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

The Rip Van Winkle Effect

page 101

The Rip Van Winkle Effect

The Star of 26 and 29 November 1894 ran a two-part article, ‘The Kaupokonui Block Revisited’, by a pioneer settler who had not seen the district for some years, which began:

When Rip Van Winkle awoke from his long sleep on the Catskill Mountains, and went down to his home in the valley below, his friends did not know him, nor he the people. But when I returned to the haunts of my younger days, I knew the people but not the district.

We will return to this account shortly. First, though, we will show how the historian following the Kaponga story in the main source, the Star, had rather the same Rip Van Winkle experience. There is a great 33-month gap in all Star files from 1 January 1889 to 30 September 1891. From the primitive world of the Hayes fire inquest in the 1888 issues, we move to those of October 1891 and find a remarkable transformation. Kaponga now has an ‘Our Own’. In his first extant letter, published 14 October, we read:

The contractors for felling the balance of the township have completed their work, which has added considerably to the appearance of the place. The Wesleyans are to be congratulated on getting an organ for the chapel, which was much needed.

Our feeling that things have moved somewhat in three years is enhanced when we turn to 20 October and find that Palmer's sawmill has migrated from Manaia Road to the corner of Eltham and Oeo roads, has been greatly enlarged, and is now putting out 5000 to 6000 feet a day. Next day's issue really opens our eyes. The Star's ‘Our Travelling Correspondent’ report on Kaponga:

… a well-conducted hotel is no slight advantage to a rising township… Kaponga has grown out of my recognition. The bush in the township has all been felled, and several flourishing industries have taken root since my last visit. Mr Melville is running a sawmill, which ought to do well, as new men are constantly coming into the district. A telephone office has been attached to the Post Office…. Two new blacksmith shops occupy convenient sites, Mr Vincent's on the Manaia Road and Messrs Inch and Naismith's next the page 102 hotel… the ‘duck pond’, an obstinate slough of despond lying… between Mr Cullen's store and Messrs Inch and Naismith's [has] been successfully drained, and that no one has been drowned in its slimy depths is an evidence of the sobriety of the inhabitants. Over 40 children are now attending the Kaponga School… Mr Fitton, it is understood, has the contract to finish Mr Carey's large building, which he intends, so ‘tis said, to convert into shops. … In the meantime, I believe, the lively young blades of the township practise ‘the buzzard lope’ in it of an evening, to the inspiring music of a concertino.

So the stretch of solid bush encompassing the Manaia Road/Eltham Road intersection has now been felled and the life of the district is being recentred on the township rapidly rising on the clearing. The settlers no longer have to travel long miles to find an inn or a school, to send a telegram or get their horse shod, or to have a fling at the ‘buzzard lope’ to a lively tune. The daily flow is not now through ‘Kaponga’ but to Kaponga.

We return to our Rip Van Winkle of November 1894 for his perspective on Kaponga in time and space. He pictures the pioneers' vibrant expectations, the shift in mood that saw many drift away, the new day now dawning over the district and the lively township rising in its centre. He remembers

… those land sales! How many hungry settlers ‘ran’ one another as if they were in terror lest they couldn't get enough ground to stand on….

The dense bush surrounding the badly burned new clearings—the roads: what would settlers in the locality say if they had to plod through such roads as we had?—the general rough surroundings as rugged as anyone could wish for—but all these went for nothing. We laughed at our difficulties and plodded on in the march of colonisation …

… I smile when I think back on the pictures some of us used to draw of what we'd do. We'd farm (on paper) as successfully as the most demonstrative could wish; some would fatten cattle, others breed them; and some would keep sheep. Each and all had their ideas, some of which, it must be admitted, were a bit extravagant, yet we were all sanguine of reaching the goal of success. But those with the largest ideas were the soonest to give up.

He tries to account for the shift in mood that caused this giving up:

… they got tired of the life they were leading; the very look of the incomplete surroundings Nature had supplied them became distasteful; the very stumps looked repulsive; clearings were strewn with timber that seemed as if it were going to stay for ever; the large trees left standing in the rough openings looked down upon the early settler, appearing as silent witches making a mute appeal to him to clear out as soon as convenient, and the unspoken advice of the general surroundings was unfortunately only too often acted upon….

… He sells his heritage for a mere song, and goes out into the world to find something more elevating and enervating [sic] than wasting his life on a bush section. He does not reckon the days he has already lost and could not page 103 see that there is a coming in the tide that would well reward him for the hard work he had accomplished, and the privations he had undergone.

Seeking the basis of this tide of prosperity our Rip Van Winkle points out that ‘competitive sales of Crown lands are a thing of the past’, as also are the high prices the pioneers paid for ‘bushfelling, fencing, grass seed, &c’.

To say that the district has changed would give but a faint idea of the improvements made; it has been transformed from a forest into a thriving district peopled by prosperous settlers. And the transformation has been effected in a time so short that it makes the progression all the more astounding.

He makes his way up Duthie Road and approaches Kaponga along Eltham Road:

I cross the Kapuni river, spanned by a substantial bridge, and reach Palmer road. Some distance down this road the Loan and Mercantile Company have a creamery, which receives the milk from the vicinity. These creameries are a great convenience to settlers in districts where the supply is insufficient to warrant the erection of a factory. The milk is separated at the creamery, and the cream sent daily to the main factory at Mangatoki, where the lot is churned. I pass Mr McKenzie's, and see the township of Kaponga before me. … Can this be the Kaponga township I knew? No. The only Kaponga I knew existed on a Government land map, and the surface of the land was covered with heavy bush. But this is Kaponga in reality. I know no one in the place. I am a stranger in an improved land. I don't even know the big rata stump at the corner of Manaia and Eltham roads, for it is gone. But I am not a stranger for very long, for strolling out of the hotel after tea, I enter Mr Canning's* store, and soon become acquainted with the genial proprietor. We talk on many subjects (he has a rare fund of stories), and have a friendly exchange of ideas. Mr Canning is an enthusiast on Mount Egmont (who could help it living at Kaponga, a superb view of the great cone meeting one's gaze every time he looks in its direction) …

[Kaponga] is a nice little township, comprising a comfortable hotel which has recently been considerably added to, two general stores, butcher's shop, a couple of blacksmith's, a wheelwright, a saddler's shop, a dairy factory (or a creamery in the strict sense of the term), a good sized school, a church. Then, include this with a telephone and daily post service, and I think you've got Kaponga. There is a good deal of business done in the place and it has a busy appearance when the milk carts go rattling past in the morning….

I am told that something is stirring the minds of the settlers, and is creating almost as great a sensation as a rise in the price of fungus would have done a few years back. There is going to be a ball. The said ball has since eventuated, and I am told it was a great success. Mentioning the fact to Mr Canning that Kaponga was without a town hall, he informed me that the page 104 upstairs of the large building opposite his premises was used for meetings and entertainments. The size and importance of the district merits a larger hall than the one now in use. Kaponga must be destined to become an important township. It is the centre of a magnificent district, is a fair distance from any other place, and its situation strikes everyone favorably….

In the morning I bid adieu to Kaponga and start for Manaia. I pass Messrs Budge and Good's large sale yard, where successful sales are held, the local market place being appreciated by settlers. Passing on I observe neat homesteads all down the road, the paddocks being remarkably clear, several of them having been ploughed.