Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 1, June 1964
By W.C. Kennedy, M.B.E., J.P.
It would be true to say that in 1875 more people were concerned about Ohinemuri's mining prospects than about its farming prospects. Yet there have always been people prepared to make great sacrifices in order to follow the lure of land-owning. Its meagre early rewards for long hours of hardship left the pioneer undaunted as he contemplated greater security for the generations that followed.
Looking back, one wonders why they didn't find easier places to begin, but it is evident that they seized what ever opportunities came their way, and leasehold tenure provided a reasonable opportunity of acquiring land at a figure they could afford. At the time when this district was declared a goldfield, the then government encouraged people to go on the land and opened up thousands of acres between Karangahake and Waihi. The area was cut up into 50 acre blocks, the rent being £2/10/- per year and no person was supposed to take up more than one section, though of course, dummying did take place. Fifteen years later the settlers were given the option of acquiring the freehold at 5/- per acre, but it was difficult enough to make a living, let along to save, when breaking in, with primitive means, this wild country, most of it bush covered and the balance in scrubby fern and tea-tree. Manuring was almost prohibitive.
It was to one of these sections on the Waitawheta side of the river, one mile from the village of Owharoa that my parents took me soon after 1875. Being only one year old at the time I have no recollection of the fact, but I have been told that had there not been plenty of wild pigeons and kaka in the bush and many Captain Cook pigs, we could scarcely have survived.
The first settlers were Charles Robinson, a retired sea Captain from Auckland; D. Kennedy and Tom Short, both of Thames. Others who arrived shortly after were: Charlie Franklin, Joe Thorp, John Quinlivan, Louis Dihar and Harry McWilliams. Apart from these people there were some who took up sections at that time, built a whare to comply with the purchase conditions, but never lived on the property.
Most of the houses that I remember in the 70's were built with split palings, the roof being wooden shingles or nikau leaves. In selecting a site to build the home, the first essential was to be near water and secondly to be near bush for firewood, shelter and feed for the few cows that each owned. Dense undergrowth was then abundant and so were mosquitoes which we tried to combat with smoke. One of my earliest recollections dates back to about 1880 when my father took me to Mataura Bay to gather peaches. I think the Missionaries must have given stones to the Maoris. There were many places where trees were most plentiful and at first the Maoris made no charge for the fruit, though in later years they did and if you had no money you had to pay in kind. It is on record that Harry Dance and Charlie Bunting once handed over their bridles, but no doubt they retrieved them later.
Transport to Waitawheta in the early days was mostly by horses and after coming from Paeroa to Mackaytown it had to negotiate the Rahu Road to what is now the Paeroa-Waihi Highway, thence fording the Ohinemuri River and climbing to the top of the Taukani Range. Following this, it eventually arrived above the waterfalls which was at that time the edge of a dense forest with only bridle tracks to the homes of the few scattered settlers. At that time there was only one bridge over the Ohinemuri River and that was at Paeroa, so when the river was in flood the district was practically isolated. The first European to die in the district was Willie Robinson in 1877 and the river happened to be in flood at the time, so the body could not be taken to Paeroa. A small kauri tree was felled, a casket made, and the body buried on his father's farm, the remains later being taken to the Paeroa Cemetery.
Fences were almost unknown and cattle at the end of March took to the bush for food and shelter and there was an abundance of that. The first sale of property in the district was when Joe Thorp sold to the Waihi Gold Mining Co., his block of 200 acres, on which the Waikino Battery was built. The price was £600 – the year 1895, or thereabout.
At an early date the Kauri Timber Company of Auckland acquired 150 acres just across the river opposite the present shopping area at Waikino. Their interest lay in the beautiful Kauri Forest only about four miles from the river. This block, estimated to contain about 17 million feet was later sold to the Kauri Timber Company and if the information I have received from reliable people is correct, the timber milled from the area was 31 million superficial feet, so the Company made a good deal.
In June 1882 the first School was opened at Owharoa which was then a more populated place than Waikino. I was one of the 27 children who attended and the first teacher was Luther Hames. From 1883 to 1890, the school was made a half-time one with Mackaytown, fives miles away over the terrible Rahu Road. There was also a period when the teacher (Mr. Sullivan) had to cope with the Waitekauri School as well, spending a week at each place in turn. To enable school-girls to learn the art of sewing and to supplement the family income, my mother, an ex-School Teacher, rode six miles to give sewing lessons at the Waitekauri School one afternoon a week and for this she was paid £20 a year.
Early settlers at Owharoa were Ralph Pennell, Wm. McConachie, Tom Cummings, Bob Ball, Jerry Rouse, Wm. Frearson, Sam Farmer, Wm. Farmer, Bill Jennings, Robert Reid, James Hosie, Jim Smythie, Mick Coleman, John Earl, Ned Bain, John Heitman and Boxer Sims.
My first association with Waihi was in 1884 when I spent a School holiday with Mr. H. Walmsley at the edge of the bush where he had timber contracts. Waihi was a very small place then, the residents being: Comptson, Savage, Harvey, Harley, Harper, Hatton, Walmsley, Worth, Porter, Nichol, Unthank, Paton, Campbell, Dance, Hancock, Hollis and Chappel. However I was soon to know every family between Waihi and Karangahake as I left School at the age of 12 and went to work for Mr. Matt. Kinsella, my starting wage being 6/- per week for delivering meat. I remember with pleasure the hospitality and kindness extended to me during the next 5 years and look back with pride on the indomitable spirit of the early prospectors, settlers and gumdiggers, both Maori and Pakeha.
To give you some idea of what the roads were like around the 80's there is the fact that it took a team of 18 horses, owned by Jimmy Ricketts of Thames, seven days to delivery a five ton boiler from Price's Foundry to the Jubilee Mine at Waitekauri and the mine, to Kersey Cooper's sorrow, never produced enough gold to pay for the transport. Roads were little more than bullock tracks although Dan Campbell who had a store in Waihi at the time did run a four-wheeled vehicle from Waihi to Paeroa about twice a week, to bring bread and groceries for the 20 families who lived between Comptson's farm and Walmsley's bush. Around the 90's there were Carters and Carriers, among the earliest being J. Quinlivan, John Kennedy, C. Griffiths, J. Dean, G. Sargeant from Paeroa, and J. Rickets, Bill Verran and Short Bros. from Thames. Mr Kennedy nearly lost his life when driving home to Paeroa at midnight, his team of 5 horses going over the bank into the river near Owharoa. Mrs. P. Mannex who lived near by and heard his call for help, found him hanging on a willow tree with both legs broken. All his horses were dead.
However in Waitawheta to-day there are still a few descendants of the early pioneers and stories could be told of such families as Franklin, Cummings, Gordon and Farmer.