Flax and Timber
Our First Moneymakers
Flax swamps and dense native forest made Manawatu an attractive place for both Maori and European. For Maori the swamps and forests were a source of abundant food. Flax provided useful fibre for many purposes.
It was flax and timber that brought European settlers to Manawatu. Traders came, eager to buy flax fibre prepared by the Maori people. They built rope walks to spin the fibre into useful cordage for sale in Australia, Britain and the United States.
Later flaxmilling became one of Manawatu’s most important industries. As farmers began to drain the swampland to establish pasture, they found the process stimulated the growth of the flax already growing naturally in the area. Flaxmilling grew from the 1870s and continued until the 1930s. There were boom times when there was a huge demand from the overseas market, and bust times when fibre from other markets competed, or when disease hit the plants. During World War I prices reached an alltime high of £70 per ton. At other times the price could be as little as £12 per ton.
Manawatu’s Makerua Swamp, stretching from Linton to Shannon, alongside the Manawatu River, was the biggest commercial flax swamp in New Zealand. At the peak of its production - the years from 1910 to 1918 — the 14,500 acre swamp supplied nearly two thirds of New Zealand’s total output of flax. During those peak years well over 600 men were employed in the swamp and at the stripping mills produced up to 14,000 tons of fibre annually.
Most mills were fairly small operations with just one flax stripper but at Makerua there was a seven-stripper mill - the biggest mill ever to operate in New Zealand, and probably the Southern Hemisphere. Miiranui means “big mill” and that was the name given to the flaxmill that Alfred and Louis Seifert opened in 1907 just north of Shannon.