Topic: Modern Pioneers by Janet Pates

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Like a watched pot, it seemed the phone would never ring. Several ‘rehab’ farms were up for ballot in the central North Island. My husband Vic’s service in Korea gave him second preference behind those World War Two soldiers still awaiting settlement so we were not overly hopeful.

But surprise, surprise!  In late afternoon the call came. We were the proud owners of a dairy farm near Atiamuri.

Our few possessions were consigned on the train from Okaihau in the Far North  to Kinleith in the Central North Island and we set off in our ancient Morris Eight to an area unknown to us.

In 1952 the Lands & Survey department had begun to develop a tract of 16,000 acres between Tokoroa and Taupo, creating a new district bounded on the north by the Waikato river and otherwise, largely surrounded by pine forest.  The first settlement of ten farms took place in 1957 and we were part of the second wave when eight more families arrived the following year.

 Development continued until 1968 by which time the district was made up of fifty farms, a mix of dairy and sheep. For the first five years the ballots were restricted to returned servicemen. After that civilians were also eligible.

Our farm was a long, narrow property with a driveway almost a quarter of a mile from the front gate to the house. It consisted of 130 acres of broken contour ranging from sloping to steep hillsides. Some of the steeper slopes were covered in manuka scrub.  With it came a new three bedroom house, a six bale cowshed, an implement shed and a hay barn.

On our first arrival at the road gate, the window of a house across the road was flung open and a tall, skinny man leaned out, vigorously waving a tea pot. So began our twelve years in Tirohanga.

The hospitality of that welcome was to prove symbolic of the spirit of this community, the foundation of which was laid by the settlers of those first few years. This has been attributed to the comradeship and ‘esprit de corps’ common to ex servicemen though no doubt the separation from family and previous friends made neighbourly co-operation doubly important. The lack of services and amenities - telephones, a hall, a school, also meant there were clear goals to be achieved, giving rise to a strong community sprit.  

We now had a mortgage of daunting proportions but fortunately had little time to dwell on this fact. The first of our sixty five heifers calved the day we arrived and others would soon follow. The farm consisted of six paddocks with the cowshed standing in lonely isolation in the middle of one. The prospect of getting a bunch of untrained first timers into the yard meant some fencing was an immediate necessity.

We also had to adapt to the central plateau climate with its icy spring mornings and sometimes black, mist laden frosts which hung about all day.  The house was uninsulated so the kitchen fireplace with its smoky chimney, took a long time to raise the temperature.   

Being as near to giving birth as many of the cows, my help at this stage was  minimal.  Right on cue after feeding the calves the evening before the due date, we set off for Tokoroa maternity hospital. The nurse was inclined to send me home to wait out the next few hours but Vic pleaded long distance, no telephone, an unreliable car and disappeared into the night as soon as was decently possible. There I stayed and our first child was born the following evening.

 For the first couple of seasons we were on a budget for household expenses. This amount was similar to that on which we had lived whilst saving hard for our farm deposit so was no great problem for us. Others, like our tea-pot waving neighbour who had five children, were sometimes driven to being a little creative in their accounting, such as the instance when  liquid refreshments for a certain farmer’s birthday bash appeared in the budget as, ‘Drench for the herd sire.’

 Many of us were driving old and unreliable cars and social life was very much a local affair.  For the first few years dances were held in a woolshed, then a building was purchased from a redundant timber mill site and many hours of voluntary work and fund raising later, the district had a hall to be proud of.

 Federated Farmers and Women’s Division meetings mixed business with pleasure, cricket, bowls and table tennis competitions were held against neighbouring districts and the walls of the hall boasted such keenly contested trophies as cricket’s ‘Plonkit Shield’ - a toilet seat and indoor bowls’ ‘Bone of Contention’ - a well mounted bovine shin bone.

Prior to the advent of television, elections were lively affairs.  Local candidates held well attended meetings in local halls, newspapers provided charts on which radio results were recorded at gatherings, countrywide. In keeping with this trend, we had a regular election night date with the couple from next door. He was a devotee of the Social Credit party, claiming to be ‘au fait’ with their strange monetary theories, his wife and Vic were staunch in their view of the National party as the farmer’s friend. I considered myself a floating voter intent on judging individual issues on their merits. Our differing political opinions ensured many a lively discussion including one where neighbour’s wife, becoming a little heated, asked ‘What has the Labour party ever done for the farmer?’  to which her husband, wryly reminded her they’d been responsible for the guaranteed price for butterfat, a scheme introduced in the 1930’s with the aim of stabilising the highs and lows of the butterfat price.

For the first few years, the landscape of the district was largely treeless but soon, shelter belts and trees began to soften the scene.  Today, one remaining feature of our time there is a gum tree which marks the spot where our three boys once dug a large hole. I asked if I could use it to bury garden rubbish. After due consideration they said it was their hole but they would lease it to me. They drew up and had me sign an elaborately worded document to that effect though, as far as I can recall, no money changed hands.

In the late sixties, Tirohanga suffered a series of droughty summers. This exacerbated a problem which had bedevilled our years on the farm and ultimately brought us to the end of our time there. The free draining soil of the area provided ideal growing conditions for the pesky ragwort plant and the contour of our land made it difficult to control. Our farm and two adjoining properties were now considered more suitable for sheep farming.

 Reluctantly we took up the Government’s offer of resettlement and the three farms were amalgamated into a sheep unit. In August, 1970 we drove away from the only home our children had ever known and headed back to the Far North.  Shortly after, the house was moved off the property and the garden obliterated.

 Today, the only signs of our occupation are the trees we planted around the farm, among them that towering gum tree.  My lease on the hole may have run out but once you’ve planted a tree, somehow it’s always yours.  


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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