Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
2 The Making of Livings, the Quality of Life, the 1880s
2 The Making of Livings, the Quality of Life, the 1880s
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.
Working on Wages and Contracts
In the early years of the decade work was plentiful and wages good, but the later years saw harder times. From 1881 to the summer of 1884–85 there was strong labour demand in south Taranaki, with a diversity of work at good wages. The government put money into the roads and pushed the railway through the difficult country between Hawera and Patea, completing it early in 1885. Government surveys continued in our district and also to open up new country east of the railway. The more affluent open-country settlers also had development programmes, creating a strong demand for fencers, builders, ploughmen and general labourers. Their rapidly multiplying flocks of sheep and acres of grain added a strong summer demand for shearers and harvesters. With work and wages beginning to languish in many older established districts, south Taranaki experienced a steady inflow of population. Some Kaponga District settlers will have first come to the region in search of work and then been encouraged by savings from good wages to go farming. DP land purchasers and poorer cash buyers must have had a wide range of skills to offer on this vibrant market and in turn taken useful experience back to their own sections. In these half-hidden years it is not easy to glean the information for a picture of how this complex interplay between labouring and settling page 59 worked out in terms of individual experience. One or two relevant diaries or cycles of letters would be invaluable at this point. We will have to make do with the available snippets of information, which are mainly on bushfelling and roadmaking.
The Star of 28 September 1881 provides a salutary reminder of the rougher side of this frontier life. It advocated a lock-up for Manaia because
… Bushmen who threaten to fight with axes, or go outside the hotel on Saturday night, challenging all or any of the bystanders to fight, are not the sort of rowdies which one policeman can safely conduct a mile or more to a lock-up against their will. [The ‘mile or more’ was probably to the redoubt.]
These Saturday-night gatherings of bushmen may have included a sprinkling from our district, perhaps one or two of the pioneer settlers on Manaia and Palmer roads and workers from the district's first sawmill, just getting under way on Charles Tait's* section on Manaia Road.3 But the rowdy element are more likely to have been itinerant workers felling roadlines for the government or cutting posts for settlers on the plains. Their number would have grown over the following winter with the first extensive letting of felling contracts. The Star of 18 September 1882 drew attention to its many felling advertisements and reported two-thirds of the settlers with bush adjoining the plains letting contracts. The following month William Ellerm sought fellers for his section a little north of the Kaponga township site.4 He may not have found men to make this long trek into the bush for even the government was having difficulty getting workers. In his 1882–83 report Crown Lands Ranger Robinson explained that roadworks had lagged partly because of the very wet summer but also because most available labour had been absorbed by the very large areas of bush being felled in south Taranaki. He had found most quotes for work put to tender ‘unreasonable’.5 After listing the work accomplished during the year he continued:
Nearly the whole of the above works have been done under the system of small contracts, the average value of the contracts being about £90, the work, in the majority of cases, being done by deferred-payment settlers, who were thus afforded an opportunity of earning money wherewith to pay for their lands.6
Settlers complained that during the 1882 season bushfelling pricés had risen from 28s to 40s or 50s per acre.7 Not surprisingly plains farmers had to offer good wages for their wheat and oats harvesting in January 1883 and even so one or two complained that men were hard to get.8
Over the 1883–84 and 1884–85 seasons these patterns continued but with a rising tempo and with bushfelling, roadworks and timber milling moving ever deeper into the bush. The transient bushfelling gangs that were a feature of Kaponga District life throughout the 1880s have left only minimal traces in the records but an interesting glimpse is provided by a page 60 letter from ‘Bush Faller’ in the Star of 1 March 1883. He was from near Opunake but his problem cannot have been uncommon. He wrote: ‘Some men like myself who have to camp on road lines with our wives and families would be only too pleased to have a chance of leasing, even at a pretty high rent, small blocks [of land].’ Obviously these encampments were not necessarily purely male preserves and not all were satisfied with a vagrant roadway setting when taking contracts in a district. The typical bush settler had rather different problems. He preferred to work from home and keep an eye on his own section while gaining a share of the moneys flowing out to manual labour, and he wanted the public spending on roads to bring good access to his own front gate. All these ends were met if he got a good contract on the roads near his place. Thus in September 1884 Henry Davy tendered £3 an acre to the Road Board for felling bush near his place. The board countered with £2 an acre.9 For some settlers access was as important as money. In July 1883 William Swadling waited on the Road Board, offering to fell a mile of Palmer Road, clear and stump it 16 feet wide, at 17s per chain, and to wait up to 14 months for payment if no funds were in hand. The offer was taken up.10 The government also continued spending in the district, again mainly on small contracts to nearby settlers.11
These good times for labour ended in the winter of 1885, with ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ reporting ‘a bad look out for the “professional” axeman. Everything down bar ratas is quoted at £1 10s’.12 The following July he commented that ‘when ali timber except rata is chopped for 30s per acre … the storekeeper and butcher often suffer’.13 With prices still dropping, by November 1886 some small settlers felling for more affluent neighbours were bringing in no more than 4s a day, with rates as low as 22s an acre being reported.14 The winters of 1887 and 1888 saw ‘peppercorn wages’ with prices as low as 20s.15 The surge of new settlement turned the tide in the spring of 1888; by December south Taranaki grain farmers and public bodies were complaining at being unable to get work done at satisfactory rates.16 The hard years saw landless men suffer most, working long hours on contracts that scarcely bought them their food. But most DP settlers had somehow met their land payments. They benefited from being comfortably housed and eating well from their clearings and the wild.
Working for Subsistence
‘However hard the almighty dollar is to get possession of, a man can't starve if he has his piece of land, pigs and garden,’ remarked the Stratford & Ngaere ‘Our Own’ on 15 October 1887. For most ‘Kaupokonui’ pioneers such an outlook was not merely an option but a necessity. The purchase and development of their sections demanded every penny they could get, and in any case there was no market at hand to supply the daily necessities of life. Moreover a subsistence approach made good sense for other reasons. In the short term there was a small local outlet for produce from the page 61 clearings, as surveyors, newly arrived settlers, bushfellers and sawmill workers needed the very goods subsistence farming provided. For the longer term it was as yet unclear which products best suited the local conditions and would find viable markets. To understand these settlers we must see that to them farming options still seemed wide open. We know that dairying was soon to become dominant, but as late as 1883 Patea, Hawera and Normanby storekeepers were complaining of having to import most of their butter. I have described elsewhere the tussle in 1880s South Taranaki between differing views on farming options, suggesting that the futures most settlers had in mind can be covered by the three models I label ‘Lincolnshire’, ‘Kent’ and ‘West Country’.17 Until a regional consensus emerged it was sensible to test a wide range of products, in their various breeds and varieties, against the local climate, soils and pests, while keeping one's ears open for long-term market prospects. This most of ‘Kaupokonui’ pioneers seem to have done, making a virtue out of the subsistence farming necessity.
Settlers were encouraged in this course by their most widely read guide on such matters, the Star. Over the early and mid-1880s it supported mixed farming and criticised a local bias towards sheep and grain. Its leader of 7 February 1884 upheld as a model a local Kentish immigrant who maintained a full range of mixed farming whatever the state of the market. Each season he planted his wheat, oats and potatoes, maintained his sheep, cattle and pigs, and pressed on with his dairy and orchard. His results proved the wisdom of refusing to guess the short-term markets. This Star editorial particularly recommended dairying, pig keeping and fruit growing, and gave its blessing to the recently founded Normanby Horticultural Society, whose annual show was rapidly to become a regional event, giving steady encouragement to diversified farming.
With grass being of necessity a clearing's first crop, a house cow was commonly its first livestock. The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own's’ letter of 20 May 1886 reported: ‘The dairying industry is in a flourishing condition in this district and there are few families who do not make a considerable quantity of butter weekly.’ Butter-making led inevitably to pig keeping to provide an outlet for the skim milk. Competently managed, dairy and piggery would within a year or two provide a year-round supply of milk, butter and meat. In the late autumn of 1889 life in the Kaponga district must have been similar to that of nearby Ngaere, from where a correspondent wrote:
… nights are cold, mornings colder; cows are milked and firewood chopped by lantern light…. pigs are being killed by hundreds. Ngaire will soon rival Chicago for bacon. Every settler's house is decorated with flitches of streaky bacon and juicy hams, and every settler's child is fed on the same, which no doubt accounts for their healthy appearance.18
Cropping on the clearings seems to have begun with gardening as soon page 62 as a piece of ground could be fenced away from livestock. ‘Our Own's’ letter of 29 May 1884 from ‘Kaupokonui’ reported some extraordinary crops of potatoes, though it was impossible to estimate the weight per acre as ‘most of the crops have been stuck in in odd bits and corners between logs and stumps’. He had seen one root with a 14lb crop, and also a 52lb pumpkin. Carrots also did particularly well. In 1889 ‘Agricola’, a visiting Auckland agriculturist, expressed surprise at the quantities grown. ‘With scarcely an exception every homestead seemed to have the inevitable crop of carrots,’ he reported, ‘the beds being large or comparatively small according to the requirements of the family.’19 He found these roots served up in a wonderful variety of ways. At one house he was entertained with a ‘lovely’ carrot pudding. Carrots were also being fed to pigs and other stock. The depredations of birds, especially sparrows, discouraged grain in the bush subsistence economy. Beans became popular because ‘they are hardy, quickly sown, easily kept clean, sparrows don't take them, and they are good food for either pigs or fowls’.20
On 28 July 1883 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported that most settlers were planting fruit trees. It would of course be some years before these came into bearing, but on 19 February 1886 he reported almost every settler harvesting many quarts of gooseberries. On 18 September 1886 he noted that ‘an enormous number of fruit trees have been planted throughout this district this season’. Settlers must have gained much help from the press on how to cope with their new environment. Thus in the Star of 11 June 1887 an Okaiawa resident wrote about his orchard, with news on three varieties of apple, a good crop of blackcurrants and success in fruiting figs. He gave a range of advice on adapting husbandry to local conditions. He noted that ‘some loads of fruit trees are already being carted up towards the mountain on the Ahipaipa road, so that planting has begun in the bush districts’.
Subsistence living of course also meant meeting housing and fuel needs from one's own resources. For this, most of our settlers, with their axemen's skills, were well equipped. Let us now summarise the likely subsistence fortunes of a well-organised Kaponga settler family. They would have moved from an initial primitive ponga whare to a growing slab cottage. Dairy, piggery, hen house and barn would have been added as required. The first year may have seen a surfeit of damper and of beef and pigeon from the wild. Thereafter the variety of the diet would have grown steadily, the additions (roughly in the order of appearance) being: milk, butter, potatoes and other root vegetables, eggs; pork, bacon and ham; small fruits such as gooseberries and blackcurrants; apples, pears, plums and other tree fruits. Producing, processing and preserving these foodstuffs would have required a range of skills, a basic minimum of equipment and supplies, and the necessary initial livestock, seeds and plants. Families will have varied in their ability to meet these requirements, and in the discipline needed to provide the necessary input of labour and continuous care. Few bachelor settlers will have been competent to cover more than a small part of the range.
Working for the Markets
Our account of wages, contract and subsistence work has sketched in the context of work for the markets. In simple outline we can say that the Kaponga district had no real market problem in the first half of the 1880s, the second half of the decade were years of market crisis, and by the early 1890s the solution was well in sight. The early 1880s had no problem because the settlers were concentrating on the abundance of wages and contract work. On the first small clearings families got subsistence activities under way, with women and children releasing the men for the good earnings off the section. Most bachelors probably shut up most of their clearing for grass seed so that they too could go after these good earnings. A steady flow of newcomers to this active settlement frontier meant an eager market for grass seed and all types of food produce. But suddenly in the mid-1880s this all changed. The generous government spending disappeared, the settler inflow dwindled to a trickle, while the clearings had grown to a size that made market decisions urgent. In the Star of 14 December 1885 ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ gives us a feel of these times:
Of course your contributor G.W.'s articles on bee-keeping are eagerly read by your own, but I fail to see the extraordinary benefits he points out. In this colony—I might almost individualise it, this district—we suffer periodically from crazes. Some new idea is wafted abroad whereby heaps of coin may be amassed; frothy ideas are expressed and for a time we dream of untold fortunes.
Besides the apiarist enthusiasm of ‘G.W.’ (Manaia's disputatious headmaster, George Wilks), ‘Our Own’ would also doubtless have had in mind the hop-growing movement initiated in Normanby in April 1883 and fanning out from there to other bush districts until brought to a sudden halt by gales in December 1884 and March 1885.21
In brief, the district's dilemma was that all significant colonial markets had been preempted by more convenient, well-established suppliers. A long-term solution needed products that would return a profit after being got out over primitive frontier roads and shipped around the world. Hence the interest in high-value, easily transportable produce such as hops and honey. Frozen beef was another possibility, but Taranaki's early frozen-meat ventures quickly failed and there was little profit in sending stock to more distant works. Cattle raising for the market (as distinct from dairying) was of some significance in the ‘Kaupokonui’ throughout the 1880s, especially for cash land buyers with large areas felled on contract. One such sent up the first mob in October 1882: 22 cows with calves at foot, from the Manaia saleyards.22 DP settlers will have run some cattle, mainly by raising calves from their dairy stock for sale as either beef cattle or milch cows. But throughout the decade their leading market crop appears to have been grass seed.23 In the hard years of the later 1880s the main supplement to this was page 64 ‘Taranaki wool’, a fungus growing on the felled logs of their clearings, which Taranaki Chinese immigrant Chew Chong was exporting to China. We must look more closely at these two key products.
The grass seed crop was always a bit of a gamble. As it matured it was at risk from fire, and over the short harvest season from rain. The market was as hard to judge as any, depending partly on the amount of new country being sown over the following season, partly on the overseas market.24 There was also the choice of variety. A Star editorial of 18 October 1887 deprecated a shift over the preceding year or two from cocksfoct to rye grass, pointing out that cocksfoot was the only New Zealand grass with an export seed market. As prices drifted lower in the late 1880s many settlers began holding much of their crop off the market.25 Even at the lower prices there were reasonable returns until the market collapsed in early 1889.26 The harvest's heavy labour demand drew on both Pakeha and Maori.27 ‘Our grass seed harvest lasts only a few weeks, but during that time all is hurry and worry,’ noted the Farmer's Hawera ‘Our Own’ in March 1889. Some families had the hands to harvest their crop but those that could not had either to sell it or to have it reaped on terms. Standing crops sold for as much as £1 and 5s an acre in 1887 and 1888, but dropped to around 13s in 1889. For reaping on terms most harvesters settled for two bags out of every three in 1887 and for three out of every four in 1889.28 The grass was cut with sickles, then spread on threshing sheets to be beaten out with flails and supplejacks.29 The ‘gamble’ inherent in the crop continued through the various decisions the harvesters had to make, as ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ explained on 19 February 1886:
At a time when grass harvesting was in full swing, rain came, doing a deal of damage to the crops which were cut, and driving the greater part of the seed out of the standing stalk. Cocksfoot does not seem to have been as severely affected as rape and Italian rye. The latter is a most fickle grass to harvest, as there is no ‘turn of the tide’. Unless reaped on the green side, a lot is lost through shaking. A great mistake was made by harvesters this season in getting too far ahead with cutting and depending on the weather keeping fine to finish threshing. Many believe now in threshing two days after the cutting.
Fungus had been a significant commodity for Taranaki bush settlers since the early 1870s but until the mid-1880s ‘Kaupokonui’ settlers mainly lett it to the Maori, including parties that came camping from Parihaka.30 With the onset of hard times coinciding with a fungus price rise the settlers turned to it eagerly.31 The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own's’ letter of 31 July 1886 told of fungus picking ‘becoming an established industry’, encouraged by the fact that much of the bush had been felled the right length of time for a prolific yield. Picking continued widely for some years, causing friction with Maori gatherers.32 At first settlers gathered their fungus in summer and cried in the sun. By 1887 they were gathering throughout the year and page 65 showing some ingenuity in the wood-fired devices they constructed for drying.33 In the autumn of 1889 the Auckland Weekly News's ‘Agricola’ found that experts could make better money fungus gathering than at any labouring jobs.34 There were also markets for the wood of the forest. Open-country demand for fencing timber reached steadily deeper into the bush, providing work for some bush settlers. Much more work was provided by the sawmills, several of which operated in the Kaponga district in the 1880s. Information on them is limited, and sometimes confusing, partly through changes of location and ownership. Important in the Kaponga story of the 1880s and 1890s was Robert Palmer,* an experienced sawmiller who in 1883 came to take over the pioneer Manaia mill as manager and senior partner in R. Palmer and Co.35 Beginning on Charles Tait's Manaia Road section, a little above Skeet Road, this mill worked its way up Manaia Road, reaching the outskirts of Kaponga township towards the end of the decade. There must have been various arrangements with settlers for mill and tramlines sites, the purchase of logs, and contract and wage labour. In turn, the settlers were important customers of the mill.
In the later 1880s Kaponga settlers must have felt that market industries were marching towards them. They were, for example, caught up in the beekeeping movement but their enthusiasm was shortlived.36 As they watched the various initiatives of the somewhat earlier settled areas to their south and east they must have valued the opportunity to benefit from these neighbours' experience. It spared them, for example, the false start of the hop industry.
It will also have prepared them for the shift from a cottage-style dairy industry to a factory one. Throughout the 1880s their home dairies found customers mainly through the Manaia and Okaiawa storekeepers and their own Henry Davy. The south Taranaki factory dairying movement began in earnest in the autumn of 1883.37 It made out a strong case against the home dairies. The home product varied widely in quality, giving storekeepers the onerous task of assessing and pricing each offering and customers a source of constant dissatisfaction.38 To compensate themselves storekeepers often insisted on a barter approach. From other districts came reports that both settlers and storekeepers were well pleased with the changes that factory dairying brought to their relationship.39 The home product's inconsistent quality was also a major hindrance in the export markets. In north Taranaki, and also from 1888 at Cardiff on the Kaponga district's own boundaries, a butter-packing approach was tried to counter this problem. Settlers churned their butter to the granular stage then brought it to a central depot for final working and packing. But hopes that the rejection of bad offerings and blending of the rest would ensure a consistent product were not fulfilled.40 The Kaponga settlers could not ignore the cogency of the case for the new dairy factories that took raw milk from the farmers, separated the cream using the new centrifugal separators, and turned it into butter under page 66 hygienic conditions. Over 1885–87 they saw dairy factories established nearby to their west, east and south at Opunake, Normanby, Manaia, Otakeho and Eltham. Around 1888–89 their storekeeper, Henry Davy, began his own little factory on a stream just east of the township site,41 and to their south on Skeet Road, just east of the Manaia Road intersection, young William Hutchinson* had set up another on his father's farm in 1889.42 The stage was set for the district's leap into factory dairying.
Home and Neighbourliness
Throughout the 1880s the quality of the district's life depended almost entirely on the qualities of the individual homes on the scattered clearings. No other institution had yet developed an effective presence. The characters of these family and bachelor establishments depended in turn on the social maturity and domestic skills of their individual members. Maintaining morale and making life feel worthwhile amid the privations of the settlement's early weather-battered years must have been a real challenge. The unfolding years provide good evidence that most settlers had the calibre to succeed on their sections both as homemakers and as pioneer farmers, and to move out over the following decades to create a rich and varied community life. There had, of course, been a tough self-selection process behind their becoming frontier settlers, and for many an earlier such process in deciding to emigrate. Both decisions would have involved assessing one's adequacy in social skills, adaptability, toughness and ambition for the demands of a challenging venture. Let us look first at how it worked out for families and then for bachelors.
The ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ had a deal to say about his district's bachelors. His letter of 18 September 1886 commented on the ‘startling number of bachelors throughout the Kaupokonui’ living in ‘lonely looking little houses built by the roadside throughout the block, some with nice gardens’. He told how they could become confused as to the day of the week, reporting on 17 January 1885 how one missed a fine Saturday's work at his grass seed because he thought it was Sunday, and on 6 June 1887 on another setting off for church on a day that wasn't Sunday. He noted that Sunday was generally ‘celebrated among the bachelors in the bush by cooking or visiting’.45 Few Kaponga District bachelors of the 1880s will have lived within easy reach of church. ‘Our Own’ also noted periodic outbursts of gold fever, which must have been predominantly a bachelor phenomenon. On 13 June 1884 he wrote:
By many the old days of the West Coast rushes are not forgotten. The gold fever rages as fiercely as ever. In many a lowly whare and by many a camp fire, with flashing eye and burning cheek, the old digger may be heard recounting his experiences, and fondly calling back to mind the times when fortunes in a day were lost and won.
This serves to remind us that besides the settler bachelors there were also the work gang bachelors, felling bush, building bridges, sawmilling &c. page 68 Sunday visiting must have seen mixing not only among but also between the two groups. And the old diggers' yarns will have sent some of the more footloose off to the rushes across the Tasman. Most of the bachelors will have been less tied to home than the family men, getting away more easily to labouring jobs and in search of recreation in Manaia, Okaiawa or further afield. Probably both bachelors and families made up the cases reported by ‘Our Own’ on 24 November 1886 ‘where neighbours are living within a mile or two of each other and not acquainted’. Yet while some failed to find time to get to know their neighbours others engaged in various recreations and social occasions.
Despite their primitive facilities and limited leisure the ‘Kaupokonui’ settlers were by the mid-1880s arranging a variety of social occasions, mainly simple home parties and dances and the occasional picnic. In the Star of 11 August 1887 a correspondent supplying ‘Notes from the Bush’ reported how a successful concert and dance held at the Te Roti school
… acted as a stimulus to more of the same sort, and nearly every week since parties of the same sort are held at the houses of some of the settlers. An evening is fixed upon and a few of the young ladies and their ‘mashers’—for the bush is not without the latter commodity—assemble and to the strain of the violin, handled by a local fiddler, they amuse themselves for a few hours.46
This cycle of get-togethers around Te Roti was probably out of the reach of our district's settlers, but some of them must have been among the ‘large number’ present at the party given by pioneer Mangatoki settlers James and Elizabeth Linn of Eltham Road in mid-November 1886 (probably near full moon, which was on the 12th).47 Such occasions gave way in the busy summer and autumn months to the occasional picnic. Thus on 4 January 1886 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported a monster Christmas Day picnic held at the mouth of the Inaha. On 8 November 1886 he had news of a picnic being organised in the bush and commented on the matrimonial implications of such occasions. Concerts, dances and picnics provided the main opportunities for bush folk to mix socially with the opposite sex in the early years. But most men in this predominantly male society would have spent most of their spare time on masculine sports. While the rough bush clearings were as yet quite unsuitable for team sports they did see a little activity. Of bush Sundays the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ wrote on 27 August 1885:
… it is not an unusual sight to see a number of young fellows congregated from various sections engaged (not in singing psalms) but in a good soul-stirring tug of war, jumping and other athletic pastimes.
Hunting was a widespread sport and the bush provided ample rewards. page 69 Pigeons were plentiful in the early years and were regularly shot for the larder. The colony's game laws were democratic, rather than, as in Britain, in the interests of the privileged. A Star editorial of 10 May 1887 on ‘Game and Game Laws' pointed out that it was ‘the occupier of any land or his appointee, not the landlord’ who was declared the owner of all game on the land, and that the sole purpose of the act's restrictions was that ‘certain birds and animals both native and imported shall be protected during an annual closed season, generally speaking during those months when the birds or animals are breeding’. When this restricted season ended each autumn, outside sportsmen joined those from the bush, hunting particularly for pheasants and native pigeons.48 From time to time there were expeditions for the larger game of ‘bush beef’. As we have seen, mountaineering was another activity in which outsiders joined with bush settler enthusiasts. And both outsiders and bush settlers went on Sunday afternoon rides exploring the bush roads when a good summer dried them out.49 In their turn bush folk travelled outside the bush in search of recreation.
Outings from the Bush
In the early years, while their own district had so little to supplement what the homes could offer, outings to nearby centres will have been highlights in Kaponga settler life. There was a steady interaction with their adjacent service townships, Manaia and Okaiawa. Their flavour in the early days we will illustrate from Okaiawa. ‘Travelling Correspondent’ Frank Lawrie wrote on the place in the Auckland Weekly News of 18 August 1883. He found there a commodious hotel ‘which appears to obtain most of its support from the great number of travellers and settlers constantly passing to and from the bush country at the back’. Other aspects of the village/bush interaction were well caught in the Okaiawa ‘Our Own’ of 19 November 1883:
Tradesmen's carts and picnic parties may be seen frequently going to and coming from the bush, as well as riding parties. Some who have taken up land in the bush are busy making new homes, and a good many emerge from these to have a look round here on Saturday evenings and on Sunday.
Being so much further back in the bush than the folk referred to here, the scattered Kaponga settlers will have come out much less frequently, often waiting for some special occasion to make the journey worthwhile. They will have been represented at all notable occasions in Manaia and Okaiawa. We will choose an example or two from Manaia.
Manaia's races became a regional Boxing Day fixture and were drawing crowds of over 1000 by the later 1880s.50 The Easter Monday athletic sports became equally popular. Kaponga settler G.H. McKenzie was one of the star performers at these sports in 1888.51 Four months later Kaponga settlers must surely have been present on the wet Saturday afternoon when the page 70 long-talked-of match between Pakeha wrestling champion George Pearce and his Maori counterpart, Whanga Katipu from Waikato, was staged in Manaia. The crowd of up to 1000 included enthusiasts from as far away as Wellington. The match was ‘in Cumberland style first three falls out of five to win’. Pearce, four stones lighter than his opponent and suffering from a cold and a recent fall from a horse, took the first two falls but, being the more experienced, eventually felled Whanga twice. Delayed by periods of drenching rain the contest dragged on till the light faded and the contestants, on Whanga's initiative, agreed to a draw.52 This was an adult occasion, and on the Pakeha side a male one. But both sexes, young and old, must have come down from the bush for festivities such as those of Christmas Eve 1889 when
… the town was very full of people, all the shops were nicely decorated with ferns, Chinese lanterns and flowers, and the goods displayed to best advantage. The Band was out, and the town was pretty lively.53
Further away the regional ‘capital’, Hawera, also had a number of annual events of considerable drawing power, especially its highly successful annual A & P Show, founded in 1884. Normanby's annual horticultural show also became a regional event, drawing attendances of up to 1500 by the end of the 1880s. Such was the vitality of the new bush township beginning its rise on the banks of the Kaupokonui that within a very few years it would be providing its own version of almost all the activities for which the district's settlers trekked abroad in the 1880s.