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

The Sawmills

The Sawmills

We have seen that the district's timber industry boomed throughout the 1890s. It must have provided steady work for several dozen Kaponga men and the dispersal of its output would have engaged a number more. When Robert Palmer shifted his sawmill in 1892 he played his part in carrying Kaponga's influence to the west, in this case as far as Oeo Road. Kaponga families must have been strongly represented in his workforce over the following years and much of his output would have been distributed around Kaponga, where he advertised a local agent. ‘Our J.K. Casual’ provided a description of the mill in the Star of 29 June 1892. After finding the road out from Opunake in an atrocious condition he was expecting ‘a rough breaking down plant and rough sawn timber’. Instead he found ‘altogether a well laid out mill’, with two engines making 20 horsepower and excellent arrangements for receiving and breaking down the logs, almost all of it under cover. And things went far beyond rough-sawn timber:

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There is planing, and tongue and grooving, rusticating, match-lining, and I believe moulding machinery … A smart man too in charge. Had long and varied experience, dating from the South Island many years ago, working up to Wellington, then Wanganui with a term at the big Sash and Door and Woodware Factory.

In mid-1897 Robert Palmer leased his Manaia Road farm and left sawmilling to buy Stratford's Commercial Hotel. ‘Our Own’ treated this as important local news, writing of Palmer's ‘large circle of friends here’ and telling of the resounding farewell social given to him in the town hall.32

Only nine days earlier the Commercial Hotel had provided a farewell banquet for Kaponga's local sawmiller, Charles Melville, who was moving to mill in Dannevirke. Melville had helped handsaw the timber for Kaponga's first houses, had felled some township roads for the Road Board in 1887, and had milled around the township right through the building boom of the 1890s, among other contracts supplying the timber for the town hall. At its height his business employed at least 20 men and must have been a considerable concern with its cottages, cookhouse and system of tramlines.33 It is almost certainly Melville's mill that was described in storekeeper Frank Canning's Star adverts of April 1895. Canning, who also operated as a land agent, noted that he had ‘A few good farms near Kaponga’ and then continued:

A good sawmill and first-class plant—One planing T and G, &c. machine by Bawl, 22 bullocks, bows, yokes, &c., &c., 2 waggons, 5 draught horses, harness complete, 2 engines, 1 12 and 1 14 horse power in good order, trams, jacks, winches, trucks and everything required to complete a first-class plant.

Melville was a keen cricketer and ‘Our Own’ (22/11/93) told how his men made up time during the week so that many of them could play for the Kaponga club on Saturday afternoons. His move from Kaponga was probably forced by the timber cutting out. The gap he left was filled the following year by the opening of Clement and Parkes' ‘Rowan Road Steam Saw and Planing Mills’. They were soon advertising that they could deliver to any part of the district and in any quantity ‘dressed and ordinary building timber, including rusticated boards, flooring, match lining, moulding, etc’.34