Farming began at Totara in the 1850s. By the time the estate was purchased by the New Zealand & Australian Land Company in 1866 it covered almost 15,000 acres and boasted 17,654 sheep, 200 cattle, and reputably the best wheat, potato and mangold growing land in the country.
A downturn in wool prices combined with a nationwide over-supply of sheepmeat saw the general manager of the Land Company, William Davidson, follow an ambition to be the first in New Zealand to use new steam-powered freezing technology to send meat to the other side of the world.
So it was, then, that the first ever shipment of frozen mutton made a three-month journey from New Zealand to England in 1882, launching an industry that brought prosperity to Totara Estate and well beyond. By the end of the 1890s, New Zealand’s frozen meat industry was a powerful force – economically, politically and socially – and still earns billions in foreign earnings each year.
Small-scale farming became more viable as a direct result of this momentous development, but even before this the Land Company started selling off parts of the estate. By 1906 only 3,859 acres of the nearly 15,000 acres were left.
Totara House and some of the remaining land were purchased by the estate manager, John Macpherson. The rest was bought by the government and subdivided into 26 farms before being put up for sale in 1907.
The wonderfully restored buildings visitors can see today were purchased by Heritage New Zealand (then the Historic Places Trust) in 1980. Utilitarian but made of beautiful Oamaru stone, they stand as a tribute to the toil and determination of the early pioneers.
Visitors are welcome to wander through the men’s quarters, stables, granary, cookhouse and slaughterhouse, where displays recollect farm and domestic life on the estate during Victorian times. Hear stories of swaggers, farm hands, the Chinese cook and a cartoonist. Eavesdrop on the slaughter men as they finish their backbreaking workday.
Join in with farm activities, feed the sheep, dress up in Victoria costumes or play old-fashioned games. Walk up to Brydone Monument, taking in views of patchwork fields and the distant Kakanui Range. There’s so much to do for visitors of all ages!
Follow this with 'smoko' in the cookhouse or bring a picnic to enjoy in pretty picnic spots, then browse through the charming gifts and mementoes in the well-stocked shop.
Group tours are also available, led by farm characters and complete with billy tea and scones around the campfire; activity tours for school groups can also be arranged. Visitors should also look out for special events such as ‘The Victorian Farm Comes Alive’ – a popular day out for families. Check the website for details.
Combine your visit with a trip to Clarks Mill – an historic flour mill once part of Totara Estate –which has four storeys of fascinating working machinery. Both are within a 15-minute drive of Oamaru.