Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 18, June 1974
By VIC MURRAY
What a busy little town Ngatea is now - quite different from the way I remember it in 1921 and 1922, when I was stationed there as a representative of the Hauraki Plains Gazette. A span of just over half a century is not great when you look at the older established places (like Paeroa) but in 1921 I saw Ngatea in its infancy.
The biggest difference I saw in 1973 when I stopped to look around was the wide and level main street through the shopping area which had replaced the narrow high-cambered red macadam road and covered the very deep, wide and weed-ridden drains on both sides of the road. Disappeared, of course, were the bridges which spanned the drains here and there for pedestrians and sometimes for horses and carts or the occasional motor car. One of the widest of the drain bridges was outside the public hall, which was being enlarged at about the time of my arrival. Like any country hall, it was used for meetings, dances, picture shows once or twice a week, church services for all denominations, political gatherings and some stormy rate-payers' meetings.
Just beside the hall, was the original post office, opened in 1912, looking like a 10 x 10 ft shack. A portion of the old hall, was pointed out to me recently behind some more modern buildings, but the old post office disappeared after the new one was opened with much pomp and ceremony some time in 1922. It was modern for its day and, although much larger than its predecessor was still tiny compared with the one which serves the town and district now.
Not far from the hall was Mr. W.G. Hayward's "family butcher" shop, as proprietors liked to call their premises in those days. The above buildings were scattered along the northern side of the road and behind them, standing apart, was the dairy factory only a short distance from the main wharf.
Ngatea was a river port which had the luxury of two wharves, one on either side of the stream and almost exactly opposite each other. The small one on the eastern side probably received the road metal, all of which had to be procured from outside the county. Nearly all the river shipping seemed to favour the larger one on the western side. That is where most of the freight and passengers came in and went out of Ngatea. There were not many private cars in those days, and the Paeroa-Ngatea service car run, attracted little attention. Also, we were never certain of the clay sections of the road to Auckland.
The bridge to the south of the wharf, with its bitumen surface, has discarded the use of the lifting span which, more than half a century ago, catered for a steady stream of ships that used the Piako River. Most which passed up-stream under (or through) the bridge were scheduled for Kerepehi, then the centre of major drainage operations in the upper portion of the Hauraki Plains, but some went even further as far as Patetonga, eight or nine miles south. Machinery which raised and lowered the span was operated by an elderly grey-bearded man, whose name I forget. He lived in a hut hidden in a little forest of trees, mainly willows, immediately beside the north-westerly end of the bridge.
A little more exposed but almost coyly peeping out of the trees was Mr. Dave Vincent's general store. The building seemed something out of the past even then, perhaps going back many years when the settlement was known as the Orchard. Inside, however, was everything one could expect to find in a country "general store". At that time, 1921, it was the only shop of its kind for many miles. It is no longer there. Neither are the trees.
Coming back from the bridge on the southern side of the road was the single-building school in front of the present main college building and almost next door to what has become the great modern invention - the TAB. (It made me wonder if the Ngateans have to go to College to learn how to make best use of the betting shop.)
Apart from one or two other buildings, mainly houses, of which one or two still remain on the southern side of the road, the one I remember most was on what was then the outskirts of the village. This was Shaw's boarding house, where I spent about 12 months of my life. During the last (1973) Christmas break my wife and I stopped while passing through to and returning from Paeroa. I looked around to find out if any of the old buildings remained. The old boarding house, now in the centre of the business area, was still there. Although its front was skilfully and tastefully camouflaged the many window spaces along the western side gave me the clue. All except two had been blocked up, but I was able to pick out the window of the room I occupied so long ago.
Partly to confirm my judgment and also for nostalgic curiosity, I walked boldly into Rouse's House of Fashion. I was amazed how such an old and unattractive looking boarding house had been changed inside to a well set out and copiously stocked emporium which would have graced the amenities of any modern town or city, just as the more recently built premises are a credit to the town of Ngatea. These include shops in newer buildings, hotel, motel, banks and the new offices of the Hauraki Plains County Council. These, I noted, were very new. The Hauraki Plains County had not been long in existence when I first went to Ngatea, and the old council building near the bridge was not the first office established. Council business was formerly conducted in a shed southward along the river road beside the home of the first county clerk, Mr. E.L. Walton, who was also a Solicitor and who later became Stipendiary Magistrate in Gisborne, where he later died.
The year 1922 saw a quickening of development. In addition to the new post office and the new (now old) county chambers, there came Montgomery's bakery not far from the boarding house, but a little further on. Other establishments were contemplated as the drainage of the Plains opened up new land and brought new farmers. The country village of Ngatea was starting to grow. I saw nothing of later development, because I was off elsewhere.