By 1910 Manawatū, the district that came late in the story of Pākehā settlement, had equal standing with regions such as Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Whanganui and Southland. The economy was buoyant and in 1911 the Pākehā population had grown 40-fold since 1871 – from 1,000 to 40,000.
A booming region
Was there anything distinctive about Manawatū’s time in the sun? Its rich farming economy rested on the three pillars of dairying, frozen meat, and wool. In comparison, Taranaki relied on dairying, and Hawke’s Bay on sheep. Manawatū lay at the heart of the booming lower North Island, and at the hub (a favoured Manawatū word) of its rail network.
The region’s varied farming made it a logical location in the 1920s for the North Island’s only agricultural high school, at Feilding. In 1928 Massey Agricultural College was set up just outside Palmerston North, along with the Plant Research Station (later Bureau), the Dairy Research Institute and the Grasslands Division of the Department of Industrial Research. These centres drew a remarkable generation of scientists to Manawatū. The college became Massey University in 1964, and has long been New Zealand’s principal centre for extramural (distance) education.
Affluent and adventurous farmers and local businessmen had the money, the land and the enthusiasm to promote aviation. The Manawatū Aero Club (1928) aimed to make Manawatū a major terminal point for air transport. Union Airways, the forerunner of NAC (National Airways Corporation) and the first major commercial airline in the country, started at Milson Airport in Palmerston North in 1936.
Dairy farmers, in Manawatū as elsewhere, had taken readily to cooperative ownership of factories. And farmers generally supported firms like the Manawatū Farmers’ and the United Farmers’ cooperative associations. But the Manawatū Consumers’ Co-operative Society (1935) had a far longer and more successful life than similar ventures elsewhere. In the 1960s it had 30,000 members and 40 different stores throughout the region, including butcheries and groceries which offered member rebates. Its success owed much to the energies of a long-serving manager, Gordon Brown.
Two for one
Geoffrey Peren was New Zealand’s first professor of agriculture, at Victoria University College in 1924. Auckland University College then appointed William Riddet to the equivalent post. To avoid duplication it was decided to set up one college where both men would teach. It was named Massey Agricultural College after the late William F. Massey (the ‘farmer’ prime minister).
From swamp to dairy farm
By 1930 Manawatū’s bush, but not all its swamps, had become farmland. It was only after the collapse of the flax boom in 1919, when international prices fell sharply, that low-lying land at Ōpiki, Shannon and Foxton was drained for farm use. ‘Flaxies’ gave way to ‘cow cockies’.
Dairy farms needed more flood control than flax did. Stopbanks were built in the 1920s and the Moutoa sluice gates and floodway between 1959 and 1962.
Māori in Manawatū
The number of Māori increased from the 1920s. But even in 1961 Māori accounted for only 4% of the region’s population. Most adults were employed in seasonal work on farms or on the roads, but some individuals of Rangitāne descent, such as Rangiputangatahi Mawhete and John Mason Durie, ensured that the tribes were not completely marginalised. They were particularly active in mobilising Māori labour during the Second World War, through the Māori War Effort Organisation. The 28th Māori Battalion assembled and trained at the Palmerston North showgrounds for three months before embarking for war service in May 1940.
Growth in towns
In 1921 the population was two-fifths rural, but as flax and sawmilling waned the rural labour force declined. But the towns thrived. Unlike Whanganui, Palmerston North’s growth did not falter during the 1930s economic depression, and by the 1940s it had more residents than the older city.
In the 1950s Levin, being near Wellington, gained from industrialisation policies, including protection from imports. Manufacturing plants turned out a variety of products, including clothing, textiles and dyes, refrigerated trucks, and caravans. In 1961 the urban area population (11,402) exceeded that of Feilding (9,031), which remained mainly a service town for a rich farming district.
In 1961 the region’s population reached 88,000 – nearly double that of 1921. But only one quarter of residents now lived in rural areas.