The 1950s were years of agricultural prosperity for New Zealand, and country towns, although not the smaller townships, generally prospered. Some factors might have hurt them – increasing farm mechanisation reduced the need for casual or contract farm labour to be based in towns, and kept farmers on the land consistently. Many branch railway lines closed, affecting some towns – and increased car ownership, and improved country roads, may have encouraged more people to go shopping in the city.
But it appears these effects were minimal. Most farmers and residents of country towns did not visit the city more than once a month, and continued to buy most goods and services locally.
Clipping the hedges
Perhaps the most visible change in country towns between 1930 and 1960 was that householders cut down their hedges and displayed their suburban gardens for all to see. Hedges had served to shield houses from road dust, but after roads were sealed this was no longer necessary.
Country towns also benefited from the post-war baby boom and the 1944 introduction of compulsory education to the age of 15. School buildings and teacher numbers boomed. In addition, government subsidies for community centres as war memorials often led to new public facilities like halls.
In the 1950s and 1960s, voluntary groups such as sports teams flourished in small towns.
From the late 1960s, and especially after Britain joined the European Economic Community, farmers suffered from stagnant prices and tougher trading conditions. Growing numbers of younger people moved to the city for work, and most stayed. As conditions grew harder, married women looked for jobs to supplement the declining family income. They often had to commute or even move to the city.
Country towns saw population numbers falling, and shops boarded up. Post offices and banks closed. Country hospitals and small schools disappeared as services were ‘rationalised’. Most local dairy factories were closed, replaced by large factories serving a huge area. Some shops, such as hardware outlets and stock and station agents, suffered as large nationwide chains set up business in country towns. Television reduced the need for local entertainment, and many sports teams, lodges and clubs fell into abeyance. The only new voluntary group was the Lions which harnessed voluntary activity in many small towns in the three decades after the 1960s.
The years after 1984 when farm subsidies were removed were especially testing for New Zealand’s country towns.