Timber and limestone
Two of South Canterbury’s earliest industries were sawmilling and lime-burning. The timber industry had more or less ended by 1880, after fires destroyed remaining forests at Waimate and Geraldine.
Lime-burning, for agriculture and building, began in the 1860s. Limestone was also quarried as a building stone, and bricks were fired locally, most importantly near Makikihi. Lime is still quarried extensively for agricultural use.
South Canterbury’s industries have been based on processing farm products. There were early wind- and water-powered flour mills at Milford, Temuka, Winchester, Waimate and Timaru. The first of the large brick flour mills along the railway line at Timaru was built in 1878. New Zealand’s first roller mill began production in this area in 1882. Later, these mills also produced oatmeal, pasta and stockfood. Flour and stockfood are still made in Timaru.
Built to last
Among Timaru’s most prominent landmarks is the six-storey Timaru Milling Company Building. Built in brick in 1882, it was the first mill in the country to use rollers instead of grindstones. Many early interior features remain. The mill still operates and is thought to be New Zealand’s last dry pasta plant.
A butter factory was established in Temuka in 1883, and a cheese factory at Geraldine in 1884. Dairy exports through the port of Timaru increased fivefold between 1911 and 1927. More butter factories were built in Waimate and Timaru and cheese factories in Clandeboye, Ōrari and Milford.
A single factory at Clandeboye now draws milk from about 600 farms from North Canterbury to Otago. The factory produces specialist cheeses and other products from 11 million litres of milk a day, and employed 750 people in the early 2000s.
Before refrigeration, surplus stock was disposed of in boiling-down and meat-preserving works at Pleasant Point, Washdyke and Milford. The South Canterbury Refrigerating Company, formed in 1883, built a freezing works near Timaru in 1885. In January 1886 the first cargo of frozen meat was sent directly from Timaru to the United Kingdom.
The works were rebuilt in the 1890s, re-opening as the Smithfield Works in 1898. In 1904, the Christchurch-based Canterbury Frozen Meat Company built a second South Canterbury works at Pareora.
Flax and wool
In the 19th century New Zealand flax was cut and milled at Waimate, Winchester and Fairlie, but the last significant shipment of flax fibre left in 1906.
During the Second World War a linen flax industry was established as a wartime measure. Four factories were supplied from more than 3,000 hectares. But by the late 1950s fewer than 300 hectares were being planted in linen flax. The lifting of protective tariffs and competition from synthetic fibres reduced demand. The last factory, in Geraldine, closed in the late 1970s.
Wool was scoured at Washdyke from the days of the early runs and a woollen mill was built in Timaru.
Temuka became an important centre of clay-based industries when the Canterbury Pipe and Tile Company began production in 1874. During the First World War, the production of insulators began. In the 1930s the industry moved into homewares, for which the town is still known.
Wool and flour mills still operate in Timaru. Fish processing remains important, although the value of the catch has declined since the 1950s. South of Timaru, a potato-chip factory at Makikihi is typical of industries based on production from the region’s farms.
While South Canterbury’s workforce is more agricultural and industrial than the New Zealand average, most of the labour force works in the services sector.