Eltham locals with a mind for history will tell you of the little cheese capital's colourful list of firsts.

The first classic pound of butter.

The first commercially viable version of rennet.

The first trial manufacture of blue vein cheese.

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Look further and you'll learn the Taranaki village, population 1,941, was the first place in New Zealand to get tar seal and concrete power poles.

It was probably the first town anywhere that painted its hilltop reservoir as a gigantic wheel of gruyere.

Until a decade ago, the odd yellow icon, since replaced, was the first thing you saw as State Highway 3 weaved into High St, a busy, wide main drag lined by weatherboard family homes with simple sections, cream-coloured letterboxes and low stone walls.

Just past the local police station is Bridge St, a museum of yesteryear New Zealand.
There you'll find a 112-year-old post office, Corinthian-style bank, the Coronation, an antique timber hotel with a wrap-around second-storey verandah, and the solid concrete Pease's Building, the first of its kind built outside Europe.

Bridge St once gave Ian Mune the classic backdrop to a classic slice of Kiwi cinema, Came a Hot Friday.

Bridge St, Eltham, was the backdrop the 1980s classic move Came a Hot Friday. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Bridge St, Eltham, was the backdrop the 1980s classic move Came a Hot Friday. Photo / Alan Gibson.

But most travellers keep rolling on through town, past a factory cheese shop that sells great white wedges of brie and bricks of parmesan at cut-price rates.

Past the turn-off to Lake Rotokare, a haven of bush teeming with native species, and home to the country's largest wetland.

And they drive on, out the other side of town, and back into the green South Taranaki dairy hinterland.

Figuring out how to get more people not just to stop, but to stay for good, is part of Steffy Mackay's job.

The youth development worker sits on the district council's Eltham ward, and has had plenty to do with the town over her near 30 years here, working at Fonterra and running the Coronation.

South Taranaki District councillor Steffy Mackay, pictured in front of a mural depicting the history of the Taranaki settlement of Eltham. She wants to see more government funding. Photo / Alan Gibson
South Taranaki District councillor Steffy Mackay, pictured in front of a mural depicting the history of the Taranaki settlement of Eltham. She wants to see more government funding. Photo / Alan Gibson

Mackay was born down the highway in Hawera, but her family hails back to Eltham, where her grandmother was born, raised and eventually died, at age 102.

"As we all got older our family has come home, we all seem to have been drawn back here, and I guess it's just having that close community and better lifestyle," she said.

"That old saying that it takes a village to raise a child - that's really true in our town."

When a recent storm hit, homes faced a long stretch without power.

Locals gathered in the street for impromptu meetings, and shared generators and anything else they could spare.

Mackay went from house to house checking on friends and constituents.

"We look out for each other. Now I don't believe you get that in the city."

Eltham is home to an abundance of historic buildings. Photo / Alan Gibson.
Eltham is home to an abundance of historic buildings. Photo / Alan Gibson.

And unlike many other small Kiwi towns, industry hasn't deserted Eltham: its long-time lifeblood of milk and dairy is still there, running strong, more than a century on.

Fonterra employs 750 people at its two Eltham manufacturing sites, and has doubled down on its commitment to the community, pumping another $32 million into a factory expansion.

"There was talk about relocating to Te Rapa a good decade and a half ago, but the reason they've chosen to stay in the location is that the railway line is right there, so they can produce, load and ship."

Hundreds of other jobs are provided by meat processor Riverlands, manufacturing engineer Carac Couplings and Uhlenberg Haulage, whose lime green rigs are a common sight on Taranaki roads.

Then it had the economic backbone of surrounding farming districts like Ngaere, Mangatoki, Matapu, Kaponga and Kapuni.

Mt Taranaki, an inescapable figure on Eltham's northwestern horizon, is a tramper's paradise. Photo / Alan Gibson
Mt Taranaki, an inescapable figure on Eltham's northwestern horizon, is a tramper's paradise. Photo / Alan Gibson

Despite good annual value growth, a good family home costs less than $200,000 - Eltham's median home value stands at only $176,000 and the average local pays around $220 in weekly rent.

"So, we have jobs, and affordable housing, but we need skilled workers and we would like to see more incentives in getting people to settle into our region," she said.

"This could involve the Government decentralising its services to the provinces."

Mackay wants to see Eltham's population, which dropped slightly at the last Census, to grow.

One of the biggest setbacks has been mobile black spots and relatively slow internet speed, but the town is on the Government's list to get ultrafast broadband internet by 2024, which could lure more work-from-home migrants or new businesses.

Community board chair Maree Liddington felt there was "huge potential" for small enterprises.

Eltham Community Board member Maree Liddington, pictured in Eltham's main drag, High St. Photo / Alan Gibson
Eltham Community Board member Maree Liddington, pictured in Eltham's main drag, High St. Photo / Alan Gibson

Rather than big retail chains, she was keen to see new boutique stores moving in.

"A lot of small businesses have closed down, but now people are coming back to live because of the lifestyle," Liddington said.

"When they're married and they have families, they find it's a great place to live and to bring up kids."

Aside from Lake Rotokare Scenic Reserve, Eltham offered plenty of sports facilities, parks and green spaces.

Mt Taranaki, an inescapable figure on the northern horizon, was a tramper's paradise.

A healthy arts and craft scene provided monthly exhibitions at The Village Gallery, and a quirky revamp of the local public loos.

Vandalism prompted the community to create a safe youth space, Etown, which now runs four holiday programmes a year, along with a $100,000 skate park.

"But through my role, I've seen there's a lot more need for youth sector funding in small towns, especially in areas that have a low socio-economic rating, which is us," said Mackay, who manages the centre.

"So, if we have more positive resources put into our youth, that can help them avoid falling into the justice system."

Locals wanted their police station manned 24/7 - two officers rotate each week and any back-up has to be sent from Stratford - and more doctors.

Having just one GP in town often meant a long wait for an appointment, forcing families to head to the Hawera Hospital emergency department.

"If the Government puts more money into general practitioners in small towns, then you can alleviate this problem," Mackay said.

As for Eltham's place in the world?

Residents recently met to discuss what image it should be selling, unsurprisingly opting to stick with what Eltham does best, cheese.

But perhaps if more people stopped, Liddington said, they could discover everything else that was great about her town.

"The foundation is there - we just need the assistance to build it."