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

Kaponga's District

Kaponga's District

In introducing its long list of small centres with at least 100 inhabitants the 1916 census report (p. 20) commented that:

In a country such as New Zealand, which is still largely in the development stage, villages and townships occupy a comparatively much more important position than is the case in older countries.

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This assigning of the population to localities gives us a clear picture of Kaponga and its circle of little satellite ‘villages’. With a population of 397 in the town district and a further 304 in its vicinity, Kaponga was quite a strong little rural centre. Besides these 700 perhaps as many again in the satellite villages looked to Kaponga for many of their needs. The villages to the north and west—Rowan, Makaka, Riverlea and Awatuna East—were particularly dependent on Kaponga. Dawson Falls Mountain House also drew considerable support from Kaponga, its closest significant centre, though the typhoid scare did temporary damage to the link. To the south Kaponga vied with Manaia for the attention of Kapuni and to the north-east there was competition from Stratford for Mahoe. Rather than detail the histories of these villages as they acquired their own group of facilities— such as school, dairy factory, store, post office, hall—we look briefly at little Rowan, which was particularly dependent on Kaponga. We then go to all the villages for a smorgasbord of interactions with Kaponga township down the years, and follow this with glimpses of Kaponga's continued involvement with Egmont and the Mountain House. We conclude by discussing some ways in which the surrounding countryside was changing over these years.

While deeply involved with Kaponga, Rowan folk worked for an identity of their own. In the 21 November 1896 Star a local settler offered to be a correspondent, remarking that ‘a number of your subscribers in this part has expressed a desire that the doings, both social and political, that occur here should be recorded in your valuable paper’. He then gave a general impression of the settlement:

A few years ago our district was altogether unknown, but today, we have almost every convenience—post office, store, dairy factory, school, and a good metalled road. We have also a flourishing mutual improvement class, and in connection with the class, we held a very successful concert last Friday. A splendid programme of 24 items was provided…

Probably this concert owed something to Kaponga support. Moving on to 1913 we have several explicit mentions of Kaponga input to Rowan events. Friday evening, 11 March, saw an opening ball in the new Rowan hall, erected in 11 days by Kaponga carpenters ‘Messrs Briggs, Melville and Son’, helped by local settlers. Rowan's ‘Our Own’ reported a strong Kaponga input into the occasion:

… as free brakes were run by Mr Alf. King and Mr B. Williams, the Kaponga residents turned out in full force. Dancing commenced shortly after 8 p.m., and eighty graced the floor, dancing to splendid music supplied by the Kaponga Elite Orchestra, composed of five instruments…. Mr Hill publicly thanked … the business people of Kaponga and surrounding district for their financial support, the donations amounting to something over £50.

This was followed shortly by the seventh annual meeting of the Rowan page 221 Sports Club, with a record attendance of ‘residents and visitors from the surrounding districts' and ‘a fine programme was rendered by the Kaponga Brass Band throughout the day’. The dance in the evening was again to music supplied by the Kaponga Elite Orchestra.33 For a ‘long night dance’ held in the hall the following June a coach was run from Kaponga to Rowan. The Kaponga orchestra again supplied the music for a crowded fancy dress ball in September. Visitors from neighbouring settlements, including Kaponga, arrived on a drag supplied by Kaponga contractor Alfred King and on the Eltham-Opunake Carrying Co's motor lorry.34 These socials were aimed at raising funds to pay off the new hall. Clearly a good deal of this money came from Kaponga. The converse input of Rowan settlers into the political, social, sporting and church life of Kaponga is too complex to chronicle.

We next cast our net widely over the years for interactions with all the villages. When in June 1902 the Kaponga Social and Literary Club established a ping pong group they first tried their wings by travelling for a friendly match with the Rowan club, who shortly afterwards returned the visit.35 The arrival of the two doctors in Kaponga in 1903 led to joint campaigns by them and the villages for telegraph connections with Kaponga, to make medical help quickly available in emergencies. On 1 August 1906 a meeting called in Kaponga by William Swadling and Maurice Fitzgerald to consider the proposed Waimate North county was poorly attended. They had made the mistake of overlooking a great counter-attraction at Kapuni—a Farmers' Union social. The Awatuna East dairy factory's young men workers organised a successful dance on 25 January 1907. Visitors ‘from all parts’ must have included a good Kaponga contingent. At Kapuni's first annual sports meeting in March 1908 several Kaponga residents were prominent among the competitors.36 The Kaponga Brass Band's ambitious tour of the district over the 1908 winter was heralded thus by ‘Our Own’ (22/6/08):

It is the intention of the band to give Sunday concerts in different parts of the district, starting next Sunday with Riverlea, the following Sunday Rowan, and soon including the following townships in its tour: Mahoe, Mangatoki, Kapuni and Awatuna.

Reports from village ‘Our Owns’ over the next three months show that this plan, with the addition of Auroa, was successfully completed. A Rowan school concert on 8 September 1911 was enriched by performances by visiting Kaponga and Mangatoki school children. A great patriotic social ‘to help the war fund’ packed Riverlea hall on 19 August 1914. The Kaponga Brass Band provided patriotic tunes, leading Kaponga settlers unable to attend telegraphed apologies, and Kaponga's Patriotic Fund gained £26.

Kaponga continued its close links with the south of what became in 1900 the Egmont National Park. Year by year saw further extensions and improvements at Dawson Falls Mountain House, upgrading of the access page 222 road, and growing numbers of visitors. The house had 1084 visitors in the 1902–03 season; by the 1910s the annual numbers had grown to over 3000.37 To show how this thriving resort interacted with Kaponga we will look at some aspects of three seasons—those of 1904–05, 1909–10 and 1911–12.

On his election as chairman of the South Egmont Committee on 19 October 1904 F.W. Wilkie told the committee that he had recently been up to the house and that he believed improvements made to the road would allow light vehicles to get within a mile of it by Christmas. It was decided to open the house for the season on 1 November, with W.H. St Clair as manager. St Clair had been a photographer at Kapuni before first taking charge at Dawson Falls the previous season.38 By June 1905 he had bought a house in Kaponga to live in over the closed winter season. Noting the growing popularity of the mountain the Hawera Chamber of Commerce began successful negotiations in November 1904 for a local firm to run a weekly coach service to Dawson Falls. The Star had a full account of the inaugural run by two coaches on 16 December, with a party of 28, ‘fully representative of the commercial interests of the district’. They left Hawera with bugle blowing; we pick them up as they approach Kaponga:

Along Palmer Road there is a fine stretch of ‘God's own country’. On clear days with snow capped Egmont standing majestically in the background the scene is delightful, while the well formed road admits of fast travelling. As progress was made the mountain assumed different shapes, and showed altered forms…. at 5 minutes past 12, after travelling only 2 hours 45 minutes, including the numerous stoppages, the party arrived at Kaponga. Here a halt was called and the horses were led to the stables. Dinner was had at the Coffee Palace, and at the conclusion Mr Wilkie took the opportunity to thank the Hawera Chamber of Commerce for the action it had taken in connection with the coach service … After dinner, time dragged somewhat until the member for the district started a standing jump competition. The athletes of the crowd soon got to work, and the footpaths were scored with marks denoting the distance of each leap. While the excitement was high a coach containing some cricketers happened along, one of whom registered 8ft 2in as his effort, and the others then put on their coats. There was another line up for more photographs, the party by this time being fairly used to the operation.

At 1.45 Kaponga was left behind, and the distance to the passable road was soon reached. Four miles to walk!

Throughout the season ‘Our Own’ repeatedly reported ‘crowds of people’ passing through to the mountain. A typical report is that of 20 February:

There are still very large parties going every day to the mountain. Today no less than four large drags and a number of traps and horsemen went through coming from all round Opunake, Manaia, Okaiawa and Eltham.

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From time to time the Star printed lists of visitors to Dawson Falls. They consistently show the majority coming from south Taranaki (including a good number from Kaponga), but also significant numbers from all over New Zealand and a sprinkling from overseas. Many of the the 1904–05 season's 2608 visitors will have benefited Kaponga businesses as they passed through. Kaponga's resources were also called on in emergencies. When custodian St Clair fell and broke his leg while putting in a ceiling at the Mountain House in May 1905 it was Dr Noonan who rode up to his aid and arranged for him to be moved down to the Kaponga Coffee Palace. He was carried by stretcher the first part of the way, by roadmen upgrading the track and workers from Clement's sawmill.39

The 1909–10 season had a mountain rescue in which Kaponga was deeply involved. On Thursday afternoon, 24 February 1910, an urgent message sought a Kaponga search party for three climbers lost since the previous evening. The missing were from Opunake: Gordon, a photographer, and two young women named O'Brien and Looney. Dr Maclagan found volunteers and two parties began scouring the mountain before nightfall. However, the successful party was a third one, which set out from the house about 4 o'clock next morning. It consisted of Kaponga farmers Bert Law, Jim Kissick and Jerry Crowley, butcher George Trower, and the recently appointed new manager at Dawson Falls, H. Graham. Bert Law provided an account of the rescue to the Star:

We started up the river in the face of a terrific gale and torrents of rain; the roar of the river and the scream of the wind amongst the rocks only adding to the dreariness of the morning. None but those who faced the mountain that morning could have any idea of the fury of the gale—every gust cut the face like a whip lash, and the rain, driven by the wind, felt like a charge of shot. Some of the very exposed places had to be crossed on our hands and knees, it being impossible to stand up against the storm. I don't think the most sanguine of the party when they felt the fury of the elements had the slightest hope of finding the lost ones alive. We battled along up the river for about a mile and a half, but as the channel was getting narrow, and the water was bringing down great slides of gravel and rocks, we left the river bed and struck out towards the Stratford track. Just about this time Jerry Crowley met with an accident which partly disabled him from climbing. A large rock fell and struck him on the knee and foot. After this we had to travel much slower, but Jerry stuck to it like a Briton. As we got higher up the mountain the storm seemed to increase, and we were just thinking of turning back when we heard faint cooeys in answer to our shouts. This spurred us on, especially as when we got nearer we recognised a woman's voice. We hurried forward and found Mr Gordon lying in a shallow watercourse, where he had crawled for a drink of water. We found the girls a little higher up the ridge, sheltered only by a small rock. So fierce was the gale that when we stood the girls up till they could gain the use of their benumbed limbs, it took three of page 224 us to hold one of them…. Without any delay we started to retrace our steps, Jerry Crowley assisting Miss O'Brien and Mr Gordon, while Jim Kissick and myself carried Miss Looney. It was with great difficulty that we got them down into the bed of the Kapuni, at times having to pass them down from one to the other over steep rocks.

Making very slow progress owing to the weak condition of Miss Looney, at about 6 o'clock they were overtaken by another search party of seven, those who had made it from a party of 14 that had set out to fight their way over Fantham's Peak in the teeth of the gale. These were five Kaponga men—Allan Bates, Len Baigent, Alf King, Fred Guy and Tom Sargeson—and two brothers of Miss Looney. Taking turns to carry Miss Looney on their backs, it took them two more hours to make their way down to the house.

Our final look at Dawson Falls, on St Patrick's Day, Monday, 18 March 1912, shows how with improved access and facilities it was now an appropriate venue for a day's mass outing from Kaponga. The town took a full holiday for a monster picnic at the falls arranged by the Kaponga Oddfellows' Lodge. Competing attractions cut their ‘monster’ back a little, but about 70 members and friends made their way to the Mountain House on two large brakes and numerous other vehicles. A charge of 5s for the day covered drag fare, toll and refreshments. The Kaponga band ‘enlivened the proceedings considerably’ and also contested a nine-aside tug-of-war with the lodge. The lodge won, but was taken down in turn when it challenged all comers. Various other games were played and the visitors also inspected a range of recent improvements. Additions included a fine 20ft by 24ft dining room, a ladies' sitting room, extra bedrooms, a main entrance hall and a 7ft verandah round two sides of the house. Furnishings, manufactured by Kaponga cabinetmaker Edward Dilly, included innovative locally designed dining room chairs ‘revolving, with hollow back, iron braced, nicely upholstered seats in red leather, set on a pillar, supported by four claws’. Spartan days at the resort were now clearly a thing of the past.

On their outing some lodge picnickers may well have mused on how farms and homesteads had changed over the years. The homesteads were reflecting the prosperity of the dairy industry. Each autumn, as milking slackened, many farmers turned their attention to home improvement. Among the maturing shelter trees, orchards and shrubberies it would be seen that rooms and verandahs had been added on, and that shingles had been giving way to roofing iron.40 Across the farms, plantations and hedges were maturing. As early as 1900 this growth had made many trig stations practically useless for sighting to or from, and the surveyors were establishing a series of standard traverses properly marked by iron tubes along some main roads between Hawera and Opunake.41 Discerning eyes would have noted signs of a problem that was to plague the farmers' future—the spread of weeds. Ragwort and Californian thistle were first page 225 reported as worrying the farmers and attracting the attention of noxious weed inspectors in 1905–06. By 1909 ‘acres of ragwort’ were to be seen on stretches of the Rowan and Manaia roads. In April 1910 Eltham county councillors were discussing blackberry as a widespread problem in their county and it was said to be spreading all round the Kaponga district.42 With both progress and problems marking the unfolding years should Kaponga still be looked on as a bush frontier district? As they battled the bush fires that swept large areas in the summers of 1904, 1907, 1908 and 1910 the settlers must have felt they were still close enough to the pioneer frontier. When Prime Minister Ward visited on 27 January 1911 they pointed out to him that they still had a good deal of land covered with timber. The arduous work of stumping and logging up continued both in township and countryside right through our period.43 But the settlers' most constant reminder that they had not yet ‘arrived’ was probably their continuing battle to create durable roads.