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

Kaponga in South Taranaki

Kaponga in South Taranaki

The rise of the township led the settlers to rethink their mental maps of their world. From a vague section of a generalised ‘Kaupokonui bush’ had emerged a fairly clearly defined district, focused on the new township. This new ‘identity’ had to work out appropriate relationships with neighbouring districts and townships. Its settlers consulted vigorously among themselves about shaping local government to better serve their interests. Apart from page 126 the northerns Stratford County strip, the district's administration was divided between the Hawera County Council and the Waimate Road Board. Various proposals to reshape these arrangements met with no success in the 1890s. There were, for example, moves in 1892 for a new ‘Egmont County’ largely covering the Waimate Road District; petitions and counter-petitions in 1894 on scrapping the Road Board (as all others in the county had been); and bush settler moves in 1895 for a new Kaupokonui Road District carved out of the Waimate Road District. We will not follow all these political convolutions and intricate public debates, but extract from them the main public attitudes that emerged, attitudes important not only to local government but also in shaping regional economic, social, recreational religious and educational arrangements.

Kaponga settlers readily accepted Hawera's leadership as south Taranaki's ‘capital’. This was greatly helped by their high regard for its newspaper, the Hawera Star, a worthy ‘county’ newspaper, aware of their interests and problems and judicious in its editorial judgments. Kaponga (with all south Taranaki) took holidays for Hawera's great public events, such as its prestigious Egmont A & P Show. They also increasingly looked eastwards o the ‘railway’ towns of Stratford and Eltham for facilities, events and leadership. On the other hand there was recurrent friction between Kaponga and the open-country settlers to their south, whose interests were focused by Manaia, and a rejection of leadership from Opunake in the west. The bush/open-country friction on roading persisted from the 1880s. The open-country settlers felt that while they had overpaid for their land and were rated on excessive valuations, the bush settlers had got their land cheaply and their rating valuations were not increasing fast enough as they improved their sections. So open-country settlers sought rates no higher than was needed to keep their roads in order. If bush settlers wanted better roads, let them borrow. The bush settlers felt that they had not had a fair share of the initial government spending on roads, and suspected the board of continually favouring the open country. These suspicions were fanned when bush districts rates were diverted to repair the Main South Road after the 1893 Easter storm. Seeking to allay these suspicions County Council members met with the Kaponga settlers on Saturday, 5 May 1894. They freely admitted that whereas ‘according to ratable value the open was entitled to £4, as against £3 for the bush, for the last two years the open had received £4 for every £1 the bush had had’.

The council's chairman explained why this had been done. After the floods they had called meetings of settlers to ask for means to repair the damage, but the settlers would do nothing until they knew the cost. Th council had a legal obligation to keep this main road open. As neither loan money nor land revenue could be shifted about it had no option but to use rates money, irrespective of where it came from. This pen approach, admitting to injustice enforced by necessity, seems to have had some effect. Frank Canning, Kaponga's storekeeper, moved a motion of thanks, pointing page 127 out that an accident arising from not attending to repairs might have cost council damages amounting to several years' rates. Sawmiller Robert Palmer seconded the motion. But suspicions continued. Over the 1895 winter a campaign was run in the bush for a new road district embracing the bush, and received strong support in Kaponga. Deciding on the southern boundary was difficult as the bush did not want to take on three east-west roads (Skeet, Eltham and Opunake) to the open country's one. Nothing came of this agitation.

Occasionally the discussions saw Opunake proposed as Kaponga's ounty town, an idea that no one in Kaponga seemed to find acceptable. Views attributed by a Star correspondent to Riverlea farmer George Hemingway* may have had considerable support. In some rather unguarded remarks at a meeting in Awatuna he was reported as saying:

… it would be madness on our part to ally ourselves with any portion of a poverty-stricken county like Taranaki; that if we knew as much as he did of the poor quality of the land and the class of people who lived in Parihaka riding, we would never dream of such a thing. On the other hand, he depicted the advantages of an alliance with a rich county like Hawera52

It seems that some Kaponga settlers on the one hand resented being ‘poor relations’ in respect to the Manaia district, but on the other looked down on the settlers on the poorer lands to their west as their own ‘poor relations’.