Carterton – An Enterprising Community

Carterton is one of five townships in the Wairarapa, on the eastern side of the towering Tararua Ranges. The settlement was formalised by the Wellington Provincial Council in February 1857 and settled principally by labourers and would-be small farmers employed to form the roads. It was initially known as Three Mile Bush, as a result of the extensive areas of predominantly totara forest on the western side of the main street. In 1860, the settlement was renamed Carterton in honour of the noted contractor, businessman, politician and philanthropist, Charles Rooking Carter. Carter provided land for various public facilities in the district and gave generously to the Carterton Library. His will provided for the establishment of the Carter Home for "poor, aged men" in Carterton and the Carter Observatory in Wellington.


Carterton was the last of the four townships (Featherston, Greytown, Carterton, Masterton) on the main north road to be settled. Originally it was a working men's camp and not intended to be a township, thus the land was not surveyed for closer settlement. This legacy persists to this day.

SO 10865, Wellington Land Registry, 1868 (detail) (Western side of Three Mile Bush Road, now known as High Street)
SO 10865, Wellington Land Registry, 1868 (detail)
(Western side of Three Mile Bush Road, now known as High Street)

The main road followed the gently curving edge of the forest, to the later disgust of those who believed all main streets should be straight. Survey plans from both 1866 and 1868 show the bush cover extending the full length of the western side of the main road (now High Street). As a result, sections on this side of the road were viewed as being farms. They are about 75 acres and stretch as far back as Lincoln Road, while on the other side, the sections are smaller and about 10 acres.

The situation on the western side is best illustrated by Section 207 which runs from Belvedere Road to just south of Pembroke Street. The bush extending right up to the main road was cleared rapidly, enabling shops and businesses to spring up in what is today, the heart of the Carterton business district. Broadway started life as a short, 10 metre wide private right of way to which neighbours on the northern side had no right of access. By the early 1900s, it had been formed into the generous width we know today.

Carterton was initially three distinct and in some ways, competing villages. The first was in the south around Moreton Road, the second further north around Belvedere Road and then Clareville further north again at Chester Road. This competitive arrangement was brought to a head with the arrival of the railway from Wellington in 1880. With the station on Section 207, the commercial centre eventually gravitated to its present position where there was the nucleus of the village at Belvedere.

Early Settlers

Times were not easy, as indicated by an 1857 petition signed mostly by men from Three Mile Bush, complaining about low wages, as against the cost of provisions. Remember these had to be brought over the Rimutaka Hill by dray and at great cost. These men and their families faced great difficulties but soon slab whares provided shelter. The first recognisable house in Carterton was reputedly built by Robert Dixon on his main road property. Dixon owned Section 2, which was nearly 10 acres. In present day terms, the main road frontage of this land ran from what is now 66 High Street North (Tarragon Café), south to Holloway Street.

The first store was opened by Richard Fairbrother (1826-1892) who had moved up from Greytown. His store also served as the first postal agency from 1861. Fairbrother is described by Bagnall in Wairarapa: an historical excursion (1976) as "a young man of vigour and initiative". Like so many, Fairbrother was prepared to take an entrepreneurial risk, as did others who came later to serve the settlers in the hinterland. These qualities led to him becoming the Chairman of the Carterton Town Board and later the town's first mayor, a role he filled until a year before his death.

Gradually, many of the labourers and rural workers from the early period moved into property ownership and formed a solid foundation for growth. Despite this though, it was very common for employment to be found off farm, as cash flows in the early stages of farm development were very limited and bills had to be paid. This arrangement consolidated both the township, with its expanding business and industrial base, and the small holdings which eventually moved beyond subsistence farming to providing produce for local and overseas markets.


Wairarapa Archive, 94-83/53, Booth's Sawmill, Carterton (undated)
Wairarapa Archive, 94-83/53,
Booth's Sawmill, Carterton (undated)

The dense surrounding bush saw several mills established and with the coming of the railway, timber could be sent to Wellington. They were a steady source of employment, as were the farms which were eventually developed as a result of much struggle and hard work. These settlers were principally immigrants from the rural parts of England and together with others from northern Europe, were prepared to risk all to achieve land ownership and a better life than they had in their home countries.

Wairarapa Archive, 03-143/2-1, Carte de visite of Wakelin’s Mill, High Street, Carterton, circa 1880s
Wairarapa Archive, 03-143/2-1, Carte de visite of Wakelin’s Mill, High Street, Carterton, circa 1880s

As well as sheep and later dairy farming, cleared land was also used to grow wheat and barley. The grain was first milled in water-powered flour mills but in the early 1870s, less than 20 years after the town was first settled, Edward Louth Wakelin built a four storey flour mill on the main road, complete with a bakery and confectionery factory. This mill still stands in High Street South, just north of the Wakelin Street intersection. (The Look of Carterton: the first 150 years, 1857-2007, Gareth Winter, 2007).

Carterton District Historical Society, Photograph Collection, Taratahi Co-op Dairy Factory, 1906
Carterton District Historical Society, Photograph Collection, Taratahi Co-op Dairy Factory, 1906

With the advent of refrigeration in the early 1880s, many owners of small holdings moved from sheep into dairying. This enterprise was supported by one of the oldest and most extensive water race systems in the country. These were dug by hand and provided water from the Mangatarere Stream and Waingawa River and provided water for stock. Parts of the Carrington system were started in the 1880s, while the Taratahi system which runs from upper Norfolk Road all the way to Gladstone, was begun in the 1930s depression years. This system remains a valuable legacy to this day and is the envy of many rural communities. (Wairarapa Times-Age, 26 August 2005).

The volume of dairy production from the Carterton area grew rapidly. For example, in the 1894/95 season, cheese from the Dalefield dairy factory alone accounted for more than 10% of that shipped through Wellington. And the Taratahi dairy factory produced a further 7% of the volume shipped through Wellington. The output of these two factories together with others in the area, demonstrate that Carterton was a powerhouse of dairy production. (Otago Daily Times, 25 May 1895, pg 6)
This led to a rapid growth in population. By 1884, just over 25 years after the area was first settled, there were 260 male voters in Carterton and another 245 in the wider district, a total of 505 adult males. Unfortunately women did not get the vote until 1893. (1884 Electoral Roll, Wairarapa South).

Associated with this growth and expansion, was the steady introduction of government services such as schools, police, Post Office, Courthouse (despite two moves, the original 1884 courthouse building, is still to be found in Holloway Street).

Growth and Expansion

Wairarapa Archive, 07-36/14, High Street, looking south from Memorial Square, Carterton, 1931
Wairarapa Archive, 07-36/14, High Street,
looking south from Memorial Square, Carterton, 1931

From the turn of the 20th century, Carterton developed and consolidated into a sound, rural service centre. Along with the dairy industry, another major employer was the Waingawa Freezing Works. But from the mid-1980s, the township was significantly buffeted by the winds of economic change. In keeping with other towns both large and small, many industries, even those which were long established, closed or were rationalised.

After a period of decline, there has been a steady and ever increasing revival in the district. One of the leaders in this revival has been the timber products mill at Waingawa, opened in 1992 by the Japanese forestry products company Juken Nissho (now Juken NZ).

Another factor has been the growing awareness that while a variety of land-related activities remain the backbone of economic activity, the Wairarapa has much to offer beyond farming and local enterprise. In contrast to almost every other provincial town, Carterton has shown a steady increase in population over the last 15+ years and is currently the fastest growing district in the North Island. Between 2001 and 2013 there was an increase of more than 20% bringing the usually resident population to 8,235. (Statistics NZ, 2013 Census results).

People move to Carterton for a variety of reasons including climate, lifestyle, affordable housing and access to a range of recreation activities. This growth is continuing to enhance and support a vibrant commercial community.
Wellington may be the "coolest little capital" but Carterton is fast becoming the 'coolest little district'!

Compiled by Carterton History Group