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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

The Township

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The Township

As the vibrant centre of this district network the township developed a vigorous life of its own, and provided leadership and service to life on the farms, in the bush and on the mountain. We probe various aspects of this community in our next two chapters; here we overview its development, nature and purposes.

Having cleared 18 acres at the centre of the site in 1889, the government completed the process in two stages over the winters of 1890 and 1891. The contractors finished the task in October 1891.43 About a quarter of the township land had been unsold. Taken off the market during clearing, it sold rapidly thereafter, most being taken by the end of 1893. Between 1890 and 1893 Kaponga was transformed from a speculative paper township into a lively settlement of homes, businesses, public institutions and utilities, and farmlets. By 1899 it had at least the beginnings of most of the features and amenities that its settlers desired. We must examine the influences that shaped this transformation: Old World ideas on rural townships, the surveyors' thinking of the late 1870s, and the geographic, social and economic realities of the 1890s.

In terms of Old World models, Kaponga developed as a market, industrial, service and stage-post rural town, but with the population of no more than a small village. At ‘Home’ the settlers had been used to country towns of about 1000 to 4000 population which

… through their markets and fairs, a growing variety of shops, a wide range of crafts, and a few professional men … were service centres for a rural hinterland of perhaps no more than three or four miles in radius. Many of them had some cottage industries, and some had workshops and small factories … All the country towns differed from the villages in their hinterlands in that the majority of the occupied inhabitants of the latter were directly involved in agriculture as farmers or labourers, and that the trades and crafts in the towns were far more varied and specialised.44

Though village-sized in population, with many of its inhabitants directly involved in agriculture, Kaponga provided a rich range of ‘town’ services to a district considerably larger than that of the typical English country town. We must explain how it managed to do this.

The Crown Grant Record Map shows that the surveyors had consciously laid out a township, not a village. For example, they set aside a one-acre site for the town hall, which made its appearance in 1895. Most English villages of the 1890s had several times Kaponga's population but few of them were to see a village hall till well into the next century.45 The surveyors allowed generous reserves for a school, a recreation domain and a cemetery, and made provision for a post office and a pound. With the exception of the pound, all of these reserves were put to vigorous use within a few years of the township's rise.

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Meanwhile on Kaponga's commercial and industrial sites the settlers met the processing requirements of the dairy industry, the staple of the surrounding countryside; set up workshops that met much of this industry's equipment and transport needs; and established a market for the district's livestock. This latter the surveyors had not foreseen, so that Kaponga had a long tussle to get stock routes for the beasts to move to and from the saleyards without disturbing the main shopping centre and soiling its streets.

So Kaponga became a market town, with fortnightly stock sales by early 1893. By April 1895 ‘Our Own’ was explaining that Friday ‘is the sale day’, the day when farmers and livestock flocked to the saleyards, the day the doctor came from Eltham, and the day on which settlers thought at least one bank should show up to do business. It was another three years before the Bank of New South Wales saw things this way.46 Sale day became part of Kaponga's weekly rhythm. No market other than that for livestock developed, but Friday became the main shopping day and the day on which various professional men did a day's stint in the place. Kaponga also steadily increased its own range of professional men who, together with its tradesmen, worked to make it an important service centre to the surrounding countryside.

Besides its industrial, market and service functions, Kaponga was the most significant staging place on Eltham Road between Opunake on the sea coast to the west and the railway to the east. It was also an important stage post, and the major supply point, for visitors coming to tackle Egmont from the south. As well, Kaponga aspired successfully to a place alongside south Taranaki's larger centres in the region's sporting, entertainment and social circuit. Its range of achievements in these areas was quite remarkable.

How was it that village-sized Kaponga tackled its town-sized job so well? Partly it was that much of the district's population involved themselves in the task. The various committees, teams, clubs and other institutions were able to draw freely on both town and country. In both leadership and membership, farmers accepted townsmen, and townsmen farmers, without demur. Again, the greater part of the adult population was fit and active. Few of the aged or infirm chose this demanding frontier environment. These frontier settlers seem to have been self-selected for vigour and involvement.

We finally survey some highlights of the town's progress over the decade. The opening of the school and the hotel were important early events. The school opened on 22 June 1891. Its committee was Kaponga's first formal public leadership group, a forerunner of many that were to lead the community with initiative and imagination. The school building immediately became a useful venue for various community activities. When the Commercial Hotel opened, also in 1891, the Star's ‘Travelling Correspondent’ commented that ‘a well-conducted hotel is no slight advantage to a rising township’, as strangers and land seekers had no longer to trust to chance ‘and the charity of ephemeric acquaintances’ for the care of themselves and their beasts.47 For the local population, apart from its page 124 regular trade, it was a useful venue for many activities, from inquests to farewells and the banqueting of a visiting prime minister.

By the autumn of 1892 the Star's ‘Travelling Correspondent’ (21/4/92) was presenting Kaponga as a place to be taken note of. New houses were springing up ‘everywhere’, the township was now ‘quite a business place’ and the businessmen were making ‘large additions’ to their buildings. The Kaponga community apparently called on this correspondent when the opportunity arose of using a prestigious family event to put their township on the map. Dr A.B.B. Watts (1822–93), a retired medical practitioner, had been living among them for about 18 months and responding to any urgent medical calls that came his way. He had had a distinguished medical career, having at one time a large practice near Brighton, and had come to New Zealand through the persuasions of Colonel Feilding (of the Mancheste Block settlement) for the benefit of his sons. On 10 March 1892 Kaponga's ‘whole countryside seemed en fete’ for the celebration of the double wedding of his son F.W. Watts to Mary Tait of Manaia, and his daughter Mabel Watts to Edward Ellerm of Kaponga. Hawera's and Patea's Anglican vicars conducted the ceremonies in ‘the Kaponga church’ (the Methodist church, still at this stage used by other churches). The write-up of the occasion in the following day's Star would seem to have been intended as much as a boost for the local community as a tribute to a family occasion:

One of the few early township photos, c.1893: Exley's home and butchery, on the north side of
Eltham Road, west of Manaia Road. The delivery cart on the left seems off to service settlers
across the Kaupokonui. Notice the unfelled timber between Exley's and the river. The
mounted boy must be off on a township delivery. On this side of the street be must first pass
Canning's premises, a bakery and a general store, before coming to the Commercial Hotel at
the crossroad

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The double ceremony took place at 11 a.m. in the Kaponga Church, which was decorated for the occasion…. Both brides looked charming, and each wore embroidered muslin and white silk dresses, with lace and tulle veils, and orange blossom, Miss Watts wearing an old and magnificent veil. There were six bridesmaids … who wore becoming dresses of nun's pink veiling, white muslin, with tulle veils, and wreaths of orange blossoms…. When the ceremonies were over in the church, which by the way was crowded, the newly married couples were driven to Dr. Watts residence in two carriages of four; Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Watts occupying a splendid turn out of four well -matched grays, driven in capital style by Mr. Flynn, of Hawera. The other carriage was well horsed, but the horses were not quite so well matched in color. Both turns out belonged to Mr. Flynn. It was rather unfortunate that for several chains before reaching Dr. Watts' house the road had been lately covered with immense boulders, which both exercised the skill of the driver and tried the springs of the carriages to the utmost. However, everyone arrived safely at the destination, where a regal lunch awaited the guests. Fully seventy people sat down to a table in a building which was specially arranged for the occasion … The day, luckily, was beautiful …48

The correspondent commented that such an event could not have been staged in the Kaponga of a year or two earlier. Even in 1892 the setting must have seemed decidedly incongruous, with gaunt ranks of burnt tree trunks hemming in the town and the riverbed nature of the drive to the wedding breakfast.

The spring of 1893 saw the opening of the Loan and Mercantile creamery. The following autumn the first moves were made for a town hall and it was opened with appropriate celebrations on 6 June 1895. When a stage was added in March 1896 there was still room to seat 100 people.49 The closing years of the decade saw negotiations and working bees to get the recreation ground into usable condition.50 In February 1898 the Kaponga Horticultural Society held its first annual show in the town hall. This was little more than a local event, but the second show, in February 1899, was a highly successful regional event, opened by the local member of Parliament.51 Meanwhile there had been a steady growth in the range and quality of shops, workshops and professional services. On 27 July 1899, to further their common interests, the township's leaders formed The Kaponga Settlers' Association.