Samuel Horouta Emery was born, probably in 1885, at the foot of Kakepuku in a small Māori settlement near Te Awamutu. His father was Samuel Hoera Joyce, a bushman, of Ngāti Mahuta; he also had kinship ties with Ngāti Pūkeko. Sam’s mother was Waimārama Emery of Ngāti Kahu. A thin youth with blondish red hair, Sam favoured his European grandfather’s looks. As his parents could not afford to keep him, Sam was sent away to be raised by an uncle. Even then he knew hunger: often he and his cousin Tom would herd the family cow into the swamp and drink milk directly from the udder. This experience of poverty was to motivate him for the rest of his life.
When he was 12 Sam Emery ran away from home to find his fortune in the Coromandel gumfields. At that time he spoke Māori only. He had never been to school and could neither read nor write, but quickly acquired some arithmetic in order to avoid being cheated by unscrupulous gum dealers and traders. By the time he was 18 Emery had managed to save enough money to marry a young woman from Rotoiti, Kataraina Te Urumahue Kātene, the daughter of Hona Whakataki Kātene of Ngāti Rongomai and Āneta Irihana Rēwiri of Ngāti Te Rangiunuora. Sam and Kataraina were married probably in 1903 or 1904 at Tapuaekura, Lake Rotoiti; they had three sons and three daughters. Initially they lived at Piropiro. It was here that Sam assisted his in-laws in establishing the house Rākeiao, and where he first became interested in the systematic development of marginal Māori land.
Emery then worked as a labourer for the Taupō Tōtara Timber Company helping to construct the Putāruru–Mōkai railway. His extraordinary capacity for hard physical work soon paid off and by 1909 he was able to build his own house at Te Tuarae on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. At the same time, he began to break in the property directly behind his house. As the land belonged to his wife’s people, he negotiated lease agreements which would allow him to clear the trees and develop good pasture. He then stocked the property with sheep and cattle. His rigorous selective breeding programme combined with regular on-site stock sales ensured that his farms ran only top-quality animals.
Emery also worked as a casual road worker building the main highway to Whakatāne. Brief stints navvying on the Okataina and Manawahē roads then led to a spell tree planting in Waipā. He also won a contract to transport young pine trees from the nursery to the planting sites in the forest. For an extra shilling a day, he would hitch up his own horse and dray and provide the cartage service himself.
In spite of the demands of his entrepreneurial activities, Emery still managed to find time to play rugby. Every Saturday during the season he would get up before dawn and ride the long miles to Rotorua for club games in the afternoon. He distinguished himself as a forward playing club rugby for Waipā, Kahukura and Rotoiti. He also played representative rugby for Bay of Plenty and was in later years a selector for the Bay of Plenty, Rotorua and Arawa teams.
In 1911 Sam Emery opened a small shop beside his home in Rotoiti. Staffed mostly by Kataraina, their children and other relatives, Emery’s general store did a steady trade in staples like flour, tea and sugar. For his regular customers Emery could always be relied upon to offer a few Māori delicacies such as mutton birds. He also supplied the shop with meat butchered at his own killing sheds; the carcasses came from Emery’s farm.
The grocery business was extremely successful and Emery ploughed the profits into buying a double buggy so that he could increase the amount of stores carted from Rotorua. Not one to waste resources, he then began an informal weekend bus service charging local footballers a small cash fare in return for rides to their Saturday games. This enterprise, the beginning of the Emery Transport Company, was the first regular bus service to run between Rotoiti and Rotorua. Emery soon recognised the potential of the motor vehicle to his burgeoning cartage business and by 1917 he had a Ford truck parked alongside his horse-drawn dray. Later, three Buicks and a 25-passenger bus were added to the fleet.
Emery continued to lease and clear land for farming. In addition to dry stock he introduced a 20-head milking herd to the 300-acre property at Rotoiti. From then on fresh milk and other perishables were regularly available at his shop.
At this time Emery was able to give up working on the roads and concentrate on his business activities. One of his profitable sidelines was the local manufacture of lead-lined coffins. In 1915 Emery became a partner in a sawmilling business and also bought a 34-passenger launch, Hikuwai. He was unable to operate the launch commercially until he had passed his skipper’s ticket so he studied for the qualification; still unable to read or write, he learnt the examination questions and answers by rote. He relied heavily on the support of his family when dealing with the mountain of paperwork and bookkeeping generated by his many business interests. He was taught by Kataraina and her sister to make an acceptable signature. Ironically, Emery was also the licensed postmaster at Rotoiti during this period: it was the women of the household who took real responsibility for the sorting and delivery of the mail.
Emery realised that the key to Māori prosperity and growth lay in the acquisition of a large, self-sustaining economic base. He was an early supporter of Apirana Ngata’s land development schemes. As an experienced farmer, he saw the advantages of amalgamating small parcels of Māori land in order to form larger, more economic units. But he also knew how important it was for Māori shareholders in the incorporated blocks to retain control of the leases while at the same time actively investing in a programme of planned development which would increase the value of their original asset.
Emery held executive offices in the Ōkere, Tautara, Waione 3B8, Manupīrua, Waitangi No 3 and Te Haumingi No 5 and No 13 incorporations. Having proved himself an able administrator, he then became chairman of Ngāti Pikiao’s very successful Rotomā Incorporation. Here he confirmed his reputation as a Māori businessman of ability and vision. From 1937 he was a member and deputy chairman of the Arawa District Trust Board and treasurer of the Waiariki District Council of Tribal Executives. He served on the Bledisloe Park and Lake Okataina scenic boards, was a member of the Māori Education Foundation for Rotomā and chaired the Rotoiti section of the Māori War Effort Organisation.
In later life Emery began to extend his business interests to include investments in real estate and commercial property. He organised the first subdivision of Gisborne Point in an ambitious lake-front housing development, and sold a valuable site in Rotorua. Emery was a staunch supporter of the New Zealand National Party, although ideology was less important than his view that those who made big money voted National and so would he.
In 1944 Emery was elected to the Rotorua County Council, where he served until his retirement in 1962. He was a tireless advocate for Māori and would often represent the interests of local tribes and hapū in their claims to the council. This intervention was valued by his Pākehā colleagues for the practical insights it gave into the complex nature of Māori land tenure and rating disputes.
Kataraina Emery died on 21 July 1959. As a memorial to her and her ancestors, Sam organised the construction of Te Rangiunuora, the large meeting house on the hill above his first little shop at Taurua Point. Te Rangiunuora was officially opened in 1960 by the prime minister, Walter Nash. Emery was also involved in the construction of other meeting houses in the Rotorua area.
Sam Emery was a member of the Rotorua Racing Club for over 30 years and bred his own horses. The first reasonably successful horse he raced was named Kaimoni (money eater). Then came the classy Miss Pictavia, who had a string of good finishes including a win in the Matamata Cup. Sam also bred the mare Tip o’ Dawn, who through Hermes produced Van der Hum, the champion stayer and winner of the 1976 Melbourne Cup.
Sam Emery died at Rotorua on 20 April 1967 and is buried on a slope overlooking Lake Rotoiti in Te Whare-tai-ngā-moko, the Emery family cemetery. He was survived by five of his six children.