Settlers and Pioneers
Matamata town and the rich dairy-farming lands about it are an excellent example of the changes which closer settlement has brought about in New Zealand. It is all to the good that this once great estate belonging to one man should now support many hundreds of families. But Josiah Clifton Firth, the original lord of 60,000 acres here, was a splendid pioneer and did much to break in a waste land to the purposes of food-growing. He had great ideas and ideals, and he was far ahead of his times. He made the Upper Thames country a civilised land; he cleared the snag-blocked Waihou River to run his own steamers; he made roads and built bridges. The Firth cultivations were on a scale in advance of anything in the island. In the year 1883 he had 3,000 acres of wheat in one huge field. Now that one field of corn makes thirty dairy-farms.
J. C. Firth's son, the late William Thornton Firth, was, too, a pioneer of Matamata. He helped to develop the country and he twice went to America for the latest agricultural and engineering machinery for the big estate. He brought back from the United States the first telephone apparatus used in New Zealand. He erected a telephone line over twenty miles long, between Matamata and Waiorongomai, page 40at the foot of Te Aroha Mountain, where there was a gold-mining field in the eighties of last century.
Speaking of the large estates in the Thames Valley at the end of the last century, a visitor said: 'There is no doubt that farming was more impressive and picturesque on those large estates than it is to-day. I saw 20,000 sheep in one mob on 100 acres of turnips. Great mobs of cattle were frequently on the move. With its vast blocks and herds, Matamata was singularly bare of human life. Apart from the contractors engaged in draining, ploughing, fencing, and similar work, there were only twenty-five men permanently employed, and these apart from the managers only averaged from 20s. to 25s. per week in wages. On the site of the present town district of over 1,000 people, there was only a wool shed, empty and lifeless except during a few weeks through the year. Between the railway station and the homestead, about five miles away, there was not a house to be seen. Those who know the Matamata of to-day can realise what John McKenzie's Lands for Settlement Act did for this estate as well as for others in various parts of New Zealand.'