TIMBER BUSINESS BUILT ON Butter
THE EARLY FORESTRY BUSINESS IN NEW ZEALAND WAS almost entirely focused on the giant Kauri trees that provided the masts and spars for the Royal Navy, as well as timber for building houses.
But once Kauri was logged out, sawmillers’ eyes turned elsewhere.
There was an abundance of timber in the central North Island, much of it untouched. However, access was the main problem, and until the main trunk railway line was completed in 1908 sawmills in those parts could only cut to supply the local market.
That suited one sawmiller, The Egmont Box Company, which was originally formed in 1906 in the Taranaki town of Eltham by a group of 60 dairy factories as shareholders. The original purpose of the company was to manufacture butter boxes and cheese crates from Kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydiodes), or as it was commonly known, White Pine.
Although the company had been formed to mainly manufacture boxes for dairy products, it was also permitted to expand into other areas of timber production, such as joinery, sawmilling, timber growing and the making of other kinds of wooden boxes. The company was also authorised to prepare butter and cheese for export.
This led to The Egmont Box Company branching out from its Taranaki roots to establish sawmills and boxing/batten factories across the central North Island, nearer to where major sources of Kahikatea were to be found.
A little bit about Kahikatea. This tree of such importance to the Egmont Box Company is New Zealand’s tallest native tree and can grow up to 60m in height. The trunk is often flared and buttressed at the base to give the tree stability due to its preference of growing in wet ground locations.
Originally, large amounts of sawn Kahikatea were exported to Australia in the early 1900s where it was well received but needed treatment for borer before use. Because of its use in the dairy industry, the New Zealand government put an arrangement in place that required the needs of our local dairy industry to be
met first before export was allowed, so this took precedence.
Kahikatea was completely free from taint and odour, hence its importance for the packaging of butter and cheese, along with tallow and other foodstuffs that required taint-free containers.
By the end of the Second World War some six million butter boxes were being made each year. This required around 60,000 cubic metres of Kahikatea and helps to explain why the Egmont Box Company looked to acquire cutting rights for bush blocks where the trees were present and establish mills in those areas.
It was not an abundant tree, usually found scattered amongst the more common trees such as Rimu, Totara and Matai. However, it could be found growing more prolifically in its preferred locations around swampy ground and by the banks of rivers and lakes.
One of the areas where Kahikatea grew well was Tongariro Forest, which drew the interest of The Egmont Box Company.
The original cutting rights for Tongariro Forest were granted to WH and E Grace in 1903 for some 11,300 hectares of Maori land in the Taurewa block.
This block was to form the concession of a lease of some 7,588 hectares granted to The Egmont Box Company in 1920. The company commenced logging operations in the north-west corner of the forest and shifted its sawmilling operations to a mill at Taurewa, just to the east of National Park headquarters. This mill operated until 1941.
Some other sawmilling companies sub-leased cutting areas from The Egmont Box Company. These included Hutt Timber and Hardware, Ketetahi Timber Milling Company, Pokaka Timber Company and the Dominion Timber Company.
The Egmont Box Company cutting rights expired on January 3, 1956 and the sale of the remaining timber came under the control of the New Zealand Forest Service.
After 1956, all the original cutting rights of the Egmont Box Company Concession area were taken over by subsidiary companies of Carter Consolidated. Logging ceased in Tongariro Forest in 1978.
The Taurewa Sawmill
In its heyday, The Egmont Box Company’s Mill Number 75, located at Taurewa between National Park and Turangi, was one of the largest mills in New Zealand with a cutting capacity of 35,000 board feet per day.
The company was well known for keeping its mills up to date and Taurewa was equipped with modern saws and gear.
The mill was powered by a steam-driven electric generator fired by Dutch ovens, which burnt wet sawdust fed by either conveyor belts throughout the mill or from storage bins. The power plant consisted of a twin Tangye steam engine with a cylinder bore of 14 inches and a stroke of 28 inches, generating 134kW (180hp). A multi-tubular boiler powered a log turner for the break-down bench.
There was a Pacific carriage feeding twin break-down saws of the inserted teeth type, which was capable of taking logs up to 11m (36ft) in length. There were also four breast benches and a deal frame. A deal frame was a sawing system equipped with multiple saws that could cut a flitch of timber into several boards at once.
A 1913 Bedford direct coupled steam-driven electric generator supplied 400 Volts of three-phrase AC power. This electric generator drove eleven separate motors.
The sawn timber was graded on a covered sorting table with a moving chain – one of the first in New Zealand – and the yard was worked by a Williamette Hydraulic Hoist Straddle carrier, the first of its type in New Zealand.
The mill started operating in 1936 and at its peak employed more than 100 workers. The first version of the mill was destroyed by fire on Sunday April 2, 1939, which was started by the Dutch ovens. Unfortunately, at the time the water supply was off, leaving mill staff unable to fight the fire and they could only stand by and watch as their workplace was destroyed.
After it was rebuilt in a smaller form that same year, it continued
cutting until August 8, 1941, when it was forced to close due to continued losses sustained by the company in other areas and timber sourcing issues.
The cutting rights in the eastern portion of the concession were sold to the Ketetahi Timber Company and the Pokaka Timber Company.
Efforts to sell the mill to the Forest Service were unsuccessful, but other parts of the forest block were sold to the Dominion Timber Company at Owhango, amounting to an area of 3,237 hectares.
In early 1942, the majority of the firm’s equipment was advertised for sale. The Egmont Box Company mill was sold to well-known sawmiller FJ Carter along with the remaining cutting rights for £33,000. The mill was dismantled and some items of equipment were moved to the Pukehinau clearing and rebuilt along with equipment from the Carter mill at Pokaka. This mill was operated under the name of the Pokaka Timber Company.
Carters then made the decision to not use the tram system for log transport but instead to use trucks. The railway was torn up and the track bed converted into a road for trucks to use. This road, known as John McDonald Road, follows closely the original tram formation and today gives access to the Pukehinau caves and at the end is the clearing where the Pokaka mill once stood. The remaining items of sawmilling equipment from the mill were sold off to other interested buyers.
The Downfall Of The Egmont Box Company
There were two issues that led to the demise of The Egmont Box Company. The first was that the available amount of Kahikatea in the Taurewa block had been grossly over estimated and it was subsequently discovered to be only 1% of all the major timber trees present. The original estimate of block was; 33% Kahikatea, 30% Rimu, 20% Totara and 17% Matai.
The company knew by 1936 that “white pine is negligible” and although it was authorised to expand into the sawmilling of other native species, this proved to be uneconomical, and indeed, contributed to the firm’s financial losses.
In retrospect, the company would have been better off purchasing the needed Kahikatea from other saw milling firms.
Following the 1940 AGM, the directors were instructed to stop milling operations and dispose of the firm’s timber rights and to concentrate on the business of making and selling butter and cheese containers.
Involvement With Tongariro Timber
Much of the difficulties experienced by The Egmont Box Company can be traced to its dealings with the Tongariro Timber Company and, in particular, that company’s royalty payments, as well as land tenure, labour and even the onset of the First World War.
Tongariro Timber had been granted access to some 55,000ha of bush on the condition it constructed a light rail line of some 40 miles [65km] from the main truck line at Kakahi to Pukawa on the shores of Lake Taupo.
Egmont Box was approached while it was milling at Te Rena and had gained cutting rights at Taurewa, with a proposal to construct a portion of the line from Kakahi of 5 miles [8 km] that both companies could use to gain access to needed timber blocks.
This was agreed on September 9, 1914, but the start of the First World War put paid to the plans of Tongariro Timber to raise the required finance in England.
Somewhat foolishly, in hindsight, Egmont Box carried on with construction using its own labour force and equipment and by March 1916 had spent a considerable sum on the rail line and bridging.
Then, in July 1916, NZ Railways changed the siting of the start of the line from Kakahi station and wanted the line re-routed over the NZ Railway bridge, which would have cost Egmont Box some £2,000 – a sum the company could not bear. Furthermore, the company’s lawyers considered that Tongariro Timber would be unable to find its share of the costs.
Work on the line halted and a new agreement between the two firms was worked out in 1919-1920.
The Government intervened again and wanted the line to be constructed of 40lb rails, rather than 30lb rails, any curves had to be of no less than 5 chains [100m] rather than 2 chains [44m] and all bridges were to be constructed of steel. This was obviously so that the line would be compatible with the main railway, enabling it to be absorbed into the network later on.
These required changes quadrupled the estimated cost of the railway. The English contractors who were to build Tongariro Timber's part of the line then withdrew as there was insufficient finance to build the railway to its new required specification.
It was the final blow and it led to the winding up of Tongariro Timber. This decision to liquidate also affected Egmont Box, which suffered heavy losses because of its close association with Tongariro Timber and other debtors. Following the liquidation of Tongariro, The Egmont Box Company found itself liable for tens of thousands pounds worth of securities that had been raised but never expected to have to pay.
If the directors of The Egmont Box Company had delved a little deeper they might never have got associated with the Tongaririo
Timber Company in the first place.
You see, a contract had been signed in 1906 with the Maori owners for the timber cutting rights in forests around the Mokai area, west of Lake Taupo, for more than 40,160 acres with an option over a further 19,285 acres at rates that would climb steeply.
Tongariro Timber had to pay a starting amount of £10 per acre from 1906, which was to be increased to £12.10 per acre in 1936 and from 1956 to 1961 it would go up to £20 per acre. This was to increase to £100 per acre after 1961. An advance royalty of £2,500 was to be paid annually regardless of any timber cut or not. This was to rise to £5,000 at a later date.
However, bear in mind that the estimates of the timber that was available to be cut, particularly Kahikatea, was over-optimistic, this alone was a recipe for trouble.
So, building a bush line to transport the supposed timber to the mill was not a very sound financial decision in light of those issues.
Why consider A Rail Or Tram System?
Before the use of trucks to cart logs most sawmills had their own dedicated tram systems. They were sturdy and reliable means of transporting large volumes of woods across very difficult country.
On the face of it, the agreement to jointly fund a line seemed a good idea. The Tongariro Timber Company’s side of the deal was to build a railway line from Kakahi to Pukawa on the shore of Lake Taupo. This would have been of 40 miles length and built to the same standard of the Taupo Totara Timber company line that was already operating successfully.
Opening spread: The Egmont Box Company headquarters in 1906 taken from the booklet The EBC Ltd.
A wooden cheese crate, this one is at the Putaruru Timber Museum. Photo: BM Gough.
Kahikatea was abundant in the swampy West Coast, but sporadic elsewhere in New Zealand.
Above: An aerial view of the EBC Taurewa sawmill from 1937. Below: The Caterpillar 75 similar to the one that helped push the rail line into the Taurewa Forest. Photo: Caterpillar Gallery, Eric C. Orlemann.
Old Egmont Box Company local, Climax 1317, that once languished in the Te Awamutu Memorial Park NZ Rail (photo from NZ Rail Fan) now being restored by the town’s Lions Club: Photo: Ian Jenner in NZ Railway Observer.
Fire destroyed the original sawmill at Taurewa in 1939.
Butter boxes made from Kahikatea being loaded from this Arahuri Dairy Company truck onto a train for export. Photo: Alexandra Turnbull Library.