EARLY OWHAROA

Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 5, May 1966 

By AUDREY YOUNG

Mackaytown, Karangahake, Waitekauri, Owharoa ! The year was 1875 and these were the names that drew men in their hundreds to the Ohinemuri Goldfields to seek the golden fortune they were so firmly convinced was theirs for the finding. But disillusionment was rapid and it soon became evident that capital would be required to extract the gold from the quartz reefs that were to be the foundation of goldmining in the Ohinemuri area.

In June 1875 prospectors found gold at Owharoa and among the earliest in the field here were J.W. and S. Farmer who are credited with building the first battery of 6 head of stamps. The battery was operated by water-power; water to operate the pelton wheel being piped from the Owharoa Falls half a mile distant. Though Owharoa never achieved the prominence of other fields, numerous small mines sprang into existence immediately behind and across the river from the township, the 'Smile of Fortune', 'Radical' and Owharoa mines proving the most productive. Although the fortunes of the various mines fluctuated a great deal, sufficient returns were evidently being made by tributers for Owharoa to maintain its status quo.

Small houses, built of pit-sawn Timber and shingle roofs were erected and lined the road, optimistically entitled Rolleston Street which ran up the hill overlooking the Ohinemuri River. Lining the river bank were the battery buildings, and over a period of years 3 hotels, one of which also housed a large general store while further along were two blacksmiths and more small houses.

The first Owharoa school was built across the river from the township and until the swing bridge was built in 1897 the School children had to cross the river in flat bottomed boats. Further along towards the present Rahu Road was the Cummings residence, with one room set aside for use as the local Post Office, with a member of the family in attendance as required, the Government remuneration for this being 10 per year. A small grocery store also in the home no doubt did quite a good trade with the single men who bached together in the huts opposite. These were let by Mr. Cummings for 5/- weekly.

Social functions and Church meetings were held first in the battery buildings and later in the School, where mass Christenings were held on occasions by a Mr. Norrie who used to ride over from Te Aroha to conduct the ceremony. Medical aid when needed, also had to be summoned from Te Aroha, where the only doctor, a military one, resided. There being no telegraph, the only way to fetch help was for one of the young lads to ride post haste over the Rahu Road to Karangahake and then along the Rotokohu track to Te Aroha; sometimes they would arrive only to find the doctor away and their long trip in vain.

When death occurred in the settlement the coffins were taken by horse and buggy to Paeroa for burial, unless the road out was impassable in which case they were kept in Owharoa until it was open again.

The years 1884-87 were lean ones for the mines, but the settlement struggled on, until in 1887 a government grant enabled the 'Smile of Fortune' to extend its workings and during the next few years the mine yielded payable but not rich results. In 1895 this mine, with others, was taken over by the Ohinemuri Syndicate, which under took more development work in the area and increased the battery to 5 head of stamps.

1897 saw the 'Rising Sun' mine come into existence but very little ore was produced from it until 1916, when after a long uphill struggle, the mine began to produce bullion on a commercial scale and continued in operation for several years. The last company to start crushing at Owharoa was the Golden Dawn Goldmining Co., which had taken over the old Rising Sun workings and in 1934 this company employed about 100 men.

Although good returns were received and Government assistance given the Company's capital became exhausted only a few years later. Even though a big reef was struck at that time, it was too costly to explore and the mine ceased operations in 1938. The plant and buildings were dismantled and sold, the miners found work elsewhere, and with the exception of the Martha mine at Waihi, this marked the (end of goldmining in the Ohinemuri district.

THE CUMMINGS FAMILY

Mr. Oliver Cummings, now in his 86th year belongs to one of the earlier families to come to Ohinemuri. They were among the enterprising settlers at Mackaytown in 1875, one of their daughters being the first child born there. A few years later they moved to Owharoa, where Oliver was born in their home on the hill above Sonny Frearson's present house.

Later they purchased the land still known as "Cummings' Flat" which at that time was swampy and presented something of a problem when the main road was put through it. The old family home with its high gable roof and attic window, is still standing and occupied.

Mr. Cummings attended the Owharoa School, but teachers were not always available and at the age of 8 he had to ride or walk to Mackaytown for Lessons. A period of struggling over the atrocious muddy track (Rahu Road) convinced him that he was old enough to leave.

One of the earliest jobs that Mr. Cummings undertook was driving horses for Mr. Roham when the water race was being put in to Waikino. Later he worked in the bush to the south where large quantities of timber and firewood were being felled. During the 15 years that he spent with the Waihi Goldmining Company and the Kauri Timber Company, Mr. Cummings saw several mining towns mushroom and gradually expire after a few hectic years.

People were travelling constantly in those days. A coach came each Monday and Thursday from Thames over the hills to Waihi and down a track near the old Tauranga Road to town. There was mostly only stunted scrub around Waihi at the time and if the road became too boggy the coaches veered off into the scrub and made a new track. In the hey-day of Waitekauri miners were heading off into the bushclad hills each day with only a pack-horse for company and others were coming in for supplies and a taste of civilisation. There were rough roads all through the hills, and every square yard of country was pegged out at some time or other.

When the road was put through the Gorge from Paeroa travelling was not a great deal easier, only 12 ft. separating the craggy hillside from the steep drop to the river. Some good wagon teams were in fact lost through losing their footing on this rugged stretch of road. At night drivers frequently lit their way with candles, using an inverted whisky bottle minus the bottom to protect the flame.

Thames was the city then and many of the workers had running in the scrub, a horse which they saddled up every 'long week-end' for a trip to the bright lights. There was one, however, who travelled on foot and his ability as a marathon runner is still talked of by the old-timers. "Hobertown Jack" [Hobart Town Jack E] used to race the coaches to Thames for a bottle of beer and by taking all the short cuts he usually came in a clear winner, particularly in the Winter.

Speaking of Waikino's early days Mr. Cummings mentioned how he helped to tie oats on the land which later became the site of the great noisy battery, the hub of the whole township. When the power came to Waikino in 1913 he was in the bush and helped to lay out the cables.

From his neat farm on the Pukekauri Road Mr. Cummings can look down on Waikino, and point out over the Gorge, among hills now quilted with paddocks, the spot where other townships once stood.

Mrs. Oliver Cummings, nee Olwyn Shaw, also belongs to an old Owharoa family, her grandfather T. Mexted having been a blacksmith there in the days when horses were the only means of transport. The Shaw family lived above the Owharoa falls, later moving to a farm at Dickey's Flat Road, where Gordon Shaw and his wife, nee Edna Yearbury live. Edna's father, Mr. Les Yearbury, now at Totara near Thames is an old pupil of the Owharoa School, his father having built the first house in Waikino (by the Roman Catholic Church) for Mr.A.P. Wylde whose son Walter was born there.

Two other members of the Saw family are Hilda (Mrs. Alan Snodgrass) and Edna (Mrs. McCracken).

THE FARMER FAMILY

Another old identity of Owharoa is Mrs. Rose Swetman, nee Farmer, whose father J.W. Farmer and his brothers, came to New Zealand from Canada in the early days of the gold-fields. Working first at Thames, then Te Aroha, they arrived at Owharoa in June 1875, where James reputedly found gold clinging to the fern roots on their first claim, and thus precipitated, a minor gold rush to the district.

James, in 1880, married Eliza Syvret of Thames, and their first child Rose, was born at Owharoa in 1883. Rose attended the first Owharoa School and after leaving taught sewing to the children while Mr. Emsley was Teacher there. In 1907 she married Mr. Peter Swetman, who worked as bushman for the Kauri Timber Company. Later they took up farming on the block of land which to-day overlooks the place where Owharoa once stood. The farm is run to-day by their sons George, Ray and Percy. Another family connection is Mr. Daniel Farmer of Waihi.

Of her early days Mrs. Swetman recalls how she, her mother, and the rest of the family, used to go down to the battery at night to help her father shovel the quartz to the stamps. Even though the first ore treated was very rich, early methods of treatment resulted in appalling wastage and it is ruefully estimated that at least 60% of the value went down the Ohinemuri River.

The Waihi district has always been renowned for its prolific rainfall, which at times causes serious flooding along the Ohinemuri River. The year 1890 was no exception and after a few days torrential rain a landslide behind the Owharoa settlement occurred, when half the hill slid down towards the river. Silt, water and boulders rushed down the slope, and although most of the houses escaped, the Farmer residence caught the full force of the flow. A wall was pushed in, and mud and water swirled through the house table-high. Breakfast dishes were set awash and the Farmer children scrambled to safety onto the table. Mrs. Farmer, however, was trapped to waist level by the weight of silt that lodged in the house and required considerable help from her brother-in-law before she could be freed.

A very vivid childhood memory, also shared by Mr. Oliver Cummings, was at the time Te Kooti and 200 of his warriors passed through Owharoa on their way back to the King Country. Terrified mothers whisked their children inside and all watched apprehensively from behind drawn curtains as the redoubtable old warrior and his band went on their way. These were the years succeeding the Maori War and parties of fierce looking Maoris often used to travel past along the old pack track on the Taukani hill, fording the river at the far end of Cummings Flat.

From her home on the hill opposite the mining area Mrs. Swetman has watched the gradual decline of goldmining at Owharoa until to-day all that remains to remind her of the past are the 5 old houses still standing and the large Magnolia tree.

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Keywords: Owharoa, Farmer, Cummings,