Although country towns initially served the surrounding farm community, they normally developed a degree of independence.
Specialised shops emerged which served the townsfolk rather than the rural dwellers. At first there were shops such as bakers, butchers, fruiterers and greengrocers, who sold items which the farming community would have provided for themselves. The first butchers were sometimes men who had learnt their skills on the farm.
It took some time for small towns to develop individuality. In 1912 the Wellington Evening Post remarked: ‘The machine-made houses, garishly painted, the flaring signs, the verandahs, the shops are common to nearly all small towns. There is not time for architecture in the first ten years of a town’s existence … There is really not much to detain a traveller in the average back-blocks town. There is too much of a family likeness about them.’ 1
The next stage was the arrival of shops selling fashionable items, or services such as hairdressers, dressmakers and tailors, jewellers, cabinetmakers and stationers. Within 20 years of its founding Kaponga had all of these. It also possessed a coffee palace.
A third stage in some places was the emergence of industries which primarily served a more distant market, provincial or even national, rather than providing for locals or neighbouring farmers. These businesses could include breweries, soft-drink makers or potteries. At this point the settlement was becoming more than a country town.
In the mid-19th century road boards were set up. Some larger places also had a court for hearing local cases. From 1876 county councils were established, and the county town received a boost of visitors and officials. Often meetings of the county council, the road board and the local court were held on the same day, and farmers took the opportunity to discuss issues such as the latest scab ordinance or a boundary dispute.
Under 1881 legislation, any place with more than 50 residences could establish a town board if two-thirds of the residents supported it. The board would deal with matters like sanitation, wandering stock, roading or lighting. A crisis commonly sparked the formation of a board. In Kaponga’s case, it followed a typhoid outbreak in 1905, which led to the demand for a drainage system.
After a board was set up and the population reached 500, a community could become a legally constituted town district independent of the county. If it grew to 1,000, then full municipal powers could be obtained with a council presided over by a mayor. Places such as Dannevirke, Te Awamutu and Masterton achieved this before the First World War. This political independence represented a status that went beyond the centre’s initial function serving the farming community. It signalled a growing differentiation between town and country.