Te Kuiti is situated on the floor of the valley of the Mangaokewa Stream, a west-bank tributary of the Waipa River, and about 2 miles north of the entrance to the Mangaokewa Gorge. The surrounding country is undulating to hilly, and rises on the west to the Hauturu Range and on the east to the Rangitoto Range. The North Island Main Trunk railway and the Hamilton – New Plymouth highway pass through the town. By road Te Kuiti is 49 miles south of Hamilton (42 miles by rail), 106 miles north-east of New Plymouth, and 53 miles north-west from Taumarunui (48 miles by rail).
Sheep raising is the main farming activity of the district, but dairying and cattle raising are also important. There is a butter factory at Piopio (15 miles south-west). Milling of native timber is carried on in various localities in and near Pureora State Forest, including Mangapehi (17 miles southeast) and Benneydale (20 miles south-east). Coal is mined near Aria (24 miles south-west). Coal was also mined extensively until 1962 in the Mangapehi area near Benneydale. Limestone abounds throughout the district and is quarried and processed within 1 mile south-east of the town, near Waiteti (5 miles south), at Hangatiki (8 miles north), and elsewhere. There is a cement works near the southern boundary of the town. Serpentine, for the manufacture of fertilisers, is quarried near Piopio. Te Kuiti is the centre of an extensive district. Industrial activities include the manufacture of agricultural lime, concrete products, prefabricated-steel farm buildings, and joinery. Sawmilling and general engineering are also carried on. Te Kuiti has large livestock sale-yards, as well as wool and skins stores. It is an important junction for tourist traffic to Waitomo Caves (12 miles north-west).
The original Maori settlement was situated near the Mangaokewa Gorge portal and was called Te Kuititanga. The name is said to mean “the narrowing in or closing in”, and refers to the closing in of the hills as the locality is approached from the north. One of the first notable European visitors was the Rev. Richard Matthews who, with his family, passed through the district in 1841 during a journey from Putiki Mission (near Wanganui) to Auckland. Following the siege of Orakau in 1864, the “kingite” warriors took refuge in and about Te Kuititanga, and for some time the valley was the temporary headquarters of Tawhiao. Te Kooti fled to the Mangaokewa Valley in 1872 for sanctuary with the Ngati Maniapoto. In the late 1870s Reihana te Huatare Wahanui and other Ngati Maniapoto leaders, despite the opposition of Tawhiao, agreed to permit the central King Country (q.v) to be opened up by railway. A route was explored between Te Awamutu and Waitara in 1883 by Charles Wilson Hursthouse, but in the same year John Rochfort explored a central route and the Waitara route was abandoned.
Te Kuiti is considered to have come into existence as a railway construction camp following an extension southwards of the Te Awamutu – Otorohanga section of the line in 1887. A foundry was set up in Te Kuiti to facilitate the preparation of ironwork for the Waiteti Viaduct (about 5 miles south-east). In October 1890 Te Mahuki and other malcontents caused a disturbance at Te Kuiti when attempts were made to burn European buildings. The railway was opened for traffic as far as Taumarunui in April 1901, and in November 1908 Te Kuiti obtained through rail communication with Wellington. The outlying areas were opened up for settlement after 1890. Te Kuiti was constituted a borough on 1 April 1910.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 3,304; 1956 census, 3,781; 1961 census, 4,494.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.