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

Lament for a Lost Age

Lament for a Lost Age

Had there been no world war, or only the short victorious war of their early hopes, the folk of Kaponga might well have turned their thoughts at the end of the decade to choosing a suitable anniversary date to celebrate their local achievements and there might well have been some debate about what date to choose. As we have seen, the first settlers moved quietly in over the closing months of 1881, the township itself was put on sale in 1882 but remained a paper township for years, and the school opened in June 1891. Long years later Kaponga chose to celebrate its centenary of settlement in 1982 and its centenary of schooling in 1991. Sixty years earlier the idea of commemorating 40 years of settlement or 30 years of schooling with the surviving founder settlers does not seem to have occurred to anyone. Instead, the great celebration of these years was a sharing with the empire in a great ‘Victory Day’ on 19 July 1919. The Star (21/7/19) covered this worldwide story at length.

Saturday will go down to history as ‘The Day’, as far as the children of Kaponga and surrounding districts are concerned. From 10 in the morning page 337 the fun and entertainment continued without a break until they were escorted home to bed after seeing the bonfire and pictures, at 11.30 p.m. Shortly before 10 lorries conveying the children from Riverlea, Awatuna, Rowan and Makaka arrived at the Kaupokonui bridge, whence they were played up to the Kaponga school by the Band. Here the procession was marshalled … Just as [it] was about to move off, considerable amusement was caused by the antics of the Darktown Fire Brigade, which galloped up to take its part in the proceedings.

The motley procession set out for the town hall, headed by a Mexican cowboy leading a band of painted Red Indians, followed by the Kaponga Brass Band playing marches and patriotic airs. Next in succession were the tank arranged by Newton King's Kaponga staff, an ambulance wagon with patients and nurses, the Darktown Fire Brigade, a man-of-war drawn by eight small Jack Tars, a piper to rejuvenate the Scots, tableaux in which each of the district's schools represented one of the Allied nations, the Kaponga Fire Brigade, decorated cars, and, bringing up the rear, hundreds of children in fancy dress. At the town hall there were appropriate speeches and ceremonies for the crowd of about 2000. The day was filled out with movies, prizegivings and dancing in the hall, feasting in adjoining marquees, a fancy dress football match and a torchlight procession.

With this cosmopolitan programme Kaponga shared in the worldwide relief that the killing had ended. The long process of getting the ‘boys’ of the first home-grown generation back from foreign fields was now well on its way. They and their fallen comrades took the place of honour on this occasion, not their settler pioneer parents. It was not the time to celebrate the whole community's achievements in the humbler victories of peace. One can imagine the objections any suggestion of a local anniversary celebration would have met. With town and countryside bedraggled from the long years of struggle the local scene was best kept in the background. Blackberry, ragwort and other weeds that had got away must be tackled,13 hedges brought back under control, shabby buildings painted. Also the long process of stumping and logging-up had faltered badly while the wealth of Kaponga and the muscles of its prime youth had been expended in lacing and pock-marking far-distant fields with trenches, dugouts and shell holes. So the Great War robbed the pioneers of any festival of recognition in the early 1920s and its economic consequences were to rob them of any jubilee in the early 1930s.

If the 1910s had not been marred by war, what fruition might Kaponga have had to celebrate by the early 1920s? We have seen how, by the end of 1912, Fred Basham's tarsealing experiments had effectively solved the formerly intractable road surfacing problem. In 1917 the Star (19/4/17) printed the impressions of an old settler revisiting the district. He recorded how, travelling from Eltham through Kaponga to visit his former home district of Auroa

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… I got the surprise of my life when I found that I was gliding along on what seemed an indiarubber road, and a country road at that, for a distance of about sixteen miles. But I found that the Eltham road was by no means the only one that was laid down like it, as the Skeet road and Main South road and a great many by-roads were just as good.

Even the war had not altogether halted the progress of the tarseal; a decade of peace would surely have seen the district thoroughly networked with these luxury roads. Over them would have flowed an increasing volume of motor traffic, including lorries with timber and cement, and perhaps even tarseal products, to upgrade the farm track networks and milking sheds, and rescue daily life there too from the scourge of mud.

At the outbreak of war Kaponga was about to let contracts for a dam and hydro-generation plant to supply the township with electricity. The power was finally switched on in May 1916.14 Had these been years of peace electric power might well have spread widely across the countryside, easing burdens in rural homes and powering a multiplying number of machines in the milking sheds. With technology easing many rural tasks, time and energy would have been released to speed up the clearing of the remaining ugly vestiges of the bush burns. One can envisage a rapidly mellowing farm landscape of neat pastures, maturing copses, well-trimmed hedges and inviting homes and gardens, served by a thriving township.

The human story of the next decade also would have been very different had not war slashed savagely across its continuity. While many did not return from the killing fields, others, broken or unsettled by war, failed to carry on local clan traditions. Some, like Jeremiah Crowley, having been forced to sell their farms when called up, pursued careers elsewhere on their return. The loss of an only son could take a whole family away. Palmer Road farmer and Eltham county councillor David Black is a good example of this. As a loyal citizen he responded, in the years before conscription, to government urging that local bodies foster recruiting. As a result his only son, Len, was hurried into volunteering by an anonymous white feather. Helped by his three daughters David Black carried on his farm while continuing to shoulder burdens in local affairs. In July 1918 Len Black was killed in action in France. With no son to inherit, David sold the farm in 1919 and the family returned to Canterbury from whence they had come. Thus, while Len's sisters maintained a lifelong interest in Kaponga, their ongoing story was built into Christchurch networks.

The story of Samuel Signal, wheelwright in the township, is probably a parallel one. His only son, William, was killed in France in October 1918. Following the war Samuel sold his Kaponga business and the family (including several daughters) followed an older married daughter to the Waikato.15 There were, of course, other potent causes of a massive change over in the district's farm ownership in the unsettled years following the war. And the slashing of continuity extended into other spheres. Kaponga page 339 soccer, for example, did not resume for some years after 1918—too many of its key enthusiasts had fallen in foreign fields.