In the 1860s, sturdy pioneers started the back-breaking job of clearing flat plains at the base of the Tararua foothills, south-east of Carterton. Under the watchful eye of Mount Dick (standing at more than 500m above sea-level) homesteads were built, pastures were sown and dairying across the neighbouring communities of Matarawa and Dalefield became both prolific – and profitable.
Third generation Matarawa resident, Bill Jamieson, recounts the story of his grandparents’ arrival at Matarawa Station in 1905. They had emigrated from the Shetland Isles and, like many new residents settling into the area today, spent several years in Wellington before journeying over the Remutaka Range by train (hauled over the incline by Fell engine) to seek a new, more spacious life in Wairarapa.
“There was a squeeze on land in the city at that time,” Bill explains. “Word got out that there was plenty of land available over here. My grandparents bought up 90 acres and continued to work tirelessly to get the bush, bog and blackberry under control.”
When Bill’s grandparents arrived, Matarawa was already inhabited by several large families. Matarawa School (built in 1879 and closed in the late 1930s), was well attended and a bridge over the Waiohine River connecting Matarawa (then Swamp) Road to Greytown’s Kuratawhiti Street had been in good use since 1897.
The bordering district of Dalefield had also been in development for 15-20 years. There was good employment provided by several fully operating sawmills processing the cleared matai, totara and rimu. Dalefield School had been built in 1885, followed by a Methodist church in 1886 and the then much-needed Dalefield Cheese Factory a year later in 1887. At its peak, the factory was supplied by some 60 local dairy farms processing around 500,000 gallons of milk into 250 tons of cheese, annually. Just over a decade on, in 1898, came the Dalefield Hall – home to a raft of community activities including regular dances that once took place in ‘Mr Thom’s hay shed along Dalefield Road’.
Today, the hall still plays its part within the community. The rural school is doing well but the cheese factory (which closed its doors in 1986), stands redundant and derelict – like many others throughout the country.
With its cooler climate and higher rainfall, the Matarawa/Dalefield area is still highly conducive to pasture growth – and dairying. But where once 60 small farms thrived with stock runs of 50-60 cows each, now sit half a dozen much larger dairy farms where milking herds are in their hundreds.
In place of smallholding after smallholding stretching out around the rural roads, the neighbourhood is now made up of next-generation farmers, relatives of early settlers as well as ‘newcomers’ who came here for the lifestyle opportunity. The new mix of residents are from all over New Zealand as well as South Africa, Scotland, England and the Netherlands. Occupations span across a variety of home businesses, hobby farming, boutique accommodation, as well as town and city- dependent professions.
In recent years, more and more young families have settled here to take advantage of rural living, coupled with easy access to State Highway 2 and the communities, facilities and shops of Greytown, Carterton and Masterton. There’s also an easy rail link with Wellington via Matarawa Station.
Eminent New Zealand artist Rhondda Greig was one of the first ‘lifestylers’ to set up house (and art business) amongst a traditionally farming neighbourhood. Together with her late husband – internationally acclaimed potter Jim Greig – and their two young children, she came to Matarawa nearly 50 years ago. They were considered ‘unusual’ and Rhondda recalls the community being genuinely concerned about how they would make ends meet if they weren’t farming the land.
“Like so many local families today, we came to the countryside so we could pursue our work-life but still be close to the towns and city,” says Rhondda. “Only, instead of tilling the soil with our bare hands, we worked the landscape into our art.”
Indeed, Matarawa/Dalefield, its mountains, livestock, local pets and rail route, have all featured in many of Rhondda’s exhibitions in New Zealand and around the globe; across her bold canvases as well as her illustrated children’s books including Matarawa Cats and Noa’s Calf.
Story by Lisa Carruthers
Photography by Rebecca Kempton