They cut the old totara tree down in 1949, but the quarry named after it continued to live on in a raft of glorious white buildings here and overseas. Hugh de Lacy tells the story.
It was probably not the biggest or most handsome totara tree in North Otago, but it had a defining role in the development of not only a signature local industry but also the national industry that, as much as wool and gold, laid the foundations for our nation’s economic prosperity.
For more than a century, the tree stood near the main road about 10 kilometres south of Oamaru and was such a local landmark that the whole district was named after it: Totara.
And it was that district which made Oamaru synonymous with, on the one hand the beautiful limestone that featured in so many buildings throughout New Zealand and in parts of Australia, and, on the other, the frozen meat trade which started there and lifted New Zealand out of a prolonged recession late in the nineteenth century.
A little before John Brydone and his Scottish capitalist cronies founded the New Zealand meat trade with the miracle of refrigeration in 1882, the totara tree had lent its name to the limestone quarry on the same property.
It was then that was one of the two main sources of the high-quality rock which is still being quarried in the district today.
The tree had also given its name to the sprawling Totara Station from which John sourced the animals for the first shipment of frozen mutton to England, and on which the processing facilities were sited.
The station at one stage covered about 6000 hectares and carried more than 17,000 sheep, before being carved up by the government into 26 smaller holdings, and sold off in 1907.
Its historic role in the meat trade was officially marked by the then Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) which bought the farm buildings in 1980, restored them and opened them to the public in 1982, a hundred years to the day since the good ship Dunedin sailed with the first shipment of frozen mutton.
In late 2017, the Totara Estate, as it has since become known, came under the Landmarks Whenua Tohunga programme, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the Department of Conservation and Heritage NZ, formed to develop and preserve our cultural and historical sites.
Today, there are guided tours through the estate which includes the men’s quarters, the cookhouse, the stables, tack-rooms and the slaughter sheds – all built of limestone from the Totara Tree Stone Company.
The stone company itself was formed in 1879 by Benjamin Perry, who bought the property on which the tree stood, and discovered soon after that it hosted one of the two best-quality limestone deposits in a region already noted for its rock.
The other was Taipo Hill.
By then Oamaru stone had been making its name as an outstanding construction material for more than 20 years in a country where rich natural supplies of native timber – except in Otago – and the frequency of earthquakes, dictated the preference for wooden houses.
The University of Otago’s Registry Building in 1866 had become the first major structure to use Oamaru stone, and it was followed in quick succession by the likes of the Dunedin Railway Station, the Dunedin Law Courts and the Christchurch Arts Centre.
Benjamin’s efforts to grow the Totara Tree Stone Company by exporting the product around the South Island, and eventually to Australia and Melbourne in particular, were severely hampered by the charges the Railways Department was imposing at the time.
Mount Taipo’s lessee, George Munro, had already shopped consignments of stone to the North Island and Australia directly out of Oamaru, but Totara’s Benjamin was eager to build the trade with fast-growing Christchurch.
In late 1877, when locals were considering forming a grand local limestone company of most of the local quarries, it was cheaper for Taipo to ship stone to Melbourne than it was for Totara to rail it to Christchurch.
Perry chipped away at the Railways Department freight charges for the better part of a decade and a half until, in 1894, the department’s commissioners fronted up to a public meeting in Oamaru.
As a monopoly, the department, burdened with debt from Premier Julius Vogel’s massive borrowing on the London exchange, was apparently rorting its freight operations by charging far more to move Oamaru stone than to move bricks.
Totara’s campaign against exorbitant rail charges was then being conducted by the company’s manager, John Gay, who had lobbied all the local stonemasons and quarry operators to put pressure on the commissioners.
This appeared to have some effect, the result of more reasonable freight charges was that Oamaru stone featured strongly in the Garden City’s civic and private building boom in the late 1800s.
Benjamin Perry himself by that time was also in the booze business as the owner of the Empire Hotel in Thames Street, Oamaru, and it did well until prohibition cast its pall over Oamaru in 1905.
Benjamin kept exceptionally detailed records of his businesses, as did the auctioneering firm of George Sumpter and Son, which shared the Empire premises.
In the early 1970s, Benjamin’s grandson, the late Keith Perry, was in the process of demolishing the old stables at the rear of the hotel – now a backpackers’ lodge – when he came across a pile of dusty records from the Totara Tree Stone Company, the Empire Hotel and Sumpter’s auctioneers.
The hotel’s owner at the time was Benjamin Perry’s son Thomas Perry, who told Keith Perry to get rid of the old records down at the local landfill.
Keith Perry, fortunately, didn’t do what he was told, instead taking the records, including correspondence and financial statements of the stone company along with diaries and day-books from the hotel, to his home in the village of Totara.
There they languished until 2017 when Keith’s widow, Kathleen Perry – who still lives in Totara –donated the lot to the Waitaki District Council, where it’s housed among the archives in the council’s own historic building made of Oamaru stone.
And so it happened that the trove of nineteenth century business records outlived the tree that gave its name to the district and the stone company, because exactly 70 years after Benjamin Perry moved to Oamaru, the tree, diseased and frail, was cut down.