Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 9, May 1968
By A. H. BLACKMORE
On returning to New Zealand in 1919 from the 1st World War with a bride, whom I had met and married in London, I engaged in farming a totally unimproved piece of land adjacent to Franklin Road on the Waihi Plains. As no returns could be expected until the land began to produce and as my monetary assets consisted of less than £100, my father, who was a farmer in the Waikato and had advised taking on the Waihi land, was prepared to help with the finance. Very soon he became ill and died, leaving my wife and me the responsibility without help, but we did have youth and the will to make a go of it. In this article I do not wish to write an autobiography. Any personal experiences that I may give will only be to illustrate the type of land we had to deal with and the methods we and our neighbours had to use to make progress.
Land settlement by Government
It was at about the time of the Goldminer's strike in 1912 that the Waihi Plains was thrown open for settlement on a 99 years lease. Most of the first settlers were still being employed at the gold mines. Many of these men and women were not young, nor did they have much money for development. Quite a few of the homes on the farms were buildings brought out from the declining town of Waihi. Development was a weekend job, as the men still retained their work in the mines. Progress was naturally slow for many reasons, but as soon as a few cows could be fed, the milking was done prior and after the day's work was done in the mines. Miners on night shift work would also use some of their sleeping time on farm work. Wives and children helped where possible. All the milking was done by hand as well as the separating and each settler had to get his cream to the Waihi railway station, from which it was railed to Paeroa, where the Thames Valley Dairy Company had a butter factory. In the early nineteen twenties this factory was taken over by the N.Z.Co-op. Dairy Coy. Each farmer, having to take his own cream to the rail or send it with women in gigs, buggies or carts. My wife soon learned our pioneer farm ways even though she came from London. Because of the poor state of the roads and the small amount of cream going from each farm many years passed before cream was carted by contract, but that is another story.
Type of land and climate
The land in its natural state was very poor indeed. It consists of fine volcanic yellow ash overlaying pug clay. The depth of the ash averages four to six feet. The top soil does not crack in dry weather. The subsoil, being of clay, which contains plenty of moisture, provides a reservoir of water to be drawn up through the ash in the warm dry periods.
The vegetation growing naturally, was stunted titree and bracken fern. There were no trees to provide firewood and shelter and, as the westerly winds blew often and strongly any ridge of ground facing west was bare of vegetation. When one faced east one was presented with a barren waste appearance because of these bare patches. A friend of nine with sarcasm often said, "Rich looking, such a beautiful yellow!"
The land, although called the Plains, is not flat, but rolling. In fact it would be hard to find enough level ground to provide a football field. Never-the-less there are very few places where a plough could not be used. Very little preparation was needed for ploughing. The fern would carry a fire, the titree in most places was too small to worry a plough and having been scorched by the fire would die on being turned under.
One of the first considerations was the provision of shelter, the principal trees planted being pinus insignus. These, when protected from stock, grew very fast. We learned early that the ground, when being prepared for seed, should not be cultivated too finely or it would blow away. I saw a paddock that had been finely cultivated, completely blown away to the bottom of the ploughing. Women were always having trouble with their washing and dust blew into every crack in the house. Although the prevailing wind came from the West, the Easterlies, when they did come brought with them rain and gales. I had a corrugated iron double garage lifted completely out of the ground and dropped about 100 yards away upside down. The wooden piles had been pulled out of the ground and were still attached to the bottom plates. It was quite a sight to see the building on its roof with the piles pointing to the sky. Shelter, not only helped to improve the climate, but it added beauty and provided firewood. Electricity did not come to the Waihi Plains until the nineteen thirties.
Quality of the Land.
In its natural state the Plains land was so deficient in minerals and humus with its bacteria, necessary for plant growth, that grass and clovers would not grow without some minerals being provided. It was found that Phosphorus, Nitrogen and Potash were badly needed. Fortunately the P.H. of the land was good and little Calcium Carbonate (lime) was needed. Super Phosphate supplied the Phosphorus and the resulting clovers provided Nitrogen. Dung from animals developed bacteria.
All this took time and while the development took place the cattle did poorly, which meant that the farmers' financial returns were slow in coming. To give some idea of the poor value of the grasses and clovers I will quote the butterfat production of the 14 heifers that I milked in the 1920-21 season on 50 acres of grass and clover sown in the early autumn of 1920. 1,100 lbs of butterfat. This was 78 lbs per cow for the whole season, 22 lbs per acre. We were not able to cut any hay as the cows ate all that was produced. At the end of the season the cows were bags of bones. The three strands of wire that we had on the fence could not hold them and they would get out to find jam tins and such like, which they would chew to try and get minerals necessary for their bodies. I prised many tins from their jaws where they would get stuck. The next season the production rose to 1,700 lbs of butterfat, using 70 acres. Quite a few years passed before production rose appreciably, 15 years later the production from 150 acres was 27,000 lbs butterfat using 90 cows. The same farm is sure to be producing much more than this now. In fact I would be interested to know what the returns are.
You will note that the financing of farm costs in the first place was mostly by wages from other work, to be supplemented by returns from cows. Because of the War little progress had been made by 1919, when my wife and I arrived. Butter produced had been bought by the British Government. This carried on for a year after the War. In fact the butterfat payout for the 1919-20 season was 2/6 per lb. When butter came on the open market again, owing to accumulated [stocks – E] in Britain, the price dropped to 8 pence a lb and total gross returns from the farm in 1920-21 was £40.
When father died early 1921 our source of financial help dried up. 70 acres were in grass, but we had no money for topdressing or further improvements. This was our experience and it was probably similar to many others.
We applied to "Advance to Settlers", now known as "State Advances" for finance. This was declined even although I was a returned soldier. As the land was leasehold, we got in touch with the Commissioner of Crown Lands. He could or would not recommend a loan on what he considered very poor land. We began to wonder why the Government opened the land, when their own officers had no faith in it. Next, we applied to the Member of Parliament, Mr. Hugh Poland. He did what he could but no finance arrived, so we had to do what many more were doing, get other work as well as do what had to be done on the farm. This meant real hardship to my wife, having to not only attend to the home and family, but also to help milk, etc. It would often be dark when I would get home from a job. My wife would still be in the cow shed, which, by the way was built from split timber from the bush. There was no concrete, but a board had been laid for the cow to put its hind feet on.
In spite of the worry and work we still had faith in the future and were happy as young couples should be. Please remember that we were not alone in this. Many more had to do the same, not only in our district, but in other pioneering areas. Fortunately when we started, my father had helped us to acquire quite a good team of farm horses and I was able to plough and do other team work for the men who worked in the mines. I also cut out props and cribbing for the Martha Mine from the bush, always working on contract doing bush felling, post splitting, fencing, earth work for the Public Works for the railway being built across the Waihi Plains and anything else that brought in financial help.
Roads and Bridges
In 1919 the only formed and metalled road on the Plains was the Tauranga Road. The Franklin Road, which passed our farm was a series of tracks that had been formed by traffic. Apart from this it was entirely unformed, nor was there a bridge over the Ohinemuri River to connect it with Waihi. It had to be forded and as the banks were quite steep, loads had to be kept comparatively light. When carting manure, being young and strong, I would stop the horses in the river, carry some of the sacks up the steep slope, bring the lightened load up by the horses and re-load on top. Even so, I never risked carting more than 30 cwt. per load using 3 horses because of the poor state of the unformed road. After heavy rain the river would be too flooded to ford, but pedestrians were able to use a suspension bridge. This was wide enough to take one person and went from bank to bank.
The Victoria Bridge [end of Victoria Street – E] was built during the nineteen twenties and meant a great deal to the settlers on the western side of the Waihi Plains. With the development of the farm lands, traffic grew and the roading position became desperate. Many roads were still rough tracks, Ollie Cummings and Les. Yearbury were given the job of forming the Franklin Road between the Old Tauranga Road and Waihi. This was in the early twenties. Their own road, the Pukekauri was not formed for some years later, when the same two men did the job. They used horse scoops and grader. Until 1925 one man was employed in maintenance of all roads on the Plains. He was Tom Kennedy, who had a farm on the Tauranga Road near Waimata. As no metal at that time had been used he would fill the worst holes with fern and titree. If a piece got too bad, he would plant a stick, so that we would know if we went there we would get bogged. In 1923 Mr. Charlie Butcher took over and it was at about this time when metal waste from the mines was first used. This metal was poor but better than nothing. During the depression of the early thirties the Council set up camps where unemployed men were brought from Auckland. The metal was quarried by hand into spaulds, which were carted on to the roads and hand napped. One of these camps and quarries was situated on our farm.
When the Ohinemuri County was formed in 1885 the only representation from the Eastern side of Karangahake were two from what was called the Waitekauri Riding, this in spite of the fact that it took in the area of Waihi, which did not become a Borough until 1902. In 1919, when we settled on the Waihi Plains, we were still represented by two councillors east of Karangahake. These were Mr. H. M. Corbett and Mr. S. H. Morgan, both of Waitekauri. It was not until 1923 that the Waihi Plains' Mataura Valley and Golden Valley combined had a representative. He was Mr. P. Corbett, whose farm was on the Old Tauranga Road. He served until 1926 when Mr. Claude Hands, who farmed on the Franklin Road took his place. Mr. Morgan was replaced in 1926 by Mr. Colin Mason, who famed between Waikino and Waitewheta. Mr. H. M. Corbett, who had become Chairman continued until 1929. It is interesting to note that the East side of the Waihi Borough had no separate representation until 1938, when Mr. C. Christensen was elected. He later became Mayor of Waihi.
During this developing period of Waihi farm land, progress in roading and bridge building took place as finance became available. Much of this was done by special loans, the settlers in the special areas taking the responsibility of the interest and sinking fund. The Council always adopted a policy of keeping a low debt and it is recorded that the highest Public Debt that it ever had up to 1945 when I had the last figures was £21,147, this being in 1924. In the year 1945 it had no debt at all.
Perhaps an idea can be given of the difficulty during the development period in paying the rate demand can be seen by records that show that the percentage of rates paid by March 31st in the financial year 1930-31 was 44.97 %, while in the year 1944-45 it was 99.43 %.
In 1929 when Electric Power was run from Waikino by a 11,000 volt line, which travelled across country near the Pukekauri Road to near the corner of Old Tauranga and Franklin Roads, continuing on to the Victoria Bridge, farmers near the route rejoiced to get it. As the line went across our farm we were among the first to take advantage of it. I had the job of laying out all the materials for the job. In fact I trained a horse to help erect the poles and run out the wires.
(Details re Settlers in our next Journal. Ed.) [see Journal 10: Early Waihi Bushland Settlers - E]