On Saturday, June 17, 1967 thousands gathered at the new wharenui Aotea Tuatoru at Makirikiri Marae to celebrate its opening.

"Fifty years ago they had the same frost we have this morning," said Stephen Paewai at the opening of the anniversary exhibition last Saturday.

"The cultural groups would have been shocked by the cold."

That occasion 50 years ago was a significant moment in the history of Rangitane hapu Ngati Mutuahi and Ngati Pakapaka, wtih the Maori Queen Te Atairangikaahu attending her first official function since the death of her father 12 months earlier.


She took part in the dawn ceremonial opening of the new wharenui, accompanied by her Waikato elders, with the official party including Prime Minister Sir Keith Holyoake and the Catholic Archbishop of New Zealand, Cardinal McKeefry.

"Two thousand people attended and six or seven hangi were put down to feed the visitors and my lasting memory was of the paddock in front of the marae packed full of cars and buses. I couldn't believe it," Mr Paewai said.

The day of celebration at the marae was followed by a concert in the Dannevirke Town Hall.

Special guest at last Saturday's exhibition opening was Dannevirke's Peter Barrow, an artist with a rare skill for turning a pile of wood into delicate, almost transparent marquetry which takes precision, attention to detail and the use of surgeon's tools. All his work, including a stunning replica of the meeting house at Makirikiri, has been completed using a number 11scalpel.

When asked by the Dannevirke News how long this intricate work had taken, Mr Barrow's answer was simple.

"I don't measure time," he said. "But I know the marquetry work on the sides took time. I was fortunate to be given a key to the marae at the time I was working on this."

One significant inclusion in Mr Barrow's work is the replica of the doorstep to the marae.

"The doorstep itself is 140 years old," Mr Paewai said. "We realised its significance and it now has pride of place inside the marae."

Ron and Gwen Galloway, visiting from Te Aroha, took in the exhibition opening and the bus tour.

"When we travel we go to museums as they're the places where you can learn a lot about a town," Mr Galloway said.

"You learn the history and get the feel for a place."

Pokere Paewai curated the 50th anniversary exhibition, including recording the stories of those who were an integral part of the new marae.

"It's nice to capture the stories of those who were there," he said.

His father Stephen said all the stories are "fascinating."

"If we hadn't organised this exhibition the stories could have been lost," he said.

Following the opening of the exhibition visitors took a tour of historical significance, learning more about Rangitane's history and the life of the meeting house.

"The first meeting house down Wi Duncan Rd at Tahoriti, was built in the 1700s and the carvings on Aotea Tuatoru at Makirikiri are from the 1880s.

"All our history is in these carvings and with our language spoken, not written down, these carving tell our stories," Mr Paewai said.

A tangi in 1956 was the last occasion the old meeting house was used and it fell into disrepair.

"There would have been some heated debate about where a new marae would be sited and eventually an acre of land at Makirikiri was acquired," Mr Paewai said.

Since a makeover of the marae in 2015 as part of the DIY Marae programme, the use of the building has increased and the income has tripled.

* The 50th anniversary exhibition is open next week at the Gallery of History, Gordon St, 10am to 3pm.