Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 20, June 1976
By ARTHUR SUTTON
On my farm at Maratoto there are substantial sheds which were built from a dismantled five-bedroom homestead at "The Wires" where the kauri timber was milled 90 years ago. The fact that its kauri both, hewn from a tree trunk is, now in the Matakohe Museum has sparked off enquiries concerning the venture in the bush clad wilderness.
As Mr. Morton recorded in Journal 2 (1964) [see Journal 2: The Wires - E] the "Wires Track" came into being prior to the opening of the Ohinemuri Goldfields in 1875. Owing to the disturbed state of the Waikato it was not possible to link Auckland and Wellington with a morse telegraph line by a direct route. The line deviated at Mercer, to Miranda, around the Thames Estuary, and across the range from Maratoto Valley towards Whangamata. It then proceeded to KatiKati, Tauranga and on to Wellington. The track formed to build this line opened up the area which is the genesis of my story.
In the 1880's the area was worked for the kauri timber standing there. The timber cut at this time was floated out via the Tairua River which has its source just a few miles further south. A man named Fagan held the timber contract and during the years 1880/90 some 90 million feet of timber was cut.
Gold was discovered and mined in the Wentworth Valley which borders the Eastern slopes of the Range. This activity meant further development of the "Wires Track", providing direct access from Hikutaia and Puriri. At a later stage when the Crown decided to cut up the flat land for sections a Mr. Chris Downes worked with the survey party. He had at this time taken a fancy to the possibilities of milling the vast amount of timber still remaining. Some of the stumps were cut so high originally that several feet could be cut again and this applied to the heads of the trees also. Chris Downes was in the area at the time Len and Barlow Buchanan took up sections in 1914. Chris Downes held a section to the south of Len Buchanan's section and it was to a small three roomed, split paling shanty, that Len Buchanan and wife came to live in 1916 after their marriage at Kaihere the previous year.
The Buchanans originally intended to farm their land and set about felling the bush, grassing and ring fencing their properties. They were fortunate in having plenty of fencing timber at hand with only wire and staples needing to be brought in. Several of the old gum diggers and bushmen had remained in the area and sometimes worked for the Buchanans. One of them, Mr. McKenzie, had been a Packer for the Hikutaia Butcher who had ten pack horses trained to negotiate the steps on the original "Wires Track". This went up the valley below the present "Zig Zag" and when it came to the Bluffs, large steps were cut. Each step was enough for a pack horse to stand on before taking the next one.
The Buchanans wished to build a house on their own property and a mill was built solely for the purpose of cutting the building timber. This mill was just below where the house was built. A dam and water turbine were installed by Ted Roberts in the Tairua River at that point, in order to drive the mill. The turbine had previously been used in a flour mill at Kaihere. The house started in 1916 was built in stages, being finished about 1920. It then had 5 Bedrooms, Kitchen, Pantry, Office, large Living-room and Bathroom.
Other Buildings were a separate Wash-house, a Dairy and a Milking Shed. The garden had a paling fence, Elaeagnus hedge, fruit trees, roses etc. The original bath in the house had been constructed from sawn timber but was replaced with the now well known "log bath". This bath, hewn from a kauri log was originally very rough and had been made for the purpose of scalding pigs. It was later made smoother at the time of installation in the house which had piped hot water system running from a booster on the side of the wood stove, as was common at that time. Although foundations had been laid in the living room and main Bedroom for large fireplaces the double chimney was never put up - a wood stove in the Kitchen being quite sufficient to keep the home warm. The Buchanans became more involved in Chris Downes' milling venture, at first working for him erecting a large mill on the "Flat" and later actually purchasing it with timber rights for £300. This mill had a 12 H.P. Ruston and Proctor portable steam engine to drive the breaking-down saws. It was taken up the narrow road which followed a zig zag route up the hillside above the Maratoto Valley to wind along ridges and thence to the "Flat" beside the upper reaches of the Tairua River. Two days were occupied in getting the engine from Hikutaia to the mill site, a distance of about 10 miles. Two horses and a team of bullocks driven by Charles Clotworthy, were used. It was necessary to put a snatch block on to any handy tree to get around the corners and where there was nothing handy a "dead man" (large post) had to be put in. It was decided to try and manage without all this work on one particular corner about a mile from the top. This proved disastrous as Charley and the bullocks, out of sight around the corner, pulled the engine off the road and it rolled down into the bush. Very little damage was done of a serious nature apart from a crack in the flywheel. Getting the machine back on to the road took a whole day and much sweat. The bullocks provided the lifting power after first rolling the engine back onto its wheels by means of a rope around the middle.
The sawmill also had a stationary steam engine to drive the Breast Bench. This engine had spent most of its previous life driving a sawmill mounted on a punt for the purpose of cutting white pine along the banks of the Waihou in the earlier days. The ground around the mill was inclined to be soft and difficult to pull loaded wagons over, so a wooden rail tramway was built from the mill to the top of the road. Finally, the mill was complete and commenced cutting in 1922 and continued until about 1927, three and a half million feet of timber being cut in this time.
It should be mentioned that the eldest child was almost ready for school and the problem was solved by making a room available for a resident Teacher - first Miss Bostock who later married Len Martin, and then Miss Ida Bell. Len Buchanan left the area in 1924 to take up farming in Trig Road, Waihi. The others remained until the slump when the project became unprofitable. Len Martin had the mail run from Hikutaia to Whangamata from 1922 - 1928. After that the mail for Whangamata was taken from Waihi as a contractor could not be found to continue the service from Hikutaia.
When milling ceased, the land eventually reverting to the Crown but the section Len Buchanan had taken up was later taken over by Murdocks of Hikutaia. The Rare family took over Barlow Buchanan's land and it was from John Rare that Trembath and Sutton bought the Buchanan house for removal in 1953. This house, last lived in by the Rare family in late 1930's until removed, was a haven for trampers. The roof, made of kauri shingles, was failing because the nails had rusted allowing the shingles to slide.
The wooden bath, carefully carted down by a member of the Sutton family, remained in the loft of a farm shed for 15 years, before going to Matakohe Museum. This bath was carved by a member of the Rare family.
There was another telephone line which crossed the "Wires Track" long after the original telegraph wire had fallen into disuse. This latter wire served the Maratoto, "Wires", Wentworth and Whangamata and was known as the Settlers Line. The cost of building and maintaining the line was shared by the users.
..CREDIT - I am indebted to Mrs. Beth Collins of Ngaruawahia for the use of letters from her father, Mr. Len Buchanan, concerning details for this Article; also old photographs and her own letters which would provide material for further Articles. (A.S.)