When Kupe circumnavigated New Zealand, c. 900 AD, Maori tradition is that he was obstructed by the inhabitants in the vicinity of, what is now, Lake Grassmere. In revenge Kupe turned the sea onto their plantations thus making Lake Grassmere.1 The Maori name for the lake is Kapara-te-hau.
In the era of Te Rauparaha there was a massacre in this area. The great chief had come from the North to take ducks to preserve in fat for winter food, but Ngai Tahu heard of this plan and waited in ambush. The ambush resulted in three hundred deaths and only thirty escaping, including Te Rauparaha who had to swim out to a canoe. Tradition tells us that the canoe was already fully laden, but a woman was pushed overboard to make room for the great chief!
In the era when there were several whaling stations along Marlborough’s East coast, the area was known as Cobbler`s Hole.
Until World War II the Lake remained in a more or less natural state, i.e. dry and dusty during the summer months and covered in water during the winter. In the spring a number of birds would nest in the lake area. These included swans.
Around 1940 railway-men working in the Kaparu area just north of the lake found fragments of egg-shell believed to be from moa eggs. My father had a collection of about fifty such fragments that he had collected.
In 1938 the Government of the day had a survey plan drawn up for approximately three-quarters of the lake area, being the area east of the railway line, and the next year this was officially designated as Land for Aviation Purposes. Subsequently an airfield and a bombing range were established in the area. These were used for training pilots based at Woodbourne during WWII. Incidentally, in later years Peter Skellerup, a Director of Dominion Salt, used the same airfield when making quick business trips from Christchurch.
During the early years of WW II George Skellerup , a Christchurch businessman, was trying to re-cycle old tyres, as rubber was a rare commodity at that time, and he required salt to do this. Importing salt in large quantities was unlikely to be approved by the war-time government, so he looked around for a way to make salt locally, and thus the salt works at Lake Grassmere was born. Requirements for making salt were: a large area of flat land, near the sea, which would retain water; low rainfall; high evaporation (wind and sunshine); and proximity to transport (road, rail etc.) He found these requirements at Lake Grassmere; and on 23rd. December 1942 he was granted a “Licence to Manufacture Salt”. Actual construction of the necessary ponds etc. started in 1943.
Farming and salt manufacture haven`t always got along well though! In some of Marlborough’s droughts the local farmers have considered the possibility of artificially inducing the clouds overhead to drop rain on their land, but Dominion Salt has made it clear that it may pursue legal action to stop such an undertaking. On the one hand a long period of drought promises a `bumper` salt harvest, while the same season causes farmers loss of production (and income).