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

The Bush

The Bush

In the 1890s the meteoric rise of the township and the flourishing of dairying tended to push the bush into the background of public attention. After all, the new bush clearings were up the back roads and fellings on existing farms were on their back reaches. Yet, while other matters now grabbed the headlines, the old issues of felling contract prices, the weather of the burning season and the fortunes of the grass seed and fungus harvests were still vital to both new recruits to the bush frontier and many struggling earlier comers.

For the many recent arrivals the decade began well, with an excellent burning season in February and March of 1890. The following winter was the best for years and with contracts at competitive prices large areas were felled.6 Thereafter for several seasons neither felling nor burning flourished so well. In a changing labour market bushmen became scarce and forced up the felling prices. A succession of three bad burning seasons in a row, reminiscent of the early 1880s, must have discouraged many a newcomer.7 Yet there was little public comment, for bad burning seasons on the clearings meant good dairying seasons for more established settlers. However, when the 1894 summer again began with wet weather, the Star's Kaponga correspondent picked up the anxiety of the frontier settlers, remarking that ‘many of the sections have an accumulation of two or three years falling and should another wet summer eventuate it will be extremely disheartening’.8 In fact the anxieties of this and the following four summers were to be of quite a different character. While the new clearings enjoyed five successive good burn seasons the older settled areas came repeatedly under bush-fire threat. When overpowering smoke enveloped south Taranaki on 24 February 1894, the Star (26/2/94) sent out a special reporter. His investigations finally sent him out from Eltham towards Kaponga. At first he found that while fire had burnt over much of the countryside little damage had been done, but

… On the Palmer road Mr George Roots lost a considerable area of grass, the fire making a clean sweep. Mrs Barton's house was saved after a deal of work. This road is blocked by rata trees having fallen across it. At Kaponga the settlers had a warm time from Wednesday until Sunday, residents being up night and day guarding their property. All the township was under fire, and had the wind changed on Saturday nothing could have saved the hotel … Mr C. Melville's sawmill on Eltham road had a very narrow escape.

From Friday until Saturday the hands were using their utmost endeavours to page 108 protect it, and on Saturday night about twenty volunteers went from Kaponga, with the mill hands making about forty in all. The fire at this time was particularly fierce, and what with smoke and heat the men were all soon exhausted. Just when it appeared that the mill must go, welcome rain arrived, and soon after it had put all chance of destruction at an end. As it is Mr Melville is a pretty heavy loser. Two of his tram line bridges have been destroyed, together with a portion of the tramway, also three men's cottages and the cookhouse…. Mr W.J. Barleyman lost his stable on Friday … He also lost his furniture. When the fire was highest the house was in great danger of destruction, and Mr Barleyman decided to remove the furniture. This was placed in a dray, and considering it safe he sat down, being fatigued with smoke and heat. On looking up a little while afterwards he was horrified to see the load in flames…. From Kaponga to the Skeet road the clearings have been almost all burnt, though no great damage has been done, the fire being confined to stumps and logs.

The following two summers saw good bush burns without bush-fire losses,9 but the 1896–97 summer again brought damaging bush fires. Melville's Kaponga sawmill was again saved only after a great battle. Among the settlers the main losses were along upper Palmer Road. Gabites lost all his grass, his cowshed and all out-buildings, and narrowly saved his house with strenuous help from neighbours. A. Coxhead's house was also in danger, and he, Frethey and Prestidge had large losses in grass.10 The 1897– 98 summer saw extensive bush fires in many parts of the country, and Kaponga had its share. In mid-January settlers along Rowan Road and Opunake Road were put under heavy pressure but saved everything except for large quantities of grass.11 Early in April a gale set fires raging in several parts of the district. Rowan Road settler L. McDonald, though aided by his neighbours, lost his home, and Kaponga township was in great danger, with several buildings being only narrowly saved.12 The 1898–99 summer was wet, with bad bush burns.13

The bush continued to be a useful resource both for old hands and new settlers. There are reports of good hunting for wild pigs, pheasants and quail.14 New settlers will have continued to look for bush work. However, less bush was now being felled on contract, though from 1891 prices were generally much higher than in the 1880s. Many newcomers will have been helped by the sawmills providing wage labour and taking standing timber in return for royalties. The timber industry boomed throughout the decade. The Waimate Riding's population surged from 2417 to 3852 between the 1891 and 1896 censuses. Large quantities of timber went into housing the many new settlers, upgrading the homes and farm buildings of the earlier settlers as they prospered in the dairying boom, and building the new township of Kaponga.

Let us survey the main milling enterprises. News of the damage caused by the 1894 and 1897 fires shows that for years Melville had his tramways page 109 snaking around the back reaches of the farms near the township, taking settlers' trees while helping meet their demand for timber. But the search for good stretches of millable timber took other entrepreneurs further back to the margins of settlement. After reaching the fringes of Kaponga township in the late 1880s, pioneer miller Robert Palmer made a six-mile leap to the west to fine stands of millable timber on Auroa and Oeo roads. He continued to supply the Kaponga timber market and he and his men maintained strong links with the district. Converging roads enabled his mill also to serve a wide district of south-west Taranaki, between the mountain and the sea. The mill was destroyed by fire in February 1896 but reopened the following May.15 In the winter of 1898 Walter Clement and H. Parkes opened a sawmill on upper Rowan Road, just south of Opunake Road, and it was soon a flourishing concern.16