One of the earliest facilities in country towns was the school. School grounds were normally set aside in the surveyors’ plans, and a school usually opened within the first years of settlement. In Dannevirke the schoolhouse was opened when the town had no more than a general store and 20 roughly built houses.
The school committee was often the first community leadership group. School buildings became a useful venue for community activities and meetings.
The other centre of social life in the early country town was the church. As there was no single established church, and many non-conformist sects, there were often several church buildings – Rongotea in the Manawatū, not a big place, had six. Weekly services were followed by a session outside the church when local gossip and family news were exchanged.
It was usually some time before a township had a doctor in residence – more often, a doctor would visit on market day. But as the population grew, doctors arrived, and a small country hospital might eventually be set up.
Lawyers too would set up shop. By the 1920s and 1930s in Oxford, Canterbury, one-seventh of the workforce were professional people – teachers, clergy, doctors, lawyers and bankers. Towns that were lucky and large enough also had a newspaper editor.
From the beginning, farmers and their families joined the locals in leisure activities. Hotels were established quickly to provide accommodation for visitors, and also became social centres for the community – drinking establishments for the men of the surrounding districts, and places where club meetings or events such as farewell banquets could be held.
Prosperous towns were able to raise funds for a town hall. Sefton in Canterbury opened one in 1879 at a cost of £250. It seated 300 people. Other places, such as Culverden, had drill halls built by volunteers, which were used by the wider community. Halls offered the chance of balls and dances, card evenings, gatherings for clubs, and public meetings.
Lodges were common at the start of the 20th century. They too sometimes built halls, and offered the community help in tough times and regular gatherings.
Pomp and ceremony
The opening of a new public building or amenity was usually an occasion when the town made a great fuss and exuded pride. When the small Manawatū township of Āpiti opened a bridge across the Ōroua River on the main route to Feilding in 1896, 400 people turned out to hear Premier Richard Seddon, followed by a banquet with music from the Āpiti brass band.
Other common public buildings included public libraries, mechanics’ institutes and working men’s clubs. The last two were seen as alternatives to the pub.
Most country towns set aside land for a domain or playground – most often initially used for rugby in winter and cricket in summer. The teams helped create loyalty to the township. From the end of the 19th century most country towns had a regular weekly half-day holiday, usually Wednesday or Saturday, which encouraged both players and spectators. Later, larger towns had more specialised grounds, such as tennis courts, bowling greens, croquet lawns and, from the 1920s, golf clubs. A swimming pool was a rarer luxury. Larger towns set aside grounds for horse races and for the annual summer A & P show.