Port Waikato in the Spotlight

A 'little project' takes on a life of its own


A few months ago elocal brought you the little-known story of Port Waikato's 1891 earthquake. Now a local woman has done a bit of moving and shaking of her own with her history of the sleepy seaside town.

Actually it's the author herself, Glennis Paton, who's been shaken up the most. The success of her newly published book, The Way We Were - Port Waikato, has taken her completely by surprise, with the initial print run quickly sold out and most of the ensuing reprint already pre-ordered.

“It's simply blown me away,” she says. “It's just a little project I did for myself.”

Wearing her entrepreneurial hat, Glennis perceived a gap in the market and set about filling it, although finding fame and fortune from it was the last thing on her mind. As a teacher at Onewhero Area School she had found it frustrating that there was no easily accessible information for her students to find out about their own district, and when she retired she determined to remedy that lack.

Tucked away from the main drag amidst the sea and the hills, the Port has a fascination for many who come and never leave. Glennis and her husband Chris were drawn there 46 years ago.

“We wanted to escape from the Auckland rat race. And Chris loved the idea of the hunting and fishing. We ran a motel for a few years and brought up our three children here.

“We're still here. We absolutely love it, it's a great place with a wonderful community.”

Renowned until relatively recently as a hippie hideaway, in days gone by Port Waikato played an important part in the development of Franklin. Already well settled by Maori, the Waikato river was an important trade and travel route and its mouth a source of food. The area became of interest to early European visitors for trading in high quality flax, said to be unrivalled in fibre length and strength, and often exchanged with the local population for guns.

During the land wars of the mid-19th century military barracks were established, with a naval dockyard, and in peace time ships were constant visitors to the port, trading or bringing visitors. Some of those visitors came to the Port Waikato School Camp, established in 1928 as a health camp for underprivileged children. Now no longer a health camp, but still used for school camps, corporate gatherings and local functions, it was an appropriately historic place for Glennis to hold her book launch in October, attended by over 100 guests including Waikato District mayor Allan Sanson.

Glennis received assistance from the Waikato District Council's Heritage Project Fund. A condition of the funding was that copies of the book be donated to local schools and libraries, which has now been achieved.

The product of over five years of research, the book covers the area's history from the early 19th century, its important naval history, its fleet of river boats, changes in population, the coming of the road and development of vital local organisations including the fire brigade and surf club. A chapter on 'Land and Sea' covers changes wrought by erosion and land use along with whale strandings and other environmental happenings. There's information on local schools, including the mission station and school established by the Rev Robert Maunsell in 1839 and visited two years later by Lady Jane Franklin, who gave her name to the district.

The story of Port Waikato is the story of its identities, some of whom Glennis was able to talk to for her research. This is history with a human face.

“They had some intriguing tales to tell,” she says, “from the person whose father helped build the road to Limestone Downs, living in a tent which they had to keep moving, to the tale of the mysterious human bones unearthed on farmland after a slip.”

Glennis says she's “been fiddling with writing all my life”. She has edited the local monthly newspaper, The Port Report, for the last eight years, and much of the material for The Way We Were has come from her newspaper columns of the same name. An accomplished artist as well as a writer, Glennis has written and illustrated two children's books, but the latest undertaking has proved a far bigger deal with which she's still coming to terms.

“I decided to self publish - I did the formatting myself and got it printed in Pukekohe. But this whole thing has grown well beyond anything I imagined. It's attracted interest from people far beyond Port Waikato, and even from a large Auckland book publisher.

“I certainly didn't expect that!”

Glennis' 'little project' has taken a great deal of time and hard work, but it's inspired her to consider writing another – somewhat to Chris' consternation.

“It got out of hand but in the nicest possible way. It's been fun and exciting, and I'm so grateful to everyone who's helped and encouraged me.”

To order a copy of The Way We Were – Port Waikato contact the author by email: gapaton@nettel.net.nz or phone 09 232 9532.