Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 15, June 1971
By F. Thorp
Picture a bush and swamp valley running upwards into the hills to the south with the Ohinemuri river on the lower east side, and clay silt deposits from it running away with a big fall to the west merging into marsh and swamp, finishing up in a peat bog extending to Tirohia. The land rose to the south into fern and tea-tree covered foothills, bare of bush, often burnt off by the Maoris many years before. Beyond were the high bushlands. Tapu Ariki, commonly called "Te Moananui's Hill" near Mackytown [Mackaytown – E] was covered in Puriri forest, later destroyed by fires and post cutters.
Rotokohu would get its name from "Lake of Mist". "Roto" - Lake, and "Kohu" - Mist. This lake of mist or fog could be seen from the 200 foot level on a winter's day; above clear and sunny; the valley below a huge lake of mist. In the first instance the Maoris lived and occupied the river banks easily accessible by canoe, also easily accessible by the canoes of their enemies who raided their crops. To safeguard their food supply, clearings were made in the forest to grow crops. Evidence of these clearings have been and are seen to-day in the hills. In the early days gold was discovered in Rotokohu creek but not in any quantity, and prospectors went east to Karangahake and Waihi where they were more successful.
In 1875 A.J. Thorp approached the Maoris and bought some land on the river bank's west side. A Maori church and cottage which had become "tapu" on the death of a Chief was still there and extending from it a big area of bog land, some 1,170 acres was bought. The struggles and disappointments of this block is a story in itself extending over two lifetimes (See Journal 7, From Wilderness to Pasture". Ed.) [see Journal 7: Wilderness to Pasture - E]
At the head of the valley other early settlers came in 1881 with the first through road to Te Aroha. It went over the hills at this point and a telegraph line was also built that year. The bush covered land was given in 50 acre grants and it was no easy matter to establish homes and earn a very precarious living. These first settlers were the Sheehan family, Bat Brown and his wife, and the Barrett family.
MR.SHEEMAN (Senr.) died early leaving his hard-working wife and a family of 14, the youngest only a baby. The older boys went over the hills to work in the mines at Karangahake, several of them dying of "Miner's complaint" in middle life. Younger members of the family attended the School when it opened there in 1889. Eventually most of them scattered to homes of their own leaving David, the youngest boy to carry on the farm while his sister Theresa kept house for him. He cleared the land and milked a herd of cows. Later he bought the disused but sound "School of Mines" and made it into a comfortable home in which he and his wife lived for many years.
For many years also, Dave picked up the N.Z. Dairy Coy's. cream from each farm on the Rotokohu Road. It was a daily run and Dave and his cart or latterly his lorry were a feature of the road. He was a popular figure and his cheery 'Ow yer doin," was appreciated by all including his many Maori friends, for he was always ready to do a good turn. Since 1969 when he died the road has not been the same place.
Mr. and Mrs. Bat Brown eventually farmed 285 acres. Old Mr. Brown with white flowing beard came to town once a week with home made butter on the front of his jogging horse. This helped to pay for the groceries he took back. They lived a very frugal countrified existence and spoke with an Irish brogue. Their only son Jim, born in 1885, a New Zealander, also spoke the brogue, through lack of contact with other people. When they went to vote in an election they were picked up and taken back in a gig or buggy, the four or five miles. The bush air and clear water out of the creek made for a long life for both Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Both lived to the ripe old age of well over 90 years. Their son Jim was a bachelor and lived for many years afterwards, farming his land and was often seen at the local stock sales. Getting lonely he sold his place about 1926, but the farm came back on his hands, rather badly knocked about by the occupiers. He resumed farming until 1931 but was beaten by fern, ragwort and blackberries, so he sold the place to A.F. & H.R. Thorp and went to live at Huntly to work in the coal mine there. He was offered an annuity for life but preferred a cash deal. He did not live the long life of his father and mother and died at 67 in 1952.
THE BARRETTS were also real Southern Irish, speaking the brogue and living an isolated existence at Rotokohu They would walk the 4 or 5 miles to Paeroa and I always looked forward to meeting Mrs. Barrett to hear her say "Ach and shure you're a foine bye". Actually James Barrett who bought the property did so on behalf of his brother Wm. who followed him from Ireland. James and his family lived in the house now occupied by Mrs. Martin in Normanby Road and he had a Butcher's shop just behind it. He had three sons, the late Tom (a bachelor) who was for a time County Chairman and lived on the Waihi Road (now Buchanan's farm), Jack, a Post-master whose son Jim later farmed on Rotokohu Road and is now in the Paeroa M.O.W. Office and Buster (Morrinsville). Wm. Barrett was the father of the late Mrs. Kelly - Karangahake Hotel proprietress in mining days; Mrs. Jim Noble (Battery Manager), Mrs. McConachy who lived half way up Karangahake mountain when her husband managed the Dubbo mine; - one son, James J. Barrett a bachelor who continued to farm on Rotokohu Road. When the old home was destroyed by fire he built a new one.
There is still a lot of primeeval [primeval – E] bush left, owned and kept by the Crown in its original state. A lot of the land was taken up as Hauraki Pastoral leases in 1912. These were later converted to freehold with mining rights reserved. There was Harry Hill who took up 300 acres; Jack Clarkin of carting days fame, who took up 450 acres. Jim Brown added to his holding. Dan Sheehan took 100 acres on top of the "Divide". This was later sold to Joe Costello of Waihi who lived there for some years. Costello bought a much wider area to cover 800 acres, from the Auckland "Waitemata Hotel" owner John Endean.
During depression period from 1925 - 1935, bush land deteriorated for want of capital and management. Fern, blackberry and ragwort took over, and land in bush was not worth owning. Cattle had to be sold to keep the "wolf" from the door. With no cattle the bracken fern sprang to life and covered the land. Sheep could not be kept because of the blackberry and fern so the clear places became covered with ragwort. The best parts near the foot-hills were kept in grass to graze milking cows to pay the grocer, etc. The result was a bare existence but perhaps better than for the unemployed in the towns.
To-day, things are better, the ruined ground is in good grass. The fallen fences are raised, roads and tracks, bulldozed; the aeroplane sows fertilizer regularly every year without fail from an airstrip on the top of the hills. The cattle keep the fern and bidibidi from showing their heads; sheep eat all the ragwort and goats eat the blackberry. It meant consolidation of run out farms, capital expenditure on a large scale, hard persistent work with no let up - supervision of labour and scientific adjustment. For the better, Yes. For the wealth of New Zealand, yes many times! Rotokohu is still a smiling place. Drained swamp on many farms and smiling grassy hills flanked by bush. A lovely Golf Club in the middle of it all gives pleasure to many people. Goodbye to Bat and Jim Brown, the Barretts and the Sheehans. They were the Pioneers.