The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)
Frontier Town — The Life Of A Border Settlement
The entrance to a town is one of those things that the traveller notes first and often remembers most, after other impressions have become faint and blurred and merged with a hundred memories. Our provincial towns and townships have, to a large extent, lost individuality. One little market place or producing centre has its local Babbitry and Main Street, its Rotarians, its Chamber of Commerce and its Progress League, its golf links and town hall and mayor, just like the other fellows along the line. Quick travel, the radio, tinned music and American uplift, have standardised the whole boiling of them. The farm is no refuge, neither is the lock-up. But there is one characteristic of the provincial town or townlet that often retains some individual touch, and that is its entrance. The approaches to it remain different. Man's reading hand and his architecture modify, spoil or improve the landscape.
This is all by way of preface to my cursory review of some memories and impressions. Here are two contrasts in town approaches. You enter Putaruru between two churches, each perched on its hill cutting. Fifty miles away you enter the township of Kihikihi between two hotels, face to face at the elbow of the main road. The one seems to set out to respectable-ize the town to the traveller's eye at the start; the clergy's certificate of character.
At first acquaintance Kihikihi—you have its life here and there as on the West Coast—does not trouble about testimonials; it is content to remain what it was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago.
My selection of township types is merely at random; yet when I come to think of it one is a fair working example of a comparatively modern brisk little business town; the other an easy-going old-timer, comfortably farming away, and rather given to retrospective satisfaction with its place in the making of New Zealand history. It is not exactly a has-been; but it has a past, even a lively and a bloody past, the interest of which I can supplement with the remark that it has also a gloriously boozy past.
Who should know if not I? For I knew the place when the Native Land Court era was in flower, the era of free trade in Maori lands, the like of which we shall not see again. My home was not far away; “my father was a farmer upon the Maori border”—to adapt a line of Burns, and Kihikihi was our nearest township.
The military story of Kihikihi (the name means cicada, one of those ono-matopoetic names so numerous in the Maori tongue) goes back to the war of 1863–64, when all this Waikato country passed to the strong hand of the pakeha. There is no need to go into all that; we of the elder generation know it and its repercussions only too well.
But one recalls the fact that this was Rewi Maniapoto's home, and the place of his council meetings; his headquarters and the muster-place of his tribe. That fact made it important in the military and political sense; important, too, was the fact that it was the only part of the huge Ngati-Maniapoto territory which was confiscated by the Government in revenge for the temerity of the Maori King's party in demanding local-self government. However, we won't go into that. Waikato unhappily lost all their land; and they remained as refugees in Ngati-Maniapoto territory for a-quarter of a century after the war.
Kihikihi, first a strong place of the Maori, then a British watch-tower of the frontier, was a military post well into the Eighties. In my boyhood's memories the rifle and the blockhouse and redoubt are the foremost features. All the frontier, on our pakeha side of the Puniu River, was studded with fortified places, either of earthwork or of timber stockades and those topheavy-looking loopholed blockhouses which stood on hills and knolls all the way round from Cambridge and the Pukekura hills to Orakau and Kihikihi and on to Alexandra.
But, except for the busy camps, the drilling of Armed Constabulary and the Waikato Cavalry troops, and the occasional shooting or tomahawking affair on the border, farming progress was little disturbed.
When Peace Came.
Then, as we grew up into the early Eighties, the changes came. Old King Tawhiao came out of his retirement; we saw at close-hand his great march of peace; Te Kooti was given the glad hand of peace by the Government; the frontier was opened, the barriers of racial hatred were removed; peaceful trade began and increased; schools went up, military watch was no longer needed; the unoccupied blockhouses and redoubts crumbled or were demolished by the township people regardless of historical values and forgetful of the protection those little forts gave the families of the frontier.
The Great Wet Peace.
The partition of the great King Country began; the beginning of the ruin which the land-buying of Government and private individuals and syndicates brought upon the Maori.
The frontier went crazy over the quick exchange of blocks of land for the pakeha cheques which were cashed in the stores and the public houses. Hundreds of the native people camped in the townships—Alexandra and Cambridge, as well as Kihikihi.
Thousands of pounds were spent in those hotels and stores; they were scenes of such noisy revels, such mad drinking and rowdy shouting and dancing, such shopping regardless of expense. What impassioned protests from the business people of Kihikihi in 1886 when at last, and not a bit too soon for the welfare of the Maori, the Government removed the Land Court sittings into the interior of the King Country. Yells of rage from the hotel-owners especially, for Otorohanga where the first Land Court in the King Country was held, with Major Mair as the presiding judge, was “dry,” by decree of the Maori Big Three—Wahanui, Taonui, and Rewi. They were determined to save their people from the scandalous traffic in Waipiro, and they succeeded, for Otorohanga was a place of model behaviour for the duration of the Court, several months, and afterwards until the pakeha came for good. And there was soon no more of the old King Country we knew, in the wide fenceless time of the Rohepotae.
“When I heard they were growing and manufacturing tobacco in New Zealand,” writes Mr. Jas. Scattergood, a retired wholesale tobacco dealer, in a London trade journal, “I was not keenly interested, concluding that probably the stuff wasn't worth smoking. But last year, when I visited New Zealand to see my married daughter, I found to my surprise that the New Zealand toasted tobacco had actually become a serious rival to the imported article—and that it is not only of superfine quality but that thanks to the small amount of nicotine in it, it may be smoked ad. lib. without a particle of harm resulting to the smoker. After 50 years in the trade I can say unhesitatingly that I know of no other tobacco like this.” Well Mr. Scattergood there Is no other tobacco like it! It is unique. And the five toasted brands, Riverhead Gold, Desert Gold, Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, and Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), are as well-known as Mount Cook. The comparative absence of nicotine in them (eliminated by toasting) is the secret of their harmlessness.*
Kihikihi now had its real school, succeeding the primitive era of the Seventies. In the first little one-room school I knew the master made hot buttered toast for himself every winter morning at the fire while we hungry tantalised youngsters looked on and shivered. Not a crumb for us. He was a German, or Swiss; at any rate his name was.
The next teacher had a basin of gruel brought to him by his daughter every morning; he ladled in the burgoo with one eye on us and his cane ready to his hand at his high desk. I can't recall that I or my Maori mate, Billy Puke, who rode in from Orakau daily, ever learned anything under those two pedagogues.
In the early Eighties our first real teacher came and really taught us something—he was a good old Waipu Nova-Scotian Highlander, Mr. Norman Matheson, whose memory I love to this day. He had been one of the Rev. Norman McLeod's Gaelic flock, and the Highland tongue was strong upon him. As was the way with those who had “ta Gaelic” he had his own way with English consonants; he called me “Chimmy,” and called the school-kit a “kid.”
The surveyors came, for there was much pioneer work defining boundaries of blocks of newly-purchased Maori lands, and cutting the blocks into farming sections. There were parties of the kai-ruri and their men exploring bush and fern and swamp lands; and the stores were busy in a new enterprise, supplying pack-horse trains for the camps from the line that is now the Main Trunk westward to Kawhia and Mokau and inland to Taupo and the upper Wanganui.
And that period, 1886 to the end of the century, was the end of the King Country as we knew it in the Hauhau days and the transition era when barb-wire, policemen and white collars began the new invasion of the Maori sanctuary.
The night was young, yet bitter and old,
Like peach-skin wrinkling on the tongue,
The earth was cold, was more than cold,
But in the quiet sky was hung A little, inconsistent star,
Singing its quaint, unwritten tune,
An astral prelude, faint and far,
A herald for the full-toned moon.
* 1825 according to his son, the late H. V. Gully.