Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 36, September 1992
By Marjorie Farrow
Little is known about the pre-European history of the Hauraki Plains but glimpses of this era may be conjured from the various recorded swamp and hill pa within the area.
In 1769, with the arrival of Lieut James Cook, the Plains area was placed on the map. Cook anchored the barque "Endeavour" about 15 km from the mouth of the Waihou River, which he then named the "Thames". With various members of his crew, Cook and Joseph Banks, the botanist with the expedition, travelled up river in a long boat and made a landfall on the west bank about 28km from the sea. The party was reported to be overwhelmed by the stately stands of kauri and kahikatea that covered the banks of the river.
The enthusiastic description of the timber trees brought a Captain Dell 25 years later in the "Fancy" from Port Jackson seeking spars for the East India Company naval vessels. The "Fancy" landed sawyers near the mouth of the Waihou and created one of the first commercial ventures in New Zealand. Within 100 years these magnificent stands of timber had all but disappeared.
The Nga Puhi under the general leadership of Hongi Hika, made many bloody forays into the Waikato and the Matamata Plains area via the Piako and Waihou Rivers.
By the turn of the century, apart from the milling of kahikatea forests, the area was virgin land. With continued development of the Waikato lowlands and the decline of the Thames goldfield, ambitious eyes began to range over the vast peat morass that constituted what was known as the Piako swamp. The area was recognised as offering great possibilities for development and settlement, and pressure was brought on the Government to open up the Piako lands for settlement.
The Hauraki Plains Act of 1908 provided the legal machinery for financing the drainage and settlement of approximately 35 000 ha of Crown Land.
In 1910 the 104 sections along the foreshore of the Firth of Thames between the Waitakaruru and the Piako Rivers were offered for selection and 5000 applications were received. Although Turua was the first settlement for the development of the northern Hauraki Plains, Ngatea in 1924 became the principal township and the seat of the Hauraki Plains County Council. Ngatea, or "Orchard" as it was first called, had its tentative beginnings with the arrival of the settlers in 1910.
Work continued on drains, canals, stop-banks, flood-gates, bridges and culverts, enabling a constant increase in the productivity of the swampy land. Several small dairy factories were built in many parts of the Hauraki Plains to serve the local farmers.
Ngatea butter factory began operation in 1920. At that time most of the cream came by launch via the Piako River. The butter was then transported by river and then by sea to Auckland in small vessels. As production increased, the demand for cheese also increased. A cheese plant was established in Ngatea in 1939. Milk was delivered in cans by horse and cart from within a radius of approximately 5 km.
A large dairy factory was built at Kerepehi in 1950 and was serviced by a fleet of milk tankers. With vast improvements in methods of transportation, the smaller scattered dairy factories gave way to the extended operation at Kerepehi that was proving to be financially successful.
The estimated cost of a major maintenance overhaul and the modernisation of the Kerepehi dairy factory coupled with projected economies of scale, foreshadowed the closing of the Kerepehi operation in 1991, when surplus capacity near Hamilton was utilised.
The two factory buildings in Ngatea are now occupied by a gem factory and a vehicle servicing and storage depot for the local Council.
Although there is diversification in the types of farming taking place around Ngatea, dairy farming is still by far the main primary producing venture.
A small hut borrowed from the Lands & Survey Department became the first school in Ngatea and it was opened in March 1912 with 15 pupils, who attended three days a week. This building was replaced in 1914 with a small new school building. In 1919 three rooms were added and children began attending five days a week, with an extra room being erected in 1922 as the roll increased. The following year further extensions were made and the secondary department was then established.
Improvements and rebuilding continued to keep pace with requirements. At the beginning of 1963 the Hauraki Plains College replaced the Ngatea District High School and full college status was achieved, with pupils being drawn from a very wide area, 80% of whom travel by school bus.
The nearest secondary school to the north of Ngatea is Pukekohe, approximately 70 km distant. Secondary schools at Paeroa and Thames serve their local areas.
In 1820 "HMS Coromandel" brought the Reverend Samuel Marsden to the Hauraki Gulf from where, with Te Morenga, he made an overland trip to Tauranga. It was nearly a century later that the first churches were built on the Hauraki Plains.
Turua, being the earliest settlement, had the first churches - Presbyterian in 1917, Anglican in 1923 and Catholic in 1930.
With the steady growth of Ngatea, a Methodist church was built in 1924, an Anglican church followed in 1931 and then, in 1952, a Catholic church was built.
With improved reading and transport, Ngatea became the focal point of the various parishes of the Hauraki Plains and many of the small village churches no longer operated. Some have been converted to private residences, some were dismantled and others were used for various acceptable community interests.
In 1966 the Methodist and Presbyterian churches formed a United Parish based on the Ngatea Methodist building and in 1976, the Union Parish joined with the Anglican Parochial district, to form the Hauraki Plains Co-operating Parish. The Ngatea Methodist church hall and the Presbyterian Sunday School building from Turua were then annexed to the Anglican church building in the centre of Ngatea. Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist ministers serve and occupy the church residence for varying terms. The Catholic church in Ngatea is served by a resident or visiting priest.
The first resident doctor on the Plains came to Turua in 1923 and in 1938 Ngatea was served by a resident doctor for a short period. In 1952 health care began to increase when a husband and wife formed a joint practice with the addition of a third doctor in 1957. The Hauraki Health Centre in Ngatea was opened in 1977. It now provides a wide range of health care including visiting dentist and other specialist services, and the part-time services of a physiotherapist, a podiatrist and a dietician.
SPORT AND RECREATION
Sporting activities on the Plains gained momentum shortly after World War 1. In the early 1920's rugby and cricket were the most popular and were well supported by Plains men, except for the period 1940-44 during World War II. Tennis and hockey also gathered support from the 1920's.
Many other sports were being established and gradually the headquarters of most activities became centralised in Ngatea. Rugby is now served by a clubhouse overlooking the Ngatea Domain, with excellent facilities and nearby is the spacious and well appointed headquarters of athletics/cricket/hockey.
The College gymnasium is the centre for indoor basketball and badminton; with net-ball and tennis also based on the college grounds.
The Piako River has proven a highly suitable stretch for a burgeoning rowing club for young men and women, many being pupils of the college, and ample swimming facilities are available in the centre of Ngatea.
In the grounds of the Mangatarata Domain,11km from Ngatea, an excellent 18-hole golf club and a thriving bowling club are easily accessible.
Recreational interests for all ages are also catered for. An Agricultural and Pastoral Show is held in the Ngatea Domain each November; the Senior Citizens Association now shares the Returned Services Association building with its members; the town is served by the Country Library Service and the College Library is also available at certain times, and there is the usual array of service clubs and women's groups.
In 1911 the first store in Ngatea was operated by a Kerepehi resident who travelled each day by river, then the main outlet for the settlers.
Gradually each village, as it was settled, had a store that supplied most of the day-to-day needs of the local people. Eventually the trading pattern that evolved paralleled the history of the dairy factories and the churches.
With increasing private ownership of motor vehicles and constantly improving access roads, Ngatea developed as a main trading centre for the Plains. Many village stores then became redundant.
In October 1989 the Hauraki Plains County Council ceased to exist when it became part of the wider Hauraki District Council. During the last decade of the HPCC the total population of the county showed little change - it was the distribution of that population that gradually altered. The Ngatea residential area steadily expanded with the village populations remaining static in some areas, but declining in many others.
Evolution is still taking place. Two farms adjacent to the main street have provided land for rapidly expanding housing development, but the number of residents to each house has declined over the years due to smaller families and the increased number of retired folk now living in Ngatea. Older residents find flat land and easy access to social services and amenities to be comforting incentives to retirement in Ngatea.
Ngatea, as a trading centre has a dual role. It serves the surrounding farming community with veterinary services, hardware shops, garages and workshops; with service stations, cafes, dairies and 'convenience' food outlets, as well as an hotel and a motel to serve 'through' trade as well as the locals. There are also the other usual shops, banks and offices, to serve the local households and their occupants.
With the nation-wide restructure of Post Office facilities in 1989, the Ngatea Post Office building became redundant. Private boxes and mailing faculties are now available at the Council Office, with the household mail delivery for Ngatea being retained.
The motorway from Auckland has meant that Aucklanders travelling toward the Plains meet their first shopping stop at Ngatea. But improved highways also mean that many Plains residents can now travel comfortably to other larger towns to shop if they wish.