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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)



The entrance to a town is one of those things that the traveller notes first and often remembers most, after other impressions have become faint and blurred and merged with a hundred memories. Our provincial towns and townships have, to a large extent, lost individuality. One little market place or producing centre has its local Babbitry and Main Street, its Rotarians, its Chamber of Commerce and its Progress League, its golf links and town hall and mayor, just like the other fellows along the line. Quick travel, the radio, tinned music and American uplift, have standardised the whole boiling of them. The farm is no refuge, neither is the lock-up. But there is one characteristic of the provincial town or townlet that often retains some individual touch, and that is its entrance. The approaches to it remain different. Man's reading hand and his architecture modify, spoil or improve the landscape.

This is all by way of preface to my cursory review of some memories and impressions. Here are two contrasts in town approaches. You enter Putaruru between two churches, each perched on its hill cutting. Fifty miles away you enter the township of Kihikihi between two hotels, face to face at the elbow of the main road. The one seems to set out to respectable-ize the town to the traveller's eye at the start; the clergy's certificate of character.

At first acquaintance Kihikihi—you have its life here and there as on the West Coast—does not trouble about testimonials; it is content to remain what it was fifty, sixty, seventy years ago.

My selection of township types is merely at random; yet when I come to think of it one is a fair working example of a comparatively modern brisk little business town; the other an easy-going old-timer, comfortably farming away, and rather given to retrospective satisfaction with its place in the making of New Zealand history. It is not exactly a has-been; but it has a past, even a lively and a bloody past, the interest of which I can supplement with the remark that it has also a gloriously boozy past.

Who should know if not I? For I knew the place when the Native Land Court era was in flower, the era of free trade in Maori lands, the like of which we shall not see again. My home was not far away; “my father was a farmer upon the Maori border”—to adapt a line of Burns, and Kihikihi was our nearest township.

The military story of Kihikihi (the name means cicada, one of those ono-matopoetic names so numerous in the Maori tongue) goes back to the war of 1863–64, when all this Waikato country passed to the strong hand of the pakeha. There is no need to go into all that; we of the elder generation know it and its repercussions only too well.

But one recalls the fact that this was Rewi Maniapoto's home, and the place of his council meetings; his headquarters and the muster-place of his tribe. That fact made it important in the military and political sense; important, too, was the fact that it was the only part of the huge Ngati-Maniapoto territory which was confiscated by the Government in revenge for the temerity of the Maori King's party in demanding local-self government. However, we won't go into that. Waikato unhappily lost all their land; and they remained as refugees in Ngati-Maniapoto territory for a-quarter of a century after the war.

Kihikihi, first a strong place of the Maori, then a British watch-tower of the frontier, was a military post well into the Eighties. In my boyhood's memories the rifle and the blockhouse and redoubt are the foremost features. All the frontier, on our pakeha side of the Puniu River, was studded with fortified places, either of earthwork or of timber stockades and those topheavy-looking loopholed blockhouses which stood on hills and knolls all the way round from Cambridge and the Pukekura hills to Orakau and Kihikihi and on to Alexandra.

But, except for the busy camps, the drilling of Armed Constabulary and the Waikato Cavalry troops, and the occasional shooting or tomahawking affair on the border, farming progress was little disturbed.