Now, the Manawatu region of New Zealand’s North Island [click here for map] is known for its farming and wind turbines, but for a few decades from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, flaxmilling was one of the region’s most important industries. When farmers began to drain the swampland to establish pasture in the late 19th century, they found the process stimulated the growth of the flax already growing naturally in the area. From this chance discovery, flaxmilling grew from the 1870s and continued until the 1930s.
Manawatu’s Makerua Swamp, stretching from Linton to Shannon along the Manawatu River, was the biggest commercial flax swamp in New Zealand. The Miranui Mill (“miranui” meaning “big mill” in Maori), was opened in 1907 by Alfred and Louis Seifert just north of Shannon [click here to see map], and was the biggest to operate in New Zealand. At the peak of its production – from 1910 to 1918 – 600 men worked in the 14,500 acre swamp, which supplied nearly two thirds of New Zealand’s total output of flax.
Shannon became a bustling town with hotels and eateries catering for the workers and visitors. There was even an annual Miranui Ball – a big event in the area. However the boom was short-lived – the depression, and an ever-dwindling flax supply, led to Miranui’s closure in 1933. Alfred Seifert experimented with other crops, including potatoes, and the swamp areas were eventually drained and converted into farmland. Today, the name Miranui is still visible at the former entranceway to the old mill.
[Photo above left: Men cutting flax in the Makerua swamp. Ref 1/2-065683-G, photo by George Leslie Adkin. Not to be reproduced without permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Right: Louis Seifert, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand.]