Putaruru is situated among hills in the upper basin of the Waihou River. The town occupies a flat to gently undulating site, and to the east the land rises to the Mamaku Range. The Hamilton-Rotorua section of railway and the Hamilton-Taupo main highway pass through Putaruru. By road Putaruru is 40 miles south-east of Hamilton (53 miles by rail), 33 miles north-west of Rotorua (32 miles by rail), 19 miles south of Matamata (18 miles by rail), and 58½ miles north-west of Taupo. A branch railway provides a goods service to and from Tokoroa (14 miles south-east), and Kinleith (18 miles south-east).
Dairying, with some sheep raising, is the main farming activity of the district. There is a large dairy factory at Tirau (6 miles north). Extensive afforested areas, containing chiefly Pinus radiata, lie to the south and south-east of Putaruru. Large sawmills and pulp and paper mills are located at Kinleith. There are timber milling settlements at Pinedale (3 miles east), Ngatira (8 miles south-east), Wiltsdown (10 miles south), Te Whetu (18 miles south-east), and Waotu (12 miles south-west). The Arapuni hydro-electric power station, on the Waikato River, is 9 miles east. Putaruru is chiefly a timber handling and processing centre, but it also serves as a market town. Industrial activities include the manufacture of joinery, furniture, wooden boxes, precut houses and other buildings, concrete products, clothing, and general and structural engineering.
There were several Maori settlements in the Putaruru district in precolonisation times. During Te Rauparaha's migration to the Cook Strait area in the 1820s, many Ngati Raukawa people who occupied these settlements moved to Rangitikei and Manawatu localities. Others followed after the siege of Orakau in 1864. Te Kooti and his followers were pursued through the district early in 1870 by a force under Lt.-Col. Thomas McDonnell. The Patetere Block, containing the future town site of Putaruru, was acquired from the Maoris in the 1860s. In the early 1880s large areas in the Putaruru district came into the possession of the Patetere Land Company but from 1883 much of this land passed into the hands of the Thames Valley Land Company. The first settler in the Putaruru district bought his section in 1892. Roadmaking was commenced in the late 1880s but the railway, which was begun by the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Co., was the most important factor in the progress of settlement in the area. It reached Oxford (Tirau) on 8 March 1886 and on 21 June, Lichfield (5 miles south-east of Putaruru). In 1889 the Putaruru-Rotorua section was begun and was completed on 8 December 1894. In the eighties Putaruru consisted of little more than a hotel and a blacksmith's shop. In the early 1900s the Taupo Totara Timber Company acquired bush blocks in country north and north-west of Lake Taupo and erected a mill at Kopokorahi, near the present Kinleith. A light railway was constructed linking the Kopokorahi Mill and the Mokai Mill (51 miles south-east) with Putaruru. By 1905 logs were transported to Putaruru via this line, and by 1908 passengers and goods. The dismantling of this line began in 1944 but in 1948 the Ministry of Works began to construct an 18-mile branch line to Kinleith to serve the new pulp, paper, and sawmills. This was completed on 6 October 1952.
Exotic afforestation was begun in the district some time after 1910 by a land and timber company with an outlet to the Hamilton-Rotorua railway near Pinedale. Commercial tree planting with Pinus radiata took place between 1924 and 1928 on the Pinedale Block. Milling began in 1940–41 and by 1951 the area had been cut out and replanted. Larger areas further south were also planted in 1924 for future milling and to provide the raw material for pulp and paper manufacture. The town of Putaruru was surveyed in 1905 and on 18 December an area of 50,987 acres, which had previously been acquired from the Thames Valley Land Co. by the Crown and which included town allotments in Putaruru and Lichfield, was opened by ballot. Much of the land in the Putaruru district suffered from a cobalt deficiency which made farming practically impossible, but since 1935 measures have been taken to restore fertility and farming has expanded. Putaruru was created a town district in 1926; on 1 July 1947 it was constituted a borough.
The correct form of the name is thought to be Putaaruru – “To come forth like a ruru (native owl)”.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,872; 1956 census, 2,815; 1961 census, 3,550.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.