Well known in the 21st century as the birthplace of celebrated All Black Captain Ritchie McCaw, Kurow lays claim to older noteworthy contributions to New Zealand history. The gold-turned-hydro town is the birthplace of New Zealand's social welfare system. It is also a feature of the Alps 2 Ocean cycle trail.
The Waitaki river town was long ago populated by the peaceful Waitaha people, of which little record remains. For pakeha, it was first a service centre for those who came in search of gold. It evolved with the district towards sheep farming. Heritage buildings dotted around the town are living reminders of those early days, and several are still in service, notably the Kurow Hotel and, two doors away, the Museum, which was built in 1880 as a dance hall.
Two doors in the other direction on Bledisloe Street is the 1893 National Bank, which, sadly, was forced to close in 2012, threatened with earthquake damage. Number 61 was the Kurow Store, also a relic of the gold mining days, begun in the 1880s, and rebuilt after an 1891 fire which razed much of the town. Occupied for many years by farming supply companies, Dalgetys and Wrightsons, the store now hosts a modest second-hand book trader.
Kurow Hotel is the largest building in town and has been since 1892, when it was rebuilt after the town fire. Previously called Goddard's Kurow Hotel, it was built in timber. Its replacement was built of Oamaru Stone, and apparently still is, despite another fire and rebuild and a later extension, and also despite its colourful paintwork which demonstrates loyalty to Otago brewing company, Speights.
Art Deco Waitaki Hotel dates to the the time of the construction of the Waitaki hydro stations and, dressed in its coat of orange (also brewery sponsored), could appear to be in competition with the Kurow Hotel. The hotel history of the town is murky and undocumented, there were several versions of a 'Bridge Hotel' and others, some of which may have burned down. Remaining behind the Kurow Hotel is an 1880 stone shed which is the only thing of heritage note.
Back in town, it is worth a few minutes to step off the main drag to take a peek at two un-listed heritage buildings, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and St Stephens Presbyterian Church on Bowen Street. Arnold Nordmeyer was the minister at the latter church from 1925 to 1935. Kurow History here explains what happened next:
"A pioneer town for early European settlement and agricultural development it was founded on the principle that hard work and benevolence, make for a prosperous and happy community. The dominant social system of the late 1800s and early 1900s was the Forrester Lodge. Unlike other ‘benevolent societies’, this one extended their benign hand to non-members who had fallen on hard times, by no fault of their own. The Social Securities Act 1938 was conceptualised from this system, implemented as a local work scheme at Kurow’s Waitaki Dam Project, adapted for national acceptance, presented for approval to the Labour Party annual conference of 1934, drafted as legislation and eventually passed into law, and all by a succession of Kurow identities."
The transition of the Forrester Lodge concept into law was, essentially, developed and implemented in Waitaki by a little think-tank of Nordmeyer, Kurow doctor Gervan McMillan, and Kurow headmaster Andrew Davidson. It quickly became part of Labour Party policy. When Nordmeyer was elected to Parliament in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage also became Prime Minister, and initiated New Zealand's Social Welfare system, based upon the Waitaki template. McMillan also served as an MP and Nordmeyer later became Minister of Health and Minister of Commerce. Later, he led the Labour Party in Opposition.
The name of the main street demonstrates a connection between Kurow and the Australian goldfields where some of the earliest arrivals had migrated from. Also dating from the 1880s were the pair of single lane bridges across the Waitaki River on State Highway 82. This system was replaced with a new bridge in 2014, ensuring continued access to Hakataramea Valley and a safe alternative to State Highway One.
The other alternative to the highway, the Kurow Branch Railway, was opened in 1873, with Kurow (its station known for a time as Hakataramea) being the far end of the line. The end for the line was 110 years later, in 1983.
More lately, the Waitaki and Harakaramea valleys have followed other dry Otago regions into viticulture. Several wineries, including Ostler Winery and River T at Otaike near Kurow, are producing a range of products. The largest winery, which has a cellar door, is Pasquale Kurow, also known as Kurow Estate. Sublime Wine also has a lodge.
Back in town, one more heritage building beckons; this is the Post Office, turned wine tasting room, a little button of a building that represents the deep Waitaki's past and future at once.
Photo Credit: Derek Smith and Maclean Barker Photographers, Riley, Arend Veenhuizen, Mattinbgn , Peter Whiteford