The ebb and flow of a rural township: Tokomaru

My last post How did the Korean War change the NZ landscape? and specifically the mention of the demise of local dairy factories in the post-Korean War years, led me to think about ex-dairy factory towns and villages within my immediate orbit. One such place is in the northen Horowhenua village of Tokomaru, on the western side of the Tararua Ranges [click here to view map].

I took the opportunity on a recent trip North to photograph both the remains of the factory and a nearby derelict house nestled in the foothills of the Ranges. Despite the sense that these images may portray however, Tokomaru is a thriving rural community. Right next to the abandoned dairy factory is a busy structural engineering factory and, further down the road, a brightly-painted primary school (where, it should be noted, all the children sensibly wear matching red sun-hats when playing outside). Tokomaru is also becoming increasingly attractive to lifestylers, owing to the appeal of the landscape and its proximity to Palmerston North.

The dairy factory was first built in 1912, but was substantially rebuilt when the Tokomaru Co-op took over the factory in 1915. At its opening, it was described as the “best co-op dairy factory building in the country” by Mr L. Wilton, chairman of directors of the Tokomaru Dairy Co-op. He also predicted of the ferro-concrete building that “In a hundred years this building will still be here”, a prediction that is likely to eventuate. At the time, it was one of 362 co-op dairy factories spread throughout New Zealand.

Most notably perhaps, given the primacy of the dairy industry today, Mr Wilton also noted at the opening how “suppliers had remained loyal to the dairy industry even though wool was fetching such high prices, and how they had thus enabled the Tokomaru company to proceed with the building of the new factory.”

From 1978, the factory became dedicated to the production of casein, a major component of cheese, which was at the time making good returns. However, this phase of its history was to be short-lived. Interestingly, it was the factory’s increasing burden on the environment that led to its demise. “Tokomaru School and District Centenary” gives this account of developments leading to its closure: “Because of the desire to maximise pay-out, the factory was pushed to its limits, but the effluent disposal system could not cope with large volumes of waste. Farmland became saturated, causing ponding and odour problems. The waterways, and especially the [Tokomaru] river, became polluted.” The company made the decision not to invest in the improved systems required to mitigate these impacts; instead it closed the factory in 1981, centralising its operations at the nearby Longburn factory.

The closure of the dairy factory must have brought great disappointment to the local community at the time, but in the succeeding decades the small township has shown resiliency, and while no longer renowned for its employment opportunities, the township has become attractive to residents and newcomers for different reasons. This is an evolution that is likely to have manifested itself in different ways across New Zealand in the wake of the industrialisation of farming and production processes.

Sources/further reading: Tokomaru School and District Centenary 1893 – 1993 (1993), compiled by Colin Stevenson.

Photo top: a derelict farmhouse nestled in what appears to be a small but thriving dairy farm, just south of Tokomaru. Above right: the facade of the old dairy factory; the words “Tokomaru Dairy Coy” can still be faintly seen on the facade. Above left: the empty shell of the side wing of the factory, stands with the grace vaguely reminiscent of some ancient Greek ruin (All photos by C. Knight.) It should be noted that, while derelict houses and buildings are a common sight that is taken for granted by New Zealanders, for many from other parts of the world, where there are strict controls on the destruction of old buildings that may pose a safety hazard, they are a novel sight. Such relics of past eras can often bring charm and historical context to the landscape – and are sometimes a salutary reminder of human foibles.

6 thoughts on “The ebb and flow of a rural township: Tokomaru

  1. Paul Knight November 5, 2011 / 11:36 am

    Very interesting. I drive through there and have taken photographs often.

  2. Peter & Rachael Ward December 5, 2011 / 3:51 pm

    Hi, Came across this somehow?? Wife and I currently own the Dairy Factory (since 2004) We have 2 residence’s on site and currently working on the front office area. Had hoped to save the old Horlicks (circa 1930’s) building but son’s 14’th birthday put paid to that, rather a big fire, hence the empty lot and “roman pillars”. The empty shell is remnant of a 1963 rather utilitarian building. Built to connect the old Dairy Factory and Horlicks Factories. Agree whole heartedly about old structure but she may look a bit dowdy but Mr Wilton was right she’ll do a 100 years plus.

  3. envirohistorynz December 10, 2011 / 2:17 pm

    Thank you Peter and Rachael. It must be great owning (and living in) your own bit of rural history. Good luck with the renovation plans! envirohistory NZ

  4. Bud and Ian Christensen January 3, 2012 / 7:57 pm

    Hi Cath – very informative article. A fabulous resource for our children.
    Thank you for all the important work you do.
    It is greatly appreciated.

  5. Graeme Liggins July 15, 2021 / 6:13 am

    My family was here for four generations and Joeseph liggins was my great grandfather,lots of history as he was the first factory manager at Karere road Longburn

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