A History of the Sawmill Café

The recycling of an industrial icon.

Throughout the latter half of the 19th Century, Leigh and its environs were actively logged for native timber.

These early settlers, drawn to the area by its great natural beauty and range of natural resources set about establishing the community we see today.

Among the early wave of immigrants was the Wyatt family who moved to the area from England in 1863. They quickly set up a pit sawing operation at the head of Leigh Harbour where they could be readily serviced by the coastal craft utilising the deep-water anchorage at Leigh.

With increasing workload, a steam driven saw and its associated building were constructed. Then, with improvements in land transport and inland roading the Wyatt‘s were prompted to move the operation inland to its present site in the 1930s. This transplanted building forms the core the present Sawmill Cafe’s structure and elements of the original building and the entire operational vertical breakdown saw are visible in the café today.

Electricity replaced steam and the mill was gradually modernised to process the bulk volume pine plantations that replaced the dwindling stocks of local native timbers.

Two of the last great Kauri to be felled for timber were on Wyatt land and were milled here (see detailed history below). Soon however, competition from huge automated timber mills and the lack of quality native timber to process (requiring these old style saws and a trained eye), resulted in a steady decline in profitability of these small hands-on operations.

The old part of the mill was finally decommissioned in 1981 and the electric motors were removed to drive the new saws in the new shed (now the site of the accommodation).

In 1994, the enterprising Guinness family purchased the ailing sawmill and after a brief period cutting timber for the restoration, began the arduous task of turning a rotting and industrial wasteland into an historic tourist attraction.

Two years of blood sweat and tears later the Sawmill Café opened just before Easter 1996.

With its esoteric café culture and excellent food, this passionate family-run business soon became a landmark in its own right. A varied and excellent portfolio of live acts and performances all add to the ambience of the place, as do the regular art exhibitions and special events to which the café plays host.

Christmas 1999 saw the opening of the accommodation facility. Like the cafe, born of the ashes of an old industrial building in the compound, this stylish and unique lodging caters to luxurious overnighters in beautifully appointed studio rooms or more humble backpackers in the comfy bunk rooms.

The associated Goat Island Dive facility which provides diving and eco tours in and around the nearby marine reserve, is expanding into a full NZQA certified PADI instructor school and has been awarded the prestigious PADI ‘Resort’ status.
We are proud and honoured to be a part of this development and hope you will come and enjoy tour special, friendly atmosphere.