The Tokomaru Sheep Farmers Freezing Company

It looks like a New Zealand ghost town. Or perhaps the way the whole world will look someday after the apocalypse.

Tokomaru Bay on the east coast of the North Island was once a booming community and the site of a huge meat freezing operation, where huge numbers of sheep were slaughtered, the meat frozen and carried to ships offshore for transport.

Approximate location of Tokomaru Bay on North Island of New Zealand

Approximate location of Tokomaru Bay on North Island of New Zealand

Prior to the invention of refrigeration and freezing, there was simply no way to transport quantities of fresh meat long distances. The development of commercial freezing techniques around 1882 in New Zealand allowed frozen lamb and mutton to be transported overseas (primarily to London) where it could be sold for twice the price that it could be sold for in New Zealand.

Freezing plants sprouted up throughout the country usually along the coast.

In 1905 a jetty was built at Tokomaru Bay for the shipment of wool. Then in 1909 the Tokomaru Sheep Farmers Freezing Company was formed and constructed one of the most modern meat freezing facilities of its time at Tokomaru Bay. The facility was notable for its smooth concrete floors, good sanitation and adequate supplies of water. Twelve trained butchers were initially employed when it opened in 1911, along with numerous auxiliary staff and laborers. Over 2000 sheep and up to 100 cattle could be butchered each day.

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Black and white postcard of Freezing Works, Tokomaru Bay (1)

View of freezing works with wharf extending out into bay (2)

View of freezing works with wharf extending out into bay (2)

In the same year that the freezing facility opened, a large cargo and wool storage store was also built nearby by the New Zealand Shipping Company, and in 1917 the initial freezing building was extended over nearby Waihi stream. The entire venture was a tremendous success.

Huge numbers of stock from surrounding areas were driven to the location for slaughter. Wagons stacked high with bales of wool arrived at Tomokaru Bay for shipment. A large community of somewhere around 5000 people grew up surrounding the facility including numerous stores, pubs, accommodations and two banks. The boom would continue for the next 40 years.

A small locomotive linked the plant to the wharf where up to 400 ships a year arrived to collect frozen sheep carcasses. A launch would ply the waters between the wharf and the larger ships waiting in the bay. In earlier days, some large steamers would also carry passengers, and the passengers would be hoisted from the deck of the steamer in a large basket and from there onto the launch. Some of the travelers were shepherds seeking employment who would arrive with their working dogs. Apparently there was some complaining about the dogs being put in the basket with women and children.

The freezing plant changed ownership at least once and was eventually closed in 1952. During the years leading up to the closure, the roads had improved and it eventually made more economic sense to ship animal stock to Gisborne 90 kilometers away for slaughter. Export of wool continued until 1963.

Currently the population of Tokomaru Bay is less than 500. The town itself looks deserted. When we arrived there, it was overcast and had been raining for the last two days. Gusty winds blew in from the sea. The not-terribly-friendly clerk at the local 4-Square grocery mart directed us down a narrow road that ran along the sea to the old wharf. Huge waves crashed against the sea wall splashing up onto the roadway as we drove by.

The road dead-ended at the old wharf. You can walk part of the way out on the old wharf; the wood and piers on the remaining portion are rotting and falling into the sea. There is some interest in restoring the old wharf. A strange guy in a blue pick-up parked and watched us as we walked out on the wharf. Then he drove off. Later, we would see him parked and watching us from somewhere else.

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Wharf looking back toward the freezing works.

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Deteriorating section of wharf looking out to sea.

The old freezing plant buildings are clustered at the base of the wharf. Overgrown with trees, some of them quite large, and with vines crawling up the brick and concrete walls, the whole area gave me an unsettling, creepy feeling. The inclement overcast weather, the not-terribly-friendly clerk at the grocery, and the strange character in the blue pick-up didn’t help. Graffiti covers the walls of many of the dilapidated buildings and their interiors are filled with trash, mostly bottles and cans. Hopefully, my photos capture some of the feel of this strange yet historic location.

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All images by the author except for:

1) Overlooking the Tokomaru Sheepfarmers’ Freezing Company Ltd works at Waima, Tokomaru Bay. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000943-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22856613

2) Overlooking the Tokomaru Sheepfarmers’ Freezing Company Ltd works at Waima, Tokomaru Bay. Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000942-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22763394

 Reference for text:

http://www.tokomarubayvirtualmuseum.yolasite.com/resources/History%20of%20Tokomaru%20by%20Charile%20Rau.pdf

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3 thoughts on “The Tokomaru Sheep Farmers Freezing Company

  1. Love the pictures…. New Zealand’s answer to our old abandoned gold minning town.. Aka ghost town…..and what with the strange folks there….you didn’t happen to hear “Dueling Banjos ” playing did you ???

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