Ngāti Maniapoto writer, genealogist and King movement advisor Pei Te Hurinui Jones lived in Taumarunui. He recorded Tainui tribal genealogies and stories and collaborated with Apirana Ngata on the renowned collection of songs Nga moteatea. Jones’s history of Tainui, Nga iwi o Tainui, was published posthumously in 1995.
F. L. Phillips, who lived in Ōtorohanga, compiled Nga tohu a Tainui / Landmarks of Tainui, a two volumes on Tainui historic places with a strong focus on the King Country.
Ruth Park, Mary Scott, Helen Wilson and Frank Sargeson all wrote about King Country life in their published works. Farming on the hill country is a prominent theme for Scott, Wilson and Sargeson. The protagonist of John Mulgan’s novel Man alone (1939) spent time in the King Country.
Artist Peter McIntyre, best known as New Zealand’s official war artist during the Second World War, owned a holiday cottage in Kākahi, south-east of Taumarunui. Inspired by the rugged landscape and the district’s small communities, he painted the volcanic cones, native bush, rivers, farming scenes and local people. These appeared in his books Peter McIntyre’s New Zealand (1964) and Kakahi New Zealand (1972).
Rangimārie Hetet of Ngāti Maniapoto was a distinguished practitioner of traditional Māori weaving. She began teaching women to weave in the early 1950s and went on to exhibit her work throughout New Zealand and internationally. Many honours were bestowed upon her and she became Dame Rangimārie in 1992. Her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa was also an expert weaver.
Big-city fashion designers were taken aback when Taumarunui designer Michael Mattar won his first major award in 1968. Later in life, Mattar remarked that ‘the jealousy was terrible. Those Auckland designers just hated it that a country boy from Taumarunui could have beaten them. One even came up to me and accused me of bribing the judges.’1
Women’s fashion designer Michael Mattar grew up in Taumarunui and lived and worked there until his death in 2004. He opened Michael Mattar Haute Couture in the town’s centre in 1963 and achieved national fame in 1968 when he won the supreme award at the New Zealand Fashion Showcase. After this, women from around the country flocked to Taumarunui to have dresses designed and made by Mattar. International visitors also patronised his boutique.
Māori places of importance
Evidence of Māori settlement – pā, villages and middens (ancient rubbish heaps) – are found in archaeological sites throughout the King Country. Many sites have been recorded, particularly along the Mōkau River and around Kāwhia.
Well-known transsexual and one-time Wellington mayoral candidate Carmen Rupe grew up on a farm near Taumarunui and in the town itself. She wrote in her 1988 autobiography that ‘the centre of my world was my grandfather’s farm at the end of a dirt road. The town of Taumarunui, a long walk away, with its railway, post office, banks, shops, schools, hotels, boarding houses and picture houses, was the focus for most of our off-the-farm entertainment.’2
Maketū marae in Kāwhia is celebrated as the final resting place of the Tainui waka (canoe). The town’s Methodist church was built by students of the Tūrangawaewae Carving School (founded by Tainui tribal leader Te Puea Hērangi) in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Methodist mission and church in Kāwhia.
Māori rebel leader Te Kooti and his followers built the wharenui (meeting house) Te Tokanganui-a-Noho in what became Te Kūiti, in 1873 after finding sanctuary in the region. He gifted it to Ngāti Maniapoto shortly before receiving a government pardon in 1883. Located in the centre of the town on State Highway 3, the wharenui is one of 42 Ngāti Maniapoto marae in the King Country.
Many of the King Country’s European heritage sites are related to the railway line. Original railway stations are still standing in some places, including Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti, Taumarunui and National Park. The main trunk line itself (including viaducts) is recognised as an important heritage site.
In addition to altering the natural landscape, sawmillers left behind evidence of their work in the form of buildings and milling structures. New Zealand’s sole surviving complete native-timber sawmill is located near Waimiha, a rural settlement north of Taumarunui.
Two of the government’s early tourist hotels are in the King Country. The Waitomo Caves Hotel (1908) sits on a ridge above the glow-worm caves, and the Chateau Tongariro (1929) is on the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
Museums and historical societies
Museums are located in Kāwhia, Ōtorohanga, Waitomo, Piopio, Mōkau, Ōhura, Aukope and Taumarunui. Historical societies based in Te Awamutu, Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti and Waitomo jointly published a journal called Footprints of history between 1988 and 2004.
Ron Cooke published Roll back the years, a journal covering the history of the central and southern King Country, from 1980. The articles were collated in book form by the Taumarunui and Districts Historical Society.