Should a King Country town change its name? Susan Strongman heads to the heartland and can't find a single person who backs a new proposal.
Graeme Reinhardt has a white beard with the moustache shaved off. His blue flannel shirt is tucked into his brown corduroy pants, which are tucked into his white woollen socks, which are enclosed in rubber lace-up boots.
Reinhardt was born here in Benneydale more than 70 years ago, on the sheep and beef farm that his grandfather bought in 1926.
The hills that surround the town rise like dough, brown from weeks without rain. On one side, the hill is called Ohirea, on the other, Māniaiti. In June last year, the New Zealand Geographic Board considered a proposal on behalf of Maniapoto iwi, by the Office of Treaty Settlements, to change Benneydale's name to Māniaiti, after that second hill.
Reinhardt is spearheading a petition against it: Five A4 lined exercise books, with a black and white photo of the town glued to the front, are now filled with the signatures of 292 people. Benneydale's population is about 177; it seems the people have spoken.
Reinhardt sent the books to the board last month, as part of a submission against the change. They'll be considered before its next meeting on 11 April.
In the 1940s, Benneydale was "created" by the government to house workers from the nearby coal mine. Cottages from that time still line the town's yawning streets - some immaculate, floating in colourful lakes of roses and dahlias, others crumbling into the overgrown grass. The settlement, called Ohirea by Māori, became known as Benneydale - a combination of the surnames of the under-secretary of mines and the mine superintendent at the time, CH Benney and T Dale - and the name stuck. Māori were not consulted about the name change.
"My father used to cut hay where the village is now," Reinhardt says, "and of course when the village was actually started, it became Benneydale from the ground up. All the houses and the trees - that is Benneydale. If they wanted to call it Māniaiti, that would only be from the ground down. There was nothing here before… It's our tūrangawaewae."
Is the issue, rumbling since last year, causing division in Benneydale?
"Not actually in Benneydale. It is causing a division between some people here and some people in the Maniapoto Māori Trust Board. You would only need to read the comments that some people have made [in the petition] to realise that. They're fairly forward with their views."
It was during meetings held at the marae in Benneydale, that questions about the town's name first emerged. "That's the context for this," says Maniapoto Māori Trust Board deputy chair Keith Ikin. Members of the Benneydale community with knowledge of the area said Māniaiti was its historic name, he says.
Still, Ikin says even the board isn't wedded to the idea of change.
"We're yet to make any decision, as a board, what our view is around changing a name… Given there has been a petition, and questions raised by some members of the Benneydale community, I'd expect that we as a board would look to meet with those community members and understand what their views are on this issue."
And the geographic board's view? "Altering Benneydale to Te Māniaiti would acknowledge the history of Maniapoto iwi in the area," one of its reports reads.
But if there are only 177 in the town and nearly 300 have signed a petition against change, are there any local people who want the name altered?
A day-long search of the town turns up no-one in support of the change.
Brian Isaac, greasy handed, overall clad, has owned the Benneydale service station on SH30 for 30-odd years, and has been here all his life. "I don't think it should be changed. What's the advantage of that? Benneydale's been Benneydale as long as I can remember."
A few metres further down the road, bees swarm round a diesel tank and dogs bark. Chris Poole, whose family haulage business, PGF Transport, has been based out of Benneydale for the entirety of its existence, doesn't want it to change either. "Benneydale is Benneydale. I think everyone can relate to it. No matter where you go, if you say you're from Benneydale, people say 'oh, my grandfather worked here', you know?"
Further east along SH 30, lives retired builder Gary Lowe. He's been in Benneydale more than five years, after he came through on his motorbike and bought a burnt out house on a whim, for $8000. Before that he lived in Rotorua, and before that up north. He says he'll leave if they change it. "I came to Benneydale and it should stay Benneydale… It's getting too big for me anyway. When I come here, there were only about 1100 cars a day and it must be getting up around 2/3000 by now."
Across the road from Lowe's place Isabelle Isaaco lives with her granddaughter, and has done for close to 10 years. Both are talented artists. "I came here when it was Benneydale. I understand that there's move afoot to have it changed. I think maybe perhaps they haven't thought comprehensively what it means… Whole generations grew up here and they knew it as Benneydale. I wonder if changing it has any purpose?"
Jass Singh works at the town's only shop - a dairy/post office/takeaway. He doesn't think the name should be changed, and had one of the petition books in the shop. "It's a historical name. Benneydale's nice. It's fine."
Fred Matthews lives around the corner, past the kids on bikes who all smile and wave as you go by. He was born in Parihaka, but he's lived in Benneydale close to 50 years. He's probably one of the oldest people here and he doesn't like change all that much. "I don't know why they want to change it. It was a bit of a shock when I heard about ti. Māniaiti? Never heard of it. And I've been here a long time. All the old people always called it Ohirea. Why don't we just hang on to that? If they're gonna change it put it back to the original. Because that is the original. Māniaiti doesn't mean nothing to me." Does he know anyone who supports the change? "Nup."
Up a slight hill, Benneydale School has a roll of 34 this year (it peaked last year at 46), and three teachers. What do the young people of this town think about changing its name to Te Māniaiti? Aperehama Williams, 12, likes Benneydale. It's better than Australia, where he was living before here. He likes the name, and his mates here too.
Suraya Collier, 10, doesn't think it should change either. "It explains the original people who created Benneydale - Benny and Dale." James Stanley, 11, doesn't really know whether he cares too much or not. After a quiet pause to think, he decides no. "I've already got the hang of naming it Benneydale."
What about principal Vanessa Te Huia? Does she see a need for a change to this town's name?
"My personal connection to this place is through my father, and he was really proud to say he was from Benneydale, and that's what he knew. So for me to carry that on and say that I teach at Ohirea or a different place, it wouldn't fit right." she says.
"I think the kids hit it on the head when they said the reasoning why we're called Benneydale, and acknowledging the history behind it. Any change of that, almost takes away that history and the purpose of this town and how it was created. My grandfather worked in the mines and he knew the people, so to remove that is almost removing those links.
"My personal interest through my whānau would be to keep it as Benneydale. But also being Māori, I can understand the importance of this whenua and what it was. I don't mind if on paper they have a dual name, but no matter if they pass it or not, everyone here is still gonna be calling it Benneydale."
On the wall at Reinhardt's house, a wedding photo featuring a young man with a black beard and a shaved moustache hangs on the wall. Reinhardt brings out a collection of newspaper clippings on the name change and spreads them across the gingham-clothed dining table.
Earlier, he had said he had the patience of a saint. He may be need it; he'll be waiting a while before he learns if his town of birth will be reborn.
If the board upholds all objections, it can make the final decision on the name change which will likely be released in the week following its 11 April meeting. If it doesn't, the call will be made by Minister for Land Information Eugenie Sage, says board secretary Wendy Shaw. There is no set timeframe for the decision to be made by the minister.