The Mangamahu District is a hill-country farming and forestry community in the middle reaches of the Whangaehu River valley, 50km north-east of Wanganui, New Zealand. It is centered on the village of Mangamahu, which is situated on river flats where the Mangamahu stream flows into the Whangaehu river. Mangamahu has a primary school (25-30 children) which has been open since 1894 and a War Memorial hall built in 1952.
The old hotel that was built in 1891, and the general store built in 1885 were both closed in 1974, due to the decline in the wool and meat trades in the 1970s. Many of the farms in the district have now being converted to pine plantations.
The Mangamahu river flats were formed by huge mud slides or "lahars" (c. 1200 and 1520 AD) flowing down the Whangaehu river from the crater lake of Mount Ruapehu.
The river flat on which Mangamahu School is situated is the site of an old Ngati Apa Maori camp-site named Kohanga. This was occupied in summer by bird-snaring and eel-trapping groups from further down the Whangaehu, and also used as a way station by those travelling the trail up the ridge between the Whangaehu river and Mangamahu stream, from the fortified pa at Manumanu (near the mouth of the Mangawhero river) to Karioi, and then across the Rangipo Desert and Lake Taupo to the Waikato and Rotorua.
Kohanga and Manumanu were destroyed during the musket wars in 1840 and 1843, and most of the surviving inhabitants of the upper valley moved west to Parikino on the Wanganui River.
British colonists began buying the land in the 1870s. James MacDonald was the first white settler, introducing sheep to his clearing in the bush at 'Glenaladale' in 1872. His wife joined him there in 1875.
During the 1880s the old Maori trail through Mangamahu was developed into a bench track for pack horses (Hales Track). It followed the Whangaehu river flats to the Mangamahu Stream, then went up the northern ridgeline of the Mangamahu Stream to Bald Hill, and on to Karioi. It gave settlers to access to the nearer forest-covered hills of the area, (now Ruakiwi, Inzevar, Aranui and Mt View farms) and enabled packhorses to bring wool from sheep grazing on the high back-country tussock lands at Ngamatapouri and Waiouru. From Waiouru the trail went on to Moawhango and then to Napier.
In 1879 Arthur Ellis and Allan Robinson bought 140 hectares on the site of the present Mangamahu village. To assist the many settlers and laborers moving up and down Hales Track, they developed a supply store to which a post office was attached in 1889. Then in 1891 they built an accommodation house, and by 1894 this was a licensed 12-bedroom hotel. A blacksmith's shop and saddlery were added and served customers as far away as Taihape and Raetihi.
In 1891, work began on widening Hales Track into a wagon road (The Ridge Road) and Merv Addenbrooke tells of the clouds of dust he could see in 1905 as wool wagons moved down it in summer time. From 1894 to 1908, Mangamahu village was a busy district supply centre with wagons moving up the Ridge Road to farms and railway construction sites in the central high country as far away as Ngamatapouri and the Waimarino, and with travellers going across the island from Wanganui to Napier.
The tracks and roads in the hills behind the village were still very difficult to negotiate and Royal Mail contractor Annie Shaw (Barb Wire Annie) became a legend for her grit in getting her pack-horses delivering the mail across the hills in the winter mud from 1904 to 1910.
Then in 1908 the Main Trunk Railway line through the centre of the island was completed and Mangamahu's importance as a transport hub greatly shrunk. The Ridge Road was closed in 1922.
Merv Addenbrooke was born at Mangamahu in 1901. He worked as a bushman/fencer/shearer on local farms there until 1930. Merv's 1991 autobiography Home from the Hill (in NZ public libraries and also online) has detailed anecdotes about his childhood and farm-working days in Mangamahu between 1905 to 1930. In 1930 Merv married and moved to a dairy farm at Putaruru. He died in 1993.
John Archer, born in Mangamahu in 1941, remembers the post-war village as a caring, close-knit community. It had a school (with 12 pupils), general store/post office, a hotel, a bus and taxi service, a general carrier and a timber mill. In the surrounding district there were farmers, shepherds, fencers, roadmen, bridge builders, itinerant shearers and scrub-cutters. In the 1940s, most of the scrub-cutters were middle-aged Catholic men who could not get a divorce, and who wanted to disappear from sight. But by 1948, the first Fijian Indians scrub-cutters had arrived.
The dusty corrugated gravel road to Wanganui was a boneshaking one hour journey while the River Road, from Mangamahu to Mount View, was narrow and winding with steep bluffs and many slips in winter. Not many people had cars, and at the Mangamahu store to meet Tommy Thompson's bus each evening at 5pm was an important social gathering.
There were many sporting activities, especially rugby, golf and pony club, but also tennis, cricket and badminton. The rifle shooting club that had flourished in the 1920s and 1930s had died out, but pig hunting was still popular.
The Tangiwai disaster greatly affected Mangamahu during the Christmas week of 1953. A lahar down the Whangaehu river from the Mt Ruapehu crater lake reached Mangamahu at 7am on Christmas morning. Wreckage of a passenger train and dozens of bodies were in the muddy flow. Over the next four weeks, local settlers recovered the bodies of about sixty victims from out of the river gorges near Mangamahu.
In 1951 the first topdressing planes arrived, spreading super-phosphate to make more grass grow on the steep hills of the sheep-farms. Not much fertilizer at first, but by 1960 the local carrier was carting 2000 tonne a year to the various airstrips in the district. Kellick's at Mangamahu, Lilburn's at Rata Flat and Collins' at Aranui. The topdressing enabled much more wool and sheep-meat to be produced, and Mangamahu bard John Archer describes the unexpected social consequences.
The valley grew so wealthy, from the super-pilots' loads The farmers all bought big new motor cars, and they tar-sealed our back-country roads. The farmers' wives drove out every day, to the big bright shops in town - And the Mangamahu store went bankrupt, the Mangamahu pub closed down.
In 1973 the price of oil skyrocketed, and this was followed by a reform government that abolished farm subsidies that had encouraged farmers to produce more than the market could absorb. Sheep farming became uneconomic on the more marginal dissected slip-prone hills in the middle of the valley, and "Queen Street farmers", investors from Auckland, bought up thousands of hectares to plant pine plantations. The pine trees greatly reduced erosion of the soft soil forming the steep hills in the Mangamahu valleys. Mud from slips on Mangamahu sheep farms had washed down the Whangaehu River and silted up the river-bed near the coastal settlement of Whangaehu. This caused the river to overflow and flood the houses there after heavy rain in 2004.
Massey University lecturer Paul Kaplan interviewed every person in Mangamahu to find out how social conditions affected farm production. Two findings of his made the national news. He discovered that when Mangamahu farmers reached the age of about 52, they upgraded their farmhouse kitchens (and then sat in them all winter, instead of getting out onto the hills and increasing production)
So to maintain productivity, said Kaplan, the farmer's oldest son needed to be married by the age of 26. (The farmer could then trust his son with 'the chequebook,' and the energetic and enthusiastic young man would spend the winter on the hill-tops improving the land)
This comedy about two 1949 con-men had some woolshed and river scenes filmed at Mangamahu. A suspension bridge was specially built over the Whangaehu River at Tokorangi farm for a car crash at the end of the film.
With the huge increase of acreage planted in pines after 1973, there was a decline in the output of fat lambs, wethers, wool and cattle from the valley. Consequently there were fewer heavy truck-and-trailer journeys on the valley roads, and road-maintenance costs were low. But Pinus radiata takes only 25 years to grow to a loggable size in New Zealand, and by 2010 thousands of tonnes of pine awaits removal on the valley's sub-standard roads.