Originally from NZ Herald
see also the Kawerau Forestry History page
see also the History of Kawerau Enterprise Agency page
Kawerau remembers its fast beginning
By JO-MARIE BROWN
Most small towns in New Zealand had humble beginnings and Kawerau was no exception.
But no sooner had a basic wooden lavatory been erected in a paddock beneath Mt Putauaki (Mt Edgecumbe) in 1953, than an entire community sprang up.
Mobs of sheep that had been quietly grazing on the flat pasture gave way to trenches, bulldozers, railway tracks and row upon row of timber-framed homes.
And in the distance, the reason thousands of people had descended on this isolated part of the Bay of Plenty was also taking shape.
The mammoth Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill - one of the largest and most modern of its kind in the world - quickly began to dominate the skyline.
Pine trees planted throughout the central North Island were ready for harvest.
Murupara, on the edge of the Kaingaroa Forest, was considered by the Government and the mill's owners as a possible site, as was Mt Maunganui because of its proximity to the port.
But Kawerau eventually won because of its supply of geothermal steam.
Once the essential toilet had been built, the construction project began in the summer heat.
Four 25m-high silos appeared in less than two weeks. Concrete and steel beams shot upwards and a stream of heavy machinery arrived by road and rail.
"It was an impressive site because of the sheer size of it," recalls Kawerau resident Kenneth Moore.
"New Zealand wasn't used to that sort of thing. There were 1800 men up there building that mill and a similar number down at the town, building all the houses and facilities for the influx of workers."
Kawerau was officially commissioned on April 1, 1954, so this week the one-time frontier town is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The community's fortunes are inextricably linked to those of the mill.
Expansion projects in the 1970s took the population to about 9000, but subsequent layoffs have created high unemployment among the present 7000 or so residents.
The quiet, tree-lined streets, central location and cheap housing continues to attract retired people and others from throughout the country
But Kawerau's image today is a far cry from the reputation it once had.
"The first 10 years were heady years," Mr Moore says.
"You worked hard and you played hard. It was a young person's town. Old folk were a rarity, apart from the occasional bigwig up at the mill."
Busloads of women who were looking for husbands or just a party would arrive in Kawerau every weekend.
The local police would see them all off on Monday mornings to make sure they did not stay to distract the working men.
Mr Moore, now aged 76, still lives in the weatherboard house that the Tasman Pulp and Paper company built for him when he worked at the mill as an administrator, and he clearly remembers the town "mushrooming up".
By June 1954, houses were going up at the rate of two a day, and Kawerau's state housing project was the fastest completed - 400 homes in 64 weeks.
"There were no fences, no footpaths, no gardens, no trees," Mr Moore says.
"People used to walk through everybody else's sections. There were no curtains either, and people used to put newsprint in their windows so people couldn't see in.
"Everything was done in a hurry."
Another long-time resident, district councillor Maureen Laugesen, watched as a child as the town spring up around her, and recalls that all the new homes looked identical.
"I remember one night a man walked into our house, took off his clothes and flopped on the couch.
"When my Mum said, 'Hey, what are you doing' he just said 'Oh, sorry. Wrong house,' picked up his clothes and left again."
Tasman Pulp and Paper hired migrants from Finland, Britain, Australia and the United States because New Zealand workers lacked the expertise required to build and run the enormous mill.
As a result, Kawerau developed a cosmopolitan air, and music, dance and traditions from all corners of the world found a new home there.
"My mother hated it at first," says Mrs Laugesen, whose family came from Scotland .
"She thought she had come to the end of the Earth. I still remember her wearing her gloves and stilettos and trying to walk along roads with no footpaths."
Others, too, were taken aback by the pioneering lifestyle.
Many American families who came to work at the mill were unimpressed by the accommodation, and insisted that ranch-style homes were built for them.
Today, the large windows and sprawling foundations of those houses still sets them apart on the leafy streets of Kawerau from the standard three-bedroom state homes built elsewhere in the neighbourhood.
But despite the mix of cultures and beliefs, the community was united - especially in 1987, when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit nearby Edgecumbe.
Mrs Laugesen remembers the terror that took hold in the district.
"It was the aftershocks that made everyone hold their breath, because we didn't know if there was going to be another big one.
"We weren't sure if it was safe to go back into our houses or not.
"The schools were all evacuated, but at the mill only one person broke their leg.
"It was amazing with all that machinery up there that someone wasn't killed."
Fifty years on, Kawerau residents feel positive about their town's future.
Many shops remain empty and rundown, but the six schools are thriving and Mighty River Power is looking to build a $150 million geothermal power station in the area, which will provide a huge economic boost.
Throughout this year, Kawerau intends to commemorate the large and small events that have shaped its history by holding a range of celebrations.
"It's important that we mark the occasion because it is quite an achievement," Mrs Laugesen says.
"There's an awful lot of people that have passed through Kawerau over the years.
"They've often moved on for other reasons but this town has touched thousands of people who will always have fond memories of the place."
Originally from NZ Herald
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