Even more than sports grounds, the local country hall greatly facilitated organised recreation in small-town and rural New Zealand. In a few places halls were built in the late 19th century; in other areas school buildings, or military drill halls (as at Culverden and Marton), were used. In some communities lodges such as the Masons and the Oddfellows had put up buildings for their own gatherings. Sometimes these were more widely used, or sold to the local council for public use – as with the Oddfellows Hall in Waipawa in 1910.
Tauwhare got a new hall in 1903 when part of the local cheese factory was moved onto the new site. Fifty couples at the opening ball were said to be tantalised by the lingering smell of cheese.
However, in most places halls were built new. There was a burst of building from 1900 to 1930, then again in the 1950s when halls erected as war memorials received a government subsidy. Building a hall was as much a social event as a chore. It often began with fundraising, which might involve barn dances or a ‘queen carnival’ in which young women headed teams that competed to raise the most money. Working bees were usually followed by beers and good conversation.
In Māori communities, the meeting house and whare kai (eating hall) often served similar functions, although Māori also attended functions at local halls.
Halls hosted cultural activities such as concerts, lectures, magic-lantern shows, local dramatic societies or visiting drama troupes. Debating societies or book clubs sometimes used halls, and a few communities had a separate library.
Halls also hosted farewell functions and welcomes, such as the return of soldiers after the world wars, featuring musical items and a ‘legendary supper’. In the early 1900s there was a fashion for band rotundas where brass bands played on Sunday afternoons.
Youth and women’s groups
Youth groups, such as Cubs and Scouts, usually met at local halls. Women’s groups were the greatest users. The most common were the Women’s Institutes (after 1952 renamed Country Women’s Institutes, CWI), and the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union (WDFU, after 1946 the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, WDFF).
These groups were founded in the 1920s, when women had increased leisure time because of farm mechanisation and smaller families. The two organisations started out with different constituencies – the WDFU catered for wives of landowners, and the Women’s Institutes for all rural women, including Māori – but they had common programmes. They offered cultural activities such as book clubs, classes in subjects like dressmaking or floral art, and arts-and-crafts competitions. Meetings always finished with a large afternoon tea.
The Red Cross and the Plunket Society met at halls. Women also organised regular events such as horticultural shows. At Kaponga a horticultural show began in 1899 in association with the Caledonian Society’s baby show. By 1910 there were 954 entries, with men dominating the garden produce and fruit competition, and women the floral arrangements and preserves.
Halls were often used for card evenings, especially euchre games. From the 1910s to the 1950s, small towns without cinemas showed ‘flicks’ in the hall on Friday or Saturday nights.
Like hot cakes
On one occasion euchre in the Morven hall drew so many participants that there wasn’t enough supper. Women rushed home to bake while the cards proceeded, then drove back to the hall with the car windows open to cool the sponge cakes.
The Saturday night dance was the best known use of country halls from the 1920s to 1970s. In many communities dances were held weekly. Most people from the farms around attended. There was dancing from about 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., with supper at 11.30. Women were often let in free if they provided ‘a plate’ (of food). With no alcohol allowed in the hall, young men often disappeared between dances to drink beer outside or in their cars.
Sometimes more formal balls were held, often sponsored by the local racing or hunt club. The hall was decorated with foliage, people dressed up (women in long frocks and gloves), and the dancing might go on all night. Occasionally there were special evenings such as fancy-dress or masquerade balls, and mock debutante balls with participants cross-dressing.
On occasion people hired the hall for private parties – 21st birthdays or engagement parties – although these were also held in woolsheds on neighbouring farms.