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

An Axeman's World

An Axeman's World

The ‘Kaupokonui’ district of the 1880s was an axeman's world. Axemen went in with the surveyors to cut survey lines and fell access roadways. Buyers of these bush sections were mainly either reasonably competent axemen or men with the money to hire a felling gang. Most Kaponga settlers chose the bush as folk of limited means taking their easiest route to farm ownership. Many were DP settlers committed to payments on their section, others bought for cash but had little money left for development. Their axes provided these folk with much of the finance they needed. They felled and cleared roadlines on government and Road Board contracts. They felled for more affluent neighbours. They felled for the sawmillers. They used their axes to produce firewood, posts, slabs, beams and poles for their own use and for sale. To succeed as settlers they needed many skills but in the 1880s none were more basic than those of the axeman. Fortunately for Kaponga's progress, a wealth of bushman talent came in with its pioneers. Some of it dated back to the Hutt Valley of the 1840s and '50s (e.g. the Ellerms, Hollards, Wilkies and Fretheys), some to the gold-diggers' 1860s assault on the heavily wooded West Coast gold-fields (e.g. Crowley, D. Fitzgerald), some to the 1870s drive to open the southern North Island's ‘Great Bush’ (e.g. Robert Gibson, William Swadling).

Bushman skills and techniques had improved over the years, especially from the late 1870s when contract felling became common. A good axeman knew how to choose and care for an axe and a crosscut saw. In his skilled felling the trees lay evenly over the land, with no bare patches for the Scotch thistles' succulent growth to hamper the spread of the burn. He knew exactly where a tree would fall, and sped up his work with good ‘drives’— rows of partly cut trees brought down by cutting right through the last in the row. Where a trunk was large or badly twisted near the base he became adept at cutting further up, working from a stage of pieces of wood and pongas. In the later 1880s the stage gave way to the jigger-board, fixed into a notch in the trunk.1

Because Taranaki's climate and abundance of mahoe encouraged second growth that inhibited the burn, felling was commonly delayed till about page 58 July. Clearing the ‘Kaupokonui’ provided years of work for the otherwise slack months of winter and early spring. The process began with underscrubbing, the cutting of all undergrowth and creepers with bill-hooks and light axes, work with which women and children often helped. Properly done, this formed the tinder for the burn; badly done, small growth and creepers flourished in the fallen timber, resisting rather than helping the burn. Next the standing bush was felled and left to dry. Opinions differed over the felling of all the heavy timber. Some thought it false economy to leave anything standing, others left the larger trees, especially the scatter of huge hard-wooded ratas. Felled they often became waterlogged and hard to dispose of, whereas standing they dried out so that they burned easily. The season's felling stopped in time to allow the last cutting to dry before the burn. Then, on a suitable day in late summer or early autumn came the burn.2 Cocksfoot and clover seed were broadcast sown in the ashes among the stumps and logs. Over the following years ‘stumping’ and ‘logging-up’ steadily cleared the remaining debris.

Axeman's work was dominant in the early years, but as clearings grew and multiplied it gave way to an increasingly varied range of work. Those who wished to continue as axemen had to follow the migrating sawmills or move to new bush frontiers. We will proceed by examining in turn how labouring on wages and contracts, producing for subsistence, and producing for the market, contributed to the making of livings. Finally we will look at what quality of life these livings provided during the 1880s.