In the early 1900s dairy production transformed coastal Bay of Plenty into a thriving agricultural region.
In the western Bay, dairy factories opened in Katikati and Te Puke in 1902, and in Tauranga in 1905. The output of butter at Katikati was only 29 tons in 1907–8, but reached 726 tons by 1935–36.
In the eastern Bay, dairy factories opened at Ōpōtiki in 1895, Ōpouriao in 1900, Waiotahe in 1904, Waimana and Ōtangihaku in 1907, Rūātoki (mostly supplied by Māori) and Whakatāne in 1908, Matatā in 1909, Otakiri (known as Tarawera until 1928) in 1912, and Awakeri (which later moved to Edgecumbe) in 1915.
Butter spreads prosperity
In 1938 writer Alan Mulgan wrote of his home town: ‘If the roads of Katikati are not paved with the gold of the immigrants’ dreams, they are paved to-day with butter, and the wheels of commerce and pleasure run smoothly upon them.’ 1
No other product rivalled butter and cheese in importance, although some citrus fruit was grown and there was also sea fishing. Maize, which had been quite widely grown, was abandoned partly because in the late 1900s a succession of frosts destroyed the crops and nearly ruined many farmers. Flax milling waned, as the swamps where flax grew were drained for farmland.
Prosperity in the country districts meant growth in the towns, and a new sense of confidence. Tauranga’s population finally grew. The drainage of the Rangitāiki Plains, which gathered momentum from the 1910s, brought the biggest single stretch of land yet into pasture, mostly for dairying, and boosted Whakatāne.
At the start of the new century the sea was the highway. The main event of the week in the large centres was the arrival of a Northern Steam Ship Company ship from Auckland. Not until 1908 did the government commit itself to a Waihī–Tauranga–East Coast railway, allotting £1,500,000 for the job. Work started from Tauranga. Te Puke, to the east, was reached in 1913 and Matatā in 1916. Work languished on the western sector, in part because of the challenge of laying track through swampland. In 1921 an energetic minister of public works, Gordon Coates, pushed it forward.
Also fundamental to the future were the roads, used by ‘service cars’ (a kind of long-distance taxi) and later buses. Rail and road between them put paid to the steamship service. The last passenger-ship services were made to the eastern Bay in 1921–22 and to Tauranga in 1929.
Māori in the new century
Māori lived on the margins of the newly prosperous Bay of Plenty. The non-Māori population rose from around 4,600 in 1896 to around 22,000 in 1936. The Māori population also increased, but did not reach 10,000. Māori farmers supplied some of the dairy factories, for instance in Rūātoki, and many Māori found work shearing or road making. In contrast, work on the goldfields or in flax processing diminished in the early 1900s as the resources were depleted.
Māori in the small rural communities lived in less adequate conditions than their Pākehā neighbours. In the 1918 influenza epidemic, 56 European deaths were recorded in the Bay of Plenty, while at least 263 Māori died. Very few Māori lived in towns: only Ōpōtiki had more than 100 Māori inhabitants in 1936. Most marginal, geographically, socially and politically, were Ngāi Tūhoe communities in Urewera. Rua Kēnana’s community at Maungāpohatu was raided by police in 1916, at the cost of two Tūhoe lives.