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

Kaponga in South Taranaki

Kaponga in South Taranaki

The census of 15 October 1916, taken just after the end of our period, made special efforts to assign the population to localities, classified as the four main metropolitan ones, the nine more important secondary ones, nearly 80 other boroughs, 65 town districts and many hundreds of small centres. For the first time we are able to see what centres South Taranaki's people considered they belonged to—very useful information when we come to consider Kaponga's immediate district. First, though, we must consider how South Taranaki was being shaped. The three main players competing to draw the regional boundaries (with their 1916 populations) were the boroughs of Hawera (3375), Stratford (2713) and Eltham (1711). Below these were the town districts of Manaia (606), Opunake (459) and Kaponga (397).

At this time town districts of over 500 population could become independent of their county and control the whole of their revenue, and this page 218 Manaia had done. Kaponga and Opunake remained subordinate to their counties in various matters. Over these years Kaponga settlers were repeatedly forced to consider what shapes the maps of their regional world should take. A ‘subordinate’ town district was not in a strong position, so it was generally others who raised the issues, mooting new counties, proposing alternative routes for the Opunake branch railway, and presenting plans for various parish, sporting and other boundaries. In response Kaponga residents deliberated on where their own best interests lay and used whatever influence they had on the outcomes. We will not follow these intricate debates but endeavour to clarify the broad issues involved.

The new century began with Opunake campaigning for a new county carved from the broad reaches of the Hawera and Taranaki counties. In 1905 a strong agitation began to raise the Waimate Road Board district to county status, with Manaia as its county town. Eltham countered by moving to protect its interest in the country to its west along Eltham Road. These stirrings led first to Opunake's new Egmont County in 1902, then Eltham County in 1906 and Waimate West County in 1908. Kaponga had little interest in Egmont County which was sponsored partly to strengthen Opunake's voice in contending for its harbour and branch railway. Kaponga's dairy factory used New Plymouth as its port, so the Settlers' Association bluntly told the Opunake Chamber of Commerce in May 1901 that it did not want to be in the proposed Opunake harbour district. As for the railway, Opunake had little interest in Kaponga's concern for the route to pass through or near their town.

Kaponga was much more involved when early in June 1905 Eltham and Manaia began campaigning for their new counties. The Waimate County proposals were vigorously debated at a meeting in Kaponga on 9 June. The Kaponga settlers indicated that the kind of Waimate county that would interest them was one that included Mangatoki and went right up to the mountain reserve (i.e. taking back a little corner from Stratford County). This would give a good area of country to support Eltham Road, which Kaponga used ‘for their thousands of cattle monthly and their tons of butter’, and it should have a central county town, which for the area being proposed would ideally be Kaponga. Probably most present agreed with Maurice Fitzgerald's fervent statement that ‘they were not going to crawl to Manaia’. These Kaponga pipe dreams faded as the big elephants of Manaia and Eltham began trampling the ground between them. The debate showed that the Waimate Road Board's northern reaches did not wish to be in Manaia's new county, and this put the proposition on hold for a time. Many Kaponga settlers signed a petition against the formation of both the proposed new counties, but there was no doubt that Kaponga's main sympathies had long since shifted from Manaia to Eltham.28 The Eltham ‘Our Own’ (5/11/06) told how the success of the Eltham County Bill and the rebuff to Manaia were explained by their own Hon Walter Carncross, Legislative Councillor and proprietor of the Eltham Argus:

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… all the details and plans of the area proposed for inclusion in the new county had been placed in such splendid order … that the Chairman of the Bills Committee expressed his gratification …. The bill had passed through on its merits …. In dealing with the Waimate County Bill, in which some of the territory overlapped a portion of that contained in the Eltham County Bill, the Bills Committee came to the conclusion that those interested in the Waimate Bill had selected a small area of very choice land, well roaded, and with no back country to it, out of which they wished to form a new county. The Committee considered that the Waimate people were acting in a selfish manner, and not in the best interests of the whole district.

For a time Eltham County successfully opposed Manaia's ‘selfish’ new county becasue it would have left them with grievances, but the measure proceeded when these differences were ironed out in July 1908. Earlier the strength of feelings involved became evident when William Swadling lost his bid for a Hawera County Council seat in the November 1905 biennial election, a campaign being directed against him for his opposition to the Waimate county.29 He and Maurice Fitzgerald were elected unopposed as the Eltham County Council's first two Kaponga Riding members. These changes left the Kaponga settlers straddled across the three counties of Eltham, Stratford and Waimate West. But fortunately they were linked in Eltham County with Mangatoki, Riverlea and Awatuna East, with whom they shared their interest in the vital arterial Eltham Road.

All the South Taranaki local bodies supported a branch railway to Opunake to relieve their arterial roads of the heavy drubbing they were taking. But there were strong differences regarding the route. Hawera, Eltham and Stratford all wanted to be near the junction, and various railway leagues were formed to push local cases. Kaponga settlers consistently favoured the Stratford-Opunake route as the one that would bring the line closest to them.30 An unanswerable case for the route to leave the main line near Te Roti had been finalised by the Public Works engineers in July 1907 and was made public in September 1908.31 This choice was reaffirmed by the Western Taranaki Railway Commission of 1912, but to please everyone it recommended that the line encircle the mountain by linking Opunake with New Plymouth via Okato, and include a branch line from Kapuni to Kaponga, eventually to be extended to both Stratford and Manaia.32 These grandiose extras never saw the light of day, but after years of agitation the first sod of the Te Roti-Opunake line was cut in May 1914.