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Diamond Jubilee of the Ohinemuri County 1885 - 1945

THE TOWN'S EARLY DAYS

On Junction of Two Rivers

Paeroa has copied the example of more famous predecessors by planting itself at the confluence of two rivers, the Ohinemuri and the Waihou. The former, which at times has been called a dirty ditch, is spanned at Paeroa by a substantial bridge. It was, indeed, sixty years ago a beautiful river, a waterway that enabled small steamers from Auckland to discharge their freight into what was then the very heart of the embryo town, withal, a stream as limpidly crystal almost as its spring in the mountains from which it debouches a few miles east of Waihi. Yes, this is the Ohinemuri River. It has changed the face of the landscape in its time, has this river. If it had stopped to think of what it was about and chosen an easy course, one might have expected it to flow to the Bay of Plenty, near which it has its source. Some prank played during the uprisings and downsittings of that great mountain block, the Cape Colville or Coromandel Range, having started it on a westward course, a matter of a few trifling millions of years ago, it cheerfully undertook the task of cleaving the mountains in twain. That task it has accomplished, well and truly, as you may see when you go through the Karangahake Gorge.

It is not for nothing, in more senses than one, that men win iron and coal and gold from the storehouses of Mother Earth, as witness, for example, the Black Country in England and this copious current of muddy liquid, with its silted banks, the present Ohinemuri River. When the great battery, which was to win millions from the ores of the Martha mine at Waihi, was erected upon its banks, the river was publicly degraded by Act of Parliament; it was gazetted a sludge channel. The tailings were carried down the river, polluting the water, raising the bed, and smearing the banks. Presently the steamers could ascend no higher than the junction of the two rivers; yet a little while, and they must stop still lower down at the Puke landing; now perforce they discharge their cargoes a mile or two below the junction.

An Old Pioneer

In 1851 in Auckland a little book (now unprocurable) was published by Messrs. Williamson and Wilson, the "Journal of an Expedition Overland from Auckland to Taranaki, by way of Rotorua, Taupo and the West Coast: undertaken in the summer of 1849-50 by His Excellency the Governor-in-Chief of New Zealand" — Sir George Grey. The book is unusual in that it is printed on alternate pages in two languages, English and Maori. The late Mr. C. B. Gentil, of Paeroa, had a copy, one of his most cherished possessions. In it is a most interesting reference to the first pioneer farmer of the Ohinemuri district, Mr. Joshua Thorp (father of the late Messrs. J. W. and A. J. Thorp, and grandfather of Mr. A. F. Thorp, present councillor, and Mr. H. R. Thorp, of Paeroa), who must have been a man of remarkable individuality. A surveyor and architect in Sydney, and head of the engineering department under Governor Sir Charles Darling, he bought a schooner, loaded her up with a sort of Swiss Family Robinson outfit, and set sail for Auckland, where he landed with his family in 1839 — a year before New Zealand became a British Colony. After a short stay at Coromandel he moved to Ohinemuri. The writer of the Journal records that the Governor's party was received at Mr. Thorp's; the trees in the orchard were laden with fruit, of which only cherries were ripe; the herd of cattle included 25 milk cows and some particularly fine fat bullocks; no servants were employed, the work of the establishment being done by Mr. Thorp and his sons; 30 or 40 acres had been broken in and the land was producing wheat, potatoes and grass; in the apiary were 40 or 50 hives; that the members of the party were invited to prolong their stay, but had to excuse themselves, taking away with them a bottle of milk; finally, that the Governor considered Mr. Thorp to be a settler of a very fine type. The late Mrs. A. J. Thorp, who was for many years librarian at Paeroa, recalled, among other interesting reminiscences, that every three months or thereabouts, the family cutter sailed away to Auckland to bring back supplies.

An Embryo Town

When Mrs. A. J. Thorp came as a young teacher to Paeroa in 1882, the infant town consisted of a small group of shanties and houses, two churches, a public hall, a blacksmith's forge, a grocers shop, a baker's shop, a general store, which served as a Post Office, a butcher's shop and — five edifices denominated hotels! Licenses in those days were easily obtained, and any old shack served for the dispensing of potent liquors. The front doors of the business community opened upon a sort of beach road or esplanade between them and the Ohinemuri River. The town wharf was a short distance below the site of the present bridge. As to trade, there were the farmers, prospectors, and miners in the surrounding districts to be catered for. The Ohinemuri goldfields had been opened in 1875, but as yet there had been no development of importance. For the ten years or more following 1882 the town stagnated, till in the 'nineties the mining boom at Karangahake and Waihi brought a mushroom growth.

Arduous Transport

The exigencies of the mining industry made Paeroa an entre-pot of great importance. Waihi had the most productive lodes in the history of New Zealand goldmining; but it had neither railway nor seaport. Supplies of all kinds, from needles to steam engines, from dungarees to Parisian frocks: things to eat and especially things to drink, were brought by steamer or by rail to Paeroa, and thence transported by road to Karangahake, Waihi, and other centres on the goldfields. Old residents will recall the "convoys" of coal and other waggons which constantly travelled from Paeroa to Waihi and Waitekauri, and the difficulties encountered in negotiating Turner's Hill near Mackaytown, Snake Hill when approaching Waihi, and the tortuous Waitekauri Road. At Turner's Hill, not then easily graded as it is to-day, it was a common sight to see as many as forty, or more, draught horses, straining and toiling up the hill, or awaiting their turn to do so, the leaders of the various teams being used to help other teams up the steep incline. By this means there was transported all machinery, some heavy and bulky, coal and other goods, during many years and until the railway line was completed to Waihi, for the mining companies and the mining townships. The mud at times and in places was awe-inspiring. Passengers were conveyed by coach service as far as Tauranga.

The Town Extends

Properties in the neighbourhood were subdivided into building sections and the town extended in all directions. The extensions of the town west and north-west from the new post office were on freehold sections; the portion eastward was built on a Government block, subdivided and sub-let by the tenants. Not till 1908 were the holders able to secure the freehold of their sections.

In Times Of Flood

From its infancy till the second decade of the present century Paeroa was tormented by floods. After heavy rains the waters of the Waihou and the Ohinemuri Rivers overflowed their banks, spreading a sheet of shallow water over the low-lying area of the town. A great State-controlled improvement scheme called the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Scheme, co-ordinated with that for the reclamation of the neighbouring portion of the Hauraki Plains, and involving the construction of many miles of embankment, has restrained the errant waters and confined them within their proper channels.

The fertile Awaiti district was unwatered, and at the ballot in 1912 over 300 applications were made for some of the sections offered.

Remarkable Changes

The portion of the Paeroa Domain, where are now the bowling green, croquet green and other playing areas was formerly a swamp encircling a lagoon some acres in extent. With the aid of special loan monies the land has been reclaimed and brought into its present good condition.

Not always has the Paeroa Domain appeared as attractive as it does today. Half a century ago, and for several years after, an area now comprising the Domain and some residential sections formed "Earl's Paddock," wherein beef cattle grazed, and in which there stood Earl's slaughterhouse and piggeries used in connection with his Thames Road butcher's shop.

Old photographs of Paeroa show kahikatea bush on the western side of the Waihou River, and the timber trade was formerly important — so also was that of flax. But where the stroke of the bushman's axe resounded now is heard from many a milking shed the buzz of the electric motor; the butter factory and the cheese factory have replaced the sawmill and the flaxmill: the town, no less than the country, lives by the produce of that beneficent, if uninspiring quadruped, the cow.