we needed,” says Peter.

The shop sold Christian books and videos, as well as Bibles in a full range of translations. The shop had a library of books on health that could be borrowed for 50 cents each and videos on the life of Jesus for $1. The shop was a way for Peter and Joan to share their faith and help tell people about Jesus Christ.

Peter was also a member of the Ararat Landcare Group and was among the first to plant trees in Kokoda Park. He volunteered to drive the community car and helped out with the Emergency Relief Agency.

At home he bred Yorkshire canaries, which he would take to canary shows in Melbourne, often returning home with a whole raft of prizes.

At the age of 60, rather than calling it a day and settling into retirement, the Ruthvens sold their shops and embarked on a working holiday.

First, Peter worked as a kitchen designer in Scotland and then from 1983 to 1986 used his background in health food to tend to aristocrats and sheiks at a retreat in England.

“I worked as head chef on a health farm in Surrey, where I ran a 28-day menu without repeating a single meal,” he says.

During their stay in Scotland, Peter designed a house, based on the older style homes in the area and around England.

When the Ruthvens returned to Australia they opened their own health retreat, called the House of Ruthven, near Stawell, in the foothills of the Black Ranges.

The house itself was built by the couple (with some assistance), and featured bay windows, a balcony, ensuites to two of the guest bedrooms and a large kitchen area, where Peter and Joan gave vegetarian and low-cholesterol cooking demonstrations.

The Ruthvens planted more than 100 native trees and shrubs in the area surrounding the house and grew organic fruit and vegetables. Guests were free to wander through the 54 acres of native bushland, be lulled by Fraynes Creek or take in a view of the Grampians.

All the meals provided were vegan and all the drinks were free from caffeine and alcohol.

It was a wonderful opportunity for people wanting to unwind, learn about good food, lose weight or give up smoking. It also provided a place for vegetarians to get away from the hectic city life to a place where their healthy diet would automatically be catered for—something that was quite rare at that time.

Eventually the time came when Peter and Joan decided to retire. They tried it for a while, but soon came to the conclusion it was far too boring.

“It’s all very well to travel around the countryside but that’s not me. I want to do something purposeful in life,” says Peter. “It’s so nice to be in the workforce.

You get tired of doing nothing.”

And so the Mount Carmel Basic Health Food Shop was born. At the end of May they relocated their shop to a more prominent location and have renamed it Hamilton Basic Health Foods.

Having an active and healthy lifestyle gives Peter the energy to walk to work at 5 am, six days a week, to fire up the ovens and start baking rolls, pasties and organic wholemeal bread. Then at 10 am he begins preparing meals for the lunch menu. “I made 40 pasties for today’s lunch,” he reports.

And of course, all this energy is completely natural.

“We have both experienced the benefits of healthful living and take no tablets of any sort,” says Peter. “You are what you eat and our food is our medicine.”

Peter’s prescription for good health and longevity is to start the day with a good breakfast, “consisting of fruit, a few nuts, dried fruits and cereals—they give you energy until lunchtime.”

Lunch should be a hearty affair with legumes and three steamed vegetables, a slice of wholemeal bread and a freshly made salad.

It’s better to keep the evening meal light and simple, “like a pawpaw, fruit and a few nuts and go to bed four hours after.”

But clearly Peter and Joan Ruthven are doing more than just eating the right foods. They are keeping their minds active and their hands busy through their continuing involvement in the workforce and the community.

While sharing their knowledge of health food through various businesses over the years has been their main passion, the couple have also taken part in other business ventures, spent time developing hobbies, volunteered with community groups and are active members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Peter credits his unstoppable nature to the words of his father, who said, “Nothing in this world is impossible.

There’s nothing you can’t do unless you don’t want to. When you put your mind to something it seems to work.”

Coupling this advice with Peter’s belief in self-discipline and his own philosophy: to be obedient to the law of God and the law of the country, he says, “You follow that and you won’t be in trouble. You won’t have any problems.”

Every new venture is another opportunity to get involved in the community and share their skills with those around them.

With such a full life it’s hard to imagine the Ruthvens ever slowing down. As Peter states, “I’d like to die with my boots on instead of rusting away.”

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