Story: Country towns

Most of New Zealand’s country towns started life as service centres for farming areas. They offered stores, post offices, stock and station agents, schools and banks – and, later, pubs, sports grounds, clubs and cinemas. Today, country towns attract visitors who want to enjoy the peace and a sense of nostalgia for ‘old New Zealand’.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Āpiti post office

Story summary

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Country towns offer services for the farms around them. Some are tiny – just a church, a store, a pub, a petrol station and a hall. Others are large, but are still closely linked to the farming area.

Origins of towns

In many places, people settled on farmland before a town developed. Other towns were planned by the government or private companies. Some grew where people had to wait for a ferry, or stop overnight on a trip.

Other towns began life because of mining, ports, military bases or sawmills, and later came to serve the country around them.


Most small towns started out with a country store, which sold goods that farmers could not produce, such as sugar, salt, tea and clothes. Later businesses included:

  • post offices
  • stock and station agents, which sold farming supplies
  • banks
  • saleyards where farm animals were sold
  • blacksmiths
  • dairy factories.

Schools and churches usually opened early on. Hotels became centres for social life, and richer towns built a town hall. Most places set aside land for a park, where people could play rugby or cricket.


Towns often developed shops and businesses for local townspeople, including hairdressers, jewellers and stationers. Some set up factories such as breweries or soft-drink companies. Towns of more than 1,000 people could have their own council and mayor.


As cars became more common, people could travel more easily to larger towns or cities. Larger towns grew, while smaller ones shrank. Cinemas opened, and district high schools became important.

Farming couples often retired to country towns, but many young adults left to work in the city.


From the 1960s life got tougher in rural areas. The population of country towns fell. Shops, banks, post offices and dairy factories closed down, and people moved to the city.

Lifestyle and tourism

Later, city people moved to country towns for the cheaper housing and friendly lifestyle. Tourists visited country towns – Ohakune for skiing, Kaikōura for whale watching, and Martinborough for vineyards. Some towns built huge sculptures to appeal to tourists – a giant kiwifruit in Te Puke, a huge carrot in Ohakune, and a soft-drink bottle in Paeroa.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Country towns', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 November 2008