Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 16, June 1972
BY DOROTHY WALDEGRAVE
Te Aroha had its "waters" but at Waiorongomai 3 miles distant there was payable gold. Both settlements claim birth in the year 1880 as a result of gold seeking from Thames, whose rich field had been discovered 13 years earlier, in 1867, and from Ohinemuri, opened in 1875. Yet, the importance of Te Aroha, though situated on a river and therefore a port, was at first second to that of its sister town, Waiorongomai, higher up on the range.
By 1883 Waiorongomai had a Post Office and a resident Post Master, 3 hotels and a public school which opened in that year with 40 pupils (more than twice as many as Te Aroha West 3 miles distant down on the plain). Also the district's first resident Anglican clergyman was stationed at Waiorongomai in that year. From there he served Te Aroha, Waitoa, and a very large Parish scattered over the plain. If any one of us should wonder why his Grandparents were married at Waiorongomai, well this is why! Until 1882, when this part of the Parish was taken over by the Rev. Davis, the district had been served by the Rev. W. Calder, Vicar of Hamilton whose migrations, necessarily infrequent, were done on horseback, as were those of a Methodist Minister then stationed at Te Aroha.
In the absence of a railway from Hamilton, which did not reach Te Aroha until 1886, access across the rivers Waikato and Waihou, not to mention a large area of swamp which lay between, effectively isolated the Te Aroha area from the Waikato. The river Waihou was the only access to the two or three large land projects which at this early date carried out settlement in the basin West of the Kaimai Range. Josiah Firth, before 1870, had acquired from the Maori owners the Matamata estate of some 40,000 to 50,000 acres, using the Waihou access from Thames as his highway. In 1879 and 1880, once again by way of the river, land settlement began adjacent to Te Aroha. A company of Lincolnshire farmers settled at Shaftsbury. An area stretching from Waiorongomai to Shaftsbury and including the Wairakau Estate was held by Mr. C.S. Stafford.
These estates were highly organised and largely self-contained settlements. There was on each a roomy homestead with cottages for ploughmen, shepherds and stockmen. Tradesmen such as Blacksmiths and Saddlers formed part of the farming staff. Fine plantations of English trees and young orchards were planted around the homes. Waiorongomai with its newly installed Quartz crushing machinery, looked out over the Plains where these land settlement projects were already forming a nucleus of towns. Matamata, Waitoa and Morrinsville were to become populous centres the rich valley long after Waiorongomai and its promise of gold had disappeared.
Yet 22 years later, in 1902 Waiorongomai, was still "quite a place", although by then in decline. The Cyclopaedia [Cyclopedia – E] of N.Z. published 1902 describes it as "a village where the Government Tramway delivers quartz from the Mines in the hills above". It goes on to state: "In the early days of the field Waiorongomai was a place of some importance. But on account of the output of gold having decreased the population dwindled and the business of the Post Office is now conducted by the wife of one of the settlers. The township has one or two places of business and the school. The one hotel remaining is a two-storey wooden building of 28 rooms and the dining room will seat 100 guests". (This was later moved to Te Aroha). However, the mining business must have continued for at least another decade for we have a newspaper report of the transfer of a new Mine Manager, a Mr. Greening, from Karangahake to Waiorongomai in 1909.
Fifty years later an article in a Waikato Tramping Club publication, dated May 1959, has this to say "In the Waiorongomai Loop today a few houses remain, a metal crusher and a lone chimney. The stream flows quietly past as if scoffing at men's calloused hands and sweaty brow and his brief streak of fortune. Invading the solitude come quieter folk these days..... parties of trampers and botanists with an eye to the past history of the valley but a deeper appreciation of Natures Panorama".
The Railway from Hamilton reached Te Aroha 1886. Not until 6 years later, 1894 did it connect with Rotorua. Possibly this accounts for the head start which Te Aroha had over Rotorua as a Health Resort and Mineral Spa. From the book "Te Aroha and the Fortunate Valley", brought out in 1930 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Te Aroha, the following information has been obtained:
The discovery of gold at Te Aroha was first reported by Mr. Adam Porter of the Te Aroha Prospecting Party in a private letter dated 11th September 1880 to Mr. Oliver Wakefield, under secretary for Goldfields. He also reported the matter officially to Mr. H. Kenrick, Warden of Thames Goldfield. After investigation, R. Warden Kenrick recommended the Government to proclaim the district a goldfield. On Saturday November 20th 1880, a proclamation was issued.
At the time of the opening of the field no roads had been formed at Te Aroha and the greater part of the land was covered in fern and tea tree scrub. One could get about by following the old Maori tracks and those of the prospectors and surveyors. During 1881 contracts were let for various works about Te Aroha, e.g. the road to Waiorongomai mines, a punt to cross the river. Mr. Charles Everett was the successful tenderer for the punt; Messrs Smith and Grimes, for £400 undertook the job of forming the road from Te Aroha to Waiorongomai creek.
CONTRIBUTOR: MRS. WALDEGRAVE.
We are particularly grateful to Mrs. Waldegrave who has volunteered to help our publishing committee. Widow of the late W.E. Waldegrave, who for twenty years was editor of the Hauraki Plains Gazette, she is a comparative newcomer to Paeroa, though her father and brother took up land on the Orchard East Road at the opening of that block in 1916. For thirty years she lived in the vicinity of Hamilton where her first husband Mr. Cecil J. Brooke was a Soldier settler from World War I and farmed until his death in 1961. Both she and Mr. Brooke were foundation members of the Waikato Historical Society and together undertook the historical research for booklets concerning the districts and Schools of both Newstead and Kapuni.
Mrs. Waldegrave thinks her interest in history arises from the fact that her grandfather was headmaster of the Mercer School from after its establishment in 1876 and also that her father was associated with the pioneer surveyor Harry May Skeet in the original trigonometrical survey of the Taranaki Province (1881-1896) for the whole of that period. She possessed valuable photographic plates taken on this survey and recently donated them to the Alexander Turnbull Library. (Ed).