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District History

The History Of Kawerau

Before the town and mill were established the District was known as Onepu. Then in 1953, the New Zealand Geographic Board applied the name Kawerau to the new town and District.

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Maori History

Tradition tells us that the oldest inhabitants of the District were descendants of Toi Kai Rakau who arrived in New Zealand about A.D. 1150. Kawerau was a grandson of Toi Kai Rakau, from whom many of the present tribes of the Bay of Plenty claim descent.

Boundaries were defined, when Tuwharetoa claimed the old Rangitaiki River boundary as its eastern border and Matata as its seaboard. Tuwharetoa’s territory extended west along the coast to Otamarakau and then by a line roughly southeast to Maungawhakamana and across to Putauaki.

When the sons of the ancestor Tuwharetoa moved from Kawerau to the Lake Taupo region, those who remained behind held fast to their ancestral name, which the two groups now share. Tuwharetoa ki Kawerau and Tuwharetoa ki te Tonga have, for geographic and other reasons, developed separately as important tribal entities but remain united in their genealogy.

Several archaeological sites are located within the Kawerau District and indicate a large community occupied the area. A totara canoe covered by about 30 cm of volcanic ash and 70 cm of peat was found near the foot of Putauaki (Mt. Edgecumbe) suggesting a large pa existed on the site

Early Industry

In 1886, an Auckland Company began to investigate the sulphur fields found near Onepu which were reported to have certain properties not found in the White Island sulphur and obviously considered safer to work. It was said that the Company had a 21 year lease of some 4,800 acres and the right to work an additional 1,000 acres. In peak production the Company was shipping 30 tons a week down the Tarawera River to Tauranga, but in June 1890, it was discovered that the Company only had a prospecting licence and was therefore mining the sulphur illegally. In 1894, all leases were allowed to lapse and that was probably the end of sulphur mining at Onepu.

During the economic depression in the early 1930s, Mr. Percy Fenton, a saw miller in the Bay of Plenty, acquired the cutting rights for 1,500 acres of dense rimu bush situated on the Grieve Brothers' block at Te Haehaenga. This block was located above the headwaters of the Tarawera River behind Lake Okataina. The only access was a fifteen mile wagon trail which left the Rotorua-Whakatane highway about nine miles south of Te Teko. In order to set up the Mill, living quarters, a school etc and get the timber to market, Fenton had to build and maintain an eleven mile stretch of road which included the strengthening of two bridges.

There were many obstacles to overcome in those early days, but by 1935, the economy of the country was improving and things were looking up for the mill.

In 1934, the Lands and Survey Department became interested in the land around Kawerau and to give better access to the area, in 1935 the Whakatane County Council built a new steel bridge across the Tarawera River near what is Waterhouse Street today. After the bridge was completed, the Council extended the road from the Maori Affairs Block to the new bridge and Percy Fenton built a road to link up to the road to the mill. This later became known as Fenton Mill Road.

In 1937, the Department opened up a small block of land for an experimental farm. In time the block grew to 2,567 ha with the Department farming all the land where Kawerau is today. The block became known as the Mt. Edgecumbe station and, as the town grew, more of the land was made available for housing. The last transfer of land, 128 ha, was made for the Hilldale sub-division.

In the early 1950s, the Government was involved in the consideration of how to use the timber in the Kaingaroa Forest. It was decided to establish a pulp and paper mill adjacent to Onepu on the banks of the Tarawera River. The Government, the Fletcher Company and others were involved in planning which lead to the formation of the Tasman Pulp & Paper Company (now Norske Skog Tasman / Carter Holt Harvey Tasman) in 1952. The residential area of the town was laid out and buildings established under control of the Ministry of Works.

Establishment of the Kawerau Borough

The Kawerau Borough was officially created in April 1954. The control of administration was vested in a Town Commissioner appointed by the Government. In November 1955, the Town Commissioner convened a public meeting which elected a panel of eight persons to serve as an Advisory Committee. The system of Town Commissioner, assisted by that Advisory Committee, continued until 1959.

Provision was made in the Kawerau Borough Act for full autonomy in 1968 with the abolition of the provision of an Advisory Commissioner and Tasman's rights to appoint members. The Board resolved that a Borough Council of ten councillors together with the Mayor be elected and the election of the first Council took place in October 1968. From then on, the normal Borough administration proceeded in terms of the Municipal Corporations Act 1954.