A DigitalNZ Story by Zokoroa
A pictorial journey through Tokoroa's earliest beginnings from its growth as a farming community and timber town, to it nearly becoming a city, together with stories from 'locals'.
Tokoroa lies at the heart of the North Island's South Waikato district. When you think of 'Tokoroa' what springs to mind? - Timber town? The sulphurous smell of Kinleith Mill? NZ Forest Product houses? Wood chopping at the annual A.&P. Show? Pasifika / Māori / European community? Local RSA cricket picnics? TT2 ice blocks and jelly tips at the dairy? Pie cart munchies? Those are some of my memories from my childhood days and teen years growing up in Tokoroa. Here's a pictorial journey of Tokoroa's earliest beginnings from its growth as a farming community and timber town, to it nearly becoming a city - yes, nearly a city!
What memories do you have of Tokoroa? Were you born there? Grew up or worked there? Or travelled by on the State Highway and had a rest stop? Here are some recollections shared by 'locals'....
Positioned around the town are 'talking poles' which depict the diversity of cultures in the Tokoroa community. Several poles are made from pine and other local woods, to reflect Tokoroa's forestry heritage. See the Talking Poles Index for a description of the many poles on display, which will eventually number 60, and the story each pole tells.
Hands up who remembers Tokoroa's legendary pie cart in Leith Place near SH 1 and it didn't sell pies! (See article). How's this for ingenuity - chess players miles apart in Tokoroa and Gisborne relaying their moves via the Amateur Radio Transmitters Club! Did you hear the tale about wild dogs on the loose in the early days?
Tokoroa is one of a very few known inland North Island moa hunter sites. Yes, moa! Excavations on farmland near the Matarawa Stream have uncovered moa bones, early adzes, and obsidian flakes. (See: An inland archaic site and Tokoroa moa-hunter site.) The Council and Pūtake Taiao are involved with the ongoing management of this historic reserve, known as Te Tokotokoroa a Matarawa, which lies to the west of James Higgins Park. Rock art with ochre markings and carvings (including a canoe) have also been discovered in small shelters in ignimbrite cliffs near Tokoroa, along with a number of objects - waka huia lid, obsidian flakes, chert flake, adze, bird bone toggle, wooden comb top and a stone pounder. (See Archaeology in the Bay of Plenty.)
Did you watch music shows like "The Grunt Machine" and "Radio with Pictures" on the TV? And did you enjoy Tokoroa's pub scene with groups like soul funk band Shriek Machine who appeared on NZ telly and later renamed themselves Collision (See article)? Kiwi music legend Jenny Morris was born in Tokoroa and inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame at the 2018 APRA Silver Scroll Awards (See article). What other musicians and artists came from Tokoroa? Let's see: Stella Duffy and .......
Tokoroa's diverse community was celebrated with a variety of festivals, including the Māori Cultural Festival, the Polynesian Festival and the Tokoroa A.&.P. Show Festival.
Māori Culture: The southern Waikato and northern Taupō are the ancestral home of Ngāti Raukawa. (See Te Ara's Story: Ngāti Raukawa). I recall students at our Tokoroa East School being part of the Kapa Haka group. At Tokoroa Intermediate, students learnt tāniko weaving and piupiu making, which they gave displays of during the Tokoroa Māori Festival held at the Tokoroa New Memorial Hall.
Pacific Cultures: Large numbers of Pacific Island people, including from the Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Niue, emigrated to work at the Kinleith Mill. On Sundays, you would see beautifully dressed women wearing colourful flowers in their hair outside the St Luke's Pacific Islanders Presbyterian Church on Maraetai Road.
European Cultures: Workers attracted to Tokoroa included assisted immigrants from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The expectation that Tokoroa would become NZ's next city was an added drawcard for others living elsewhere in NZ during the late 1950s - 70s. Family traditions were reflected in the forms of entertainment, which included Scottish dancing and balls. The annual social highlight was the Tokoroa A.&P. Show - you could 'show' animals, enjoy amusement park games, eat pink candyfloss, and watch the 'must-see' event - the woodchopping and sawing competitions!
If you were born or lived in Tokoroa for a number of years it has been said you have woodchopping in the blood and can 'smell' the sawdust for an event miles away! The Tokoroa A.&P. Show's woodchopping was a popular event where family, friends and interested onlookers cheered on the competitors. The two-day Tokoroa Golden Axe Festival is the premier woodchopping competition with open and championship events that draw competitors nationwide and internationally. You can view 'action' videos on Youtube.
Leisure hour activities have varied over the decades. In the sixties, for example, you could go to the movies, public library, roller skating rink or pursue club or sporting interests. Pocket money treats included TT2 iceblock, jelly tip, topsy, and pineapple lumps. Children in our neighbourhood socialised by playing marble games, enjoying tennis on the road, making kites, and racing home-built trolleys down the nearby hilly road. We also swam in the Matarawa Stream and a dam was built in 1975 to create Lake Moananui. Our street (Elizabeth Drive) also started up a library in a small shed in the mid-sixties where we could swap our children's books.
The community spirit in Tokoroa was evident with the number of clubs and volunteer organisations. Social watering holes included the RSA, Tokoroa Club and Cosmopolitan, in addition to the Tokoroa Hotel, the Timberlands and the Trees Tavern. The RSA organised commemorative Anzac ceremonies and activities, like the family cricket picnics held in Tokoroa and at Hamilton's Lake Rotoroa. Young people could join groups like the Red Cross, St. John's and the Scouts/Guides. Community projects were supported through organisations like the Jaycees and Lions Club. Volunteers also helped the St. John Ambulance Service and the Tokoroa Volunteer Fire Brigade - the town siren would sound the alarm and you'd see workers sprinting to the fire engine. And the list goes on....
The Tokoroa Memorial Sportsground was the place to be for sporting and social activities that brought the community together, and is now home to the South Waikato Sport and Events Centre. Sporting memories include frosty Saturday mornings playing netball and spending summery days at the Athletics Club and the town swimming baths. The Tokoroa East Bowling Club, which was located by the netball courts, flourished in local and regional competitions, until it closed due to falling numbers. Locals also headed along the road to the golf course or out into the bush country for off-road biking, pig hunting and eeling. You could tell when Kinleith workers were on strike by the number of vehicles parked on the side of the highway - pighunters and their dogs were busy in the forests!
The origin of the town's name is possibly taken from the nearby 'Tokoroa Plains' which appear on 19th-century maps. The surveyor may have commemorated Tokoroa, a chief of the Ngāti Kahupungapunga, who was killed by the invading Ngāti Raukawa during the 1600s. (See Te Ara and the Journal of the Polynesian Society.) During the Government's negotiations for land in the Patetere District of the Waikato, parts of the Tokoroa Block were subdivided off (1881). 'For sale' advertisements were placed in N.Z. and England to attract settler farmers.
A small farming settlement began with sheep and dairy cattle during the early 1900s. Initially the land surrounding Tokoroa was owned by the Thames Valley Land Company and then the Matarawa Land Company from 1914. Land sales were slow due to the quality of the pumice soils causing 'bush sickness' in animals. After the soil's cobalt deficiencies were addressed in the 1930s, the farming of stock became more profitable.
The Taupo Totara Timber Company (TTT) was set up in Putaruru in 1901 by a group of Wellingtom businessmen, to harvest stands of totara and matai south of Tokoroa. A sawmill (the district's first) was established in 1903 at Kopokorahi, near Kinleith. In the 1970s, TTT was taken over by NZ Forest Products, which eventually became part of Carter Holt Harvey.
A private bush railway line was built from Putaruru to Mokai which started transporting logs in 1905. Three years later goods and passengers were carried. With the cutting out of the bush at Mokai, dismantling the line was commenced in 1944. The Ministry of Works constructed a much heavier line on the site of the light railway to serve the Kinleith mills in 1948.
With the pumice soil suitable for forestry, pine forests were planted from 1925 by New Zealand Perpetual Forests which evolved into New Zealand Forest Products (NZFP). The next lot of planting was carried out NZFP in 1935. When these trees matured in the 1940s, a sawmill and a pulp and paper mill were set up at Kinleith.
The Kinleith Mill was built by NZFP eight kilometres south of the Tokoroa township. It is located alongside the Putaruru-Taupo Highway and the Government-owned railway line which was extended from Putaruru to Kinleith in 1952. In 1954 the works began producing timber, pulp, and paper. The Mill is named after the Kinleith paper mills near Edinburgh in Scotland, where NZFP founder director Sir David Henry served his papermaking apprenticeship.
Carter Holt Harvey bought the New Zealand Forest Products forests in 1991. As the plantations were cut down, former forestry land was converted into dairy farms. American International Paper purchased shares in Carter Holt Harvey and by 1995 had a 50.5% controlling interest. In 2005 Rank Group Investments Ltd, controlled by Graham Hart, purchased American International Papers holding and Carter Holt Harvey became wholly owned by Rank Group Investments. With the fall in demand from export markets in Australia and a decline in new building projects in NZ, the dairy farms were sold and the workforce numbers at Kinleith declined through redundancies.
In 2014 the Kinleith, Tasman and Penrose paper mills were sold to Japanese company Oji Fibre Solutions. Kinleith produces over 600,000 tonnes per annum of packaging papers and bleached softwood kraft market pulp. Most of the pulp is exported to markets in Asia for use in the manufacture of printing and writing paper, boards and tissue.
Spot the changes in the township as the population grew! Back in 1948 Tokoroa had 242 people. Population Census figures for the 1950s show the rate of increase: 1951 census = 1,193; 1956 census = 5,366; 1961 census = 7,054. With the growth of Kinleith Mill, Tokoroa was expected to become a city of 20,000 people. Instead, the population peaked in 1981 at 18,713 people and, thereafter, continued to fall as Kinleith reduced its operations. Since 1989, a town has needed 50,000 people to become a city.
To house its growing workforce, NZ Forest Products built 2,230 workers’ houses between 1947 - 1976, as well as camps for single men. From the 1960s, land was subdivided by private industry and the Matamata County Council. As subdivisions were opened up for owner-built homes, the Matarawa Stream formed the western boundary for the township.
Over the years there has been a range of stores, including Woolworths and, more recently, the Warehouse. In the 1960s, Friday night treats in front of cartoons on the TV were fish, battered sausages and chips. The local takeaway welcomed copies of the South Waikato News and NZ Herald newspapers to recycle as wrapping. The dining out treat was at the Chinese restaurant in town. The choices for dining experiences have since increased, including the fast food outlets that can be seen today.
The local schools were a social hub of the community drawing families together. The first school built was Tokoroa School (later renamed Tokoroa East) which opened in 1915 with a roll of 9 students and closed at the end of Term One in 2010. (See The story of Tokoroa East School.) In 1954 the second school opened and was named Tokoroa Central School. Tokoroa High was officially opened in October 1957, Amisfield School in 1956, and Matarawa School in 1958 (and later closed in 1999). With further increases in the population, Tokoroa South School (now named Strathmore School) opened in 1965. As Tokoroa's population increased, new schools were built (see Wikipedia article) and tertiary education options were provided.
(This DigitalNZ story was created in 2018 and updated in January 2022)