New Zealand’s only surviving native timber sawmill operated at Ongarue Stream Road from 1927. Like most mills of its day, it was steam driven, and there was no shortage of wood to stoke the big boiler that powered the mill before three-phase electricity arrived in the early 1960s. Named after the first owner Jack Endean, the mill had several managers including George Ottaway who eventually purchased it in 1990.
However, not long after that, pine became more profitable than native timber, farms were sold, and the mill closed in 1996. Gone were the days when houses were built using rimu for joinery and mataī floors were the norm. Sustainability wasn’t really considered in those days and suddenly pine was found to be cheaper, quicker to grow and easier to use.
Now, more than 20 years later, the nine or ten unpainted houses that made up part of the mill town are still standing, and although they’ll need some work to make them habitable, Gerrard Beeson who, together with George’s brother Ian Ottaway has managed the place since George passed away last year, says it’s do-able. Gerrard acknowledges that restoring the buildings and equipment is a daunting task but says there’s a lot of potential for a unique tourist attraction where visitors will be able to overnight in the houses or park up self-contained motorhomes.
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“This was more than just a mill. It was a community, with a good school at Waimiha, but that’s all gone now.” There’s hope though says Gerrard. “The cycle trail has made the area busier already, and we’re getting a lot of through traffic. There are two lodges (Black Fern Lodge and Timber Trail Lodge) and a camping area in the locality, and being able to stay at the mill property would add another dimension to visitors’ experience.”
Cattle and sheep keep the grass down around the houses, where fences and gardens have been lost over time but old fruit trees still grow, and “this is history,” Gerrard states. “We get school groups, RV groups and photography groups out here. There was a photoshoot with a model dressed as an old-time honky-tonk woman draped over an old piano that was left behind in one of the houses, and when the roses growing over another house are in flower, it’s another photographic magnet.”
Add that to stacks and stacks of irreplaceable mataī, tawa, rimu, tōtara and other native timber both in racks inside the mill buildings and on the ground outside, logs that will never be milled, remnants of milling gear including several rusty trucks, a Bull Moose loader (no safety frames needed in those days) and you’ve got something unique, something exceptional and something that, once lost, can never be regained. “There’s no native timber available any more and the quantity we have here is quite significant,” Gerrard points out.
The mill office looks pretty much as it did when George Ottaway closed the door for the last time. Known as the ‘command centre’ it has cutting lists going back to 1928 hanging from nails on the wall, wooden tally boards littering the floor and the solid fireproof safe still sits in its original position. Given today’s Health and Safety regulations, the mill is unlikely to ever reopen as a functioning enterprise but everything’s there to make it a fascinating static display of the way things were back in the day.
Behind the mill, the giant furnace that burnt the excess timber offcuts has collapsed in on itself. It kept right on burning even when the steam engine was replaced, and the big boiler and pulleys are still there as well. When the mill was up and running “the whole building would shake,” Gerrard said. Logs were moved onto maire (timber) rollers that are still in place, to be cut up on a breakdown saw, then a breast bench saw and on through the process to end up as timber cut to the required sizes.
A phenomenal amount of our country’s history has already been lost and there’s too much to lose here. Luckily Gerrard and Ian are determined to restore as much of the site and equipment as possible. One of the houses has been re-roofed and re-clad with the intention of making it available for tourists in the future, and there are plans to do more, but it’s a long job.
This is an ideal location if you want to visit somewhere a bit different. There’s plenty of space, it’s tranquil, there’s birdlife and there’s no light pollution; the thought of watching the stars come out (with a wine in hand) has a good deal of appeal. For walkers there’s an old tram track that leads back into hills. As the timber was milled, the track (that crosses the nearby Okauaka River three times) was extended to its present length of 11km.
To be here is like stepping back in time. Being just down the road from Piropiro, roughly halfway along the 85km Timber Trail cycleway, the mill would make an ideal base for anyone planning to do that ride over a couple of days and absorb a piece of our past at the same time. The cycleway runs along old bush roads and tram lines.
There are eight suspension bridges including three biggies, each more than 100m in length, as well as the only bikeable spiral – like the Raurimu Spiral it’s an amazing feat of engineering. The Timber Trail is about our timber milling history, making the mill itself an integral part of this heritage. While the mill is on private property it can be viewed by appointment if you phone Gerrard on (07) 894 5834 to make arrangements.
One of the Workhorses
At nearby Te Kuiti. John Pitcorn of Pitcorn Engineering hopes that by the end of next year he will have finished restoring a 1650 Climax steam loco that he’s had at the shop for seven years. Now owned by the Climax 1650 Steam Trust it came to New Zealand in 1923 from the United States. It worked on the Ellis and Burnand tramline at Ongarue from its arrival at Ongarue in 1923 through to the closure of the mill tramway. Then in 1958 the tramlines were washed out during a big flood and bulldozers took over hauling the logs to the mills. The loco was parked up at Mangapehi before being rescued by Trust members
Once the Climax is up and running, it will be one of three operating Climax engines in the world. It will be used to operate passenger trains at the Glen Afton Line, a vintage railway 10km west of Huntly. It is hoped that the Climax loco can return to Te Kuiti as part of the annual Easter ‘Running of the Sheep’ event in future years.