A new life developed in some of New Zealand’s country towns when they began to offer enjoyments to city people, who were both numerous and comparatively wealthy. Some places such as Rangiora, in commuting distance of Christchurch, or Featherston, a train journey from Wellington, were able to offer a country lifestyle for city folk. Towns such as Amberley offered retirement homes. The sell was that the small country town provided community and neighbourliness to people tired of the anonymity and dangers of the city.
Southland promoted its rural towns as ‘offering a lifestyle alternative to city living … where it is the norm to know your neighbours’. 1 Ironically this neighbourliness and sense of community was exactly what critics of the country town had rejected a generation before. Now it attracted people who looked nostalgically at the small town, even if they also wanted cafés serving caffè latte.
Other country towns reinvented themselves as major tourist centres. Methven and Ohakune provided for skiers, Kaikōura attracted whale-watchers, and Geraldine exploited the fact that over 100 buses paused there daily for food and a toilet stop en route from Christchurch to Aoraki/Mt Cook. Eating houses, craft shops and tourist ventures sprouted on these towns’ main streets and their populations grew. Some rural areas began producing wine, and the nearby towns, such as Martinborough or Matakana, boomed.
Even towns off the beaten track and without such advantages learnt to appeal to the urban consumer. Āpiti in Manawatū was once noted for its two dairy factories. In the 2000s it was offering a country lodge, a museum and a hill-country pub.
Of course towns that were far from cities or the tourist trail did not find this transition easy, and continued to lose population. Some newcomers who did settle there were not urban lifestylers, but low-income people hoping that they could afford a house or make their dollars go further.
Some towns deliberately set out to give themselves a new identity. Often, one individual would excite the local community with a slightly bizarre idea which could put their town on the map, and before long the vision became a reality.
In Kaiwaka the locals created ‘the little town of lights,’ with every major shop and facility having a sign made of light bulbs. Bulls decided to exploit its name with endless punning signs such as ‘veget-a-bull’. Ranfurly, in Central Otago, was in deep depression in 1999, with 13 empty shops and about 40 houses for sale. By 2008 the place was inviting jaded urbanites to step back in time to the 1930s in this ‘rural art deco oasis’. The centennial milk bar had become an art deco museum, attracting 20,000 visitors in two years. Many places exploited the desire for a nostalgic trip to ‘old New Zealand’. Katikati in the 1980s had 32 empty shops, and then a bypass took visitors away. So the locals decided to attract them back with a series of murals about the town’s unique history.
Festivals have been another boon to country towns – including Taihape’s gumboot festival, Carterton’s daffodil festival, and Hokitika’s wild foods festival.
Get in behind!
The creation of a country-town icon is not always plain sailing. Hunterville decided to promote itself with a statue of a huntaway sheep dog. A Marton sculptor provided one in bronze, but local farmers considered it looked like ‘a curly-coated retriever’. Another dog was ordered. But when it was not placed where the retailers wanted, they formed a ‘sheep committee’, and now a well-endowed ram with two ewes graces the main street.
Some towns erected huge fibreglass icons that proclaimed the world significance of their town, following the lead of a giant pineapple in Queensland. Te Puke became the world’s kiwifruit capital with a giant kiwifruit. Ohakune had a 9-metre carrot, Clinton had Clydesdale horses, and Riverton a pāua (shellfish). Neighbouring Gore, which already had a large Romney sheep and claimed to be New Zealand’s ‘country music capital’, added a large brown trout. Further north Rakaia acquired a salmon, Taupō a rainbow trout, Te Kūiti a shearer, and Paeroa a very large Lemon and Paeroa soft-drink bottle.
No-one pretended that these icons were a long-term solution for New Zealand’s country towns. But they provided a light-hearted sense of identity. They also showed that the country town was refocusing itself, away from the farmers who had first provided the reason for its existence and towards the urban consumers and foreign tourists who were a major source of employment and income in the early 2000s.