By Leon Gray-Lockhart
LIKE many great republics, the Republic of Whangamomona's was born out of a need to claim back power from the greedy clutches of political autocrats hell-bent on steering locals in a direction they didn't want to go.
On November 1, 1989, the tiny town seemingly in the middle of nowhere proved that size doesn't count and that the voices of even a few people still had the right to be heard.
At the time, the powers-that-be felt regional councils ought to be based around watersheds and, because the Whangamomona and Tangarakau Rivers both drained into the Whanganui River, the town and surrounding area were to become part of the Manawatu-Wanganui Region.
That the town and its surrounds could simply be redefined at the whim of Government rulings based around mere land features seemed to lack any consideration for Whangamomona's long-established historical, social and cultural links with the Stratford district and, in a bold albeit, slightly wacky move, locals absolved themselves of all responsibility to New Zealand's central Government and declared the area a Republic. As a natural consequence of the declaration, Whangamomona felt the need to celebrate, and so Whangamomona Republic Day was born.
Although, technically still part of the Stratford district, Republic Day has always been a celebration of all things 'Whanga' pioneers, inventors, creators, innovators, rugged friends and close families.
That Whangamomona still has the feeling of a frontier town is hardly surprising, given its wild history and its location tucked away beneath the feet of forested hills and surrounded by rivers and dirt tracks, still bearing the scars of settlers who desperately tried to make a living off the steep and treacherous land.
The earliest explorations of the area began in the late 1880s, and in 1893 Joshua Morgan was one of its first surveyors.
The first settlers arrived in 1895, and in 1897-98 newly available town sections were quickly taken by eager folk, keen to get started on building new, independent lives.
In the following decade, more facilities were established in the town including a range of stores, a post office, three schools, halls, sports clubs, dairy factories and of course, the pub, and life in the little town grew more upbeat and optimistic.
Feeling more successful, and unhappy with the Stratford County Council's consistently slow response times, the area declared itself an autonomous local authority in 1908.
The eventual coming of the railway, the building of banks and cemeteries, the establishment of more churches and the arrival of resident doctors and subsequent medical care all added to residents' feeling of civic progress in the following years.
However, just as the fledgling town began to build on its growing strengths, Mother Nature and the wider world seemed to conspire against it with World War I decimating the male population from 1914, and a great flood crippling the town's infrastructure and economy in 1924.
Unable to repair or maintain their farms after the flood, farmers simply walked off their land, hoping to find a better life in less remote locations. The value of land plummeted, Whangamomona County Council's debts mounted and the town began its slow decline - school rolls fell, buildings periodically burnt down and gradually, more and more businesses closed.
There were hopeful moments as time went on the main trunk line was finally connected to Whangamomona in 1933, and it became a refreshment stop, while high wool prices in the 1950s brought back some of that early pioneering optimism.
With all their financial troubles, the Whangamomona County Council had little choice but to become part of Stratford County once again in 1955.
However, when electricity arrived in the town in 1959 and the school had a new pool built in 1962, the town again had reasons to feel more positive.
Yet, despite the odd 'up', there were still many 'downs' and eventually the police and the district nurse were withdrawn, the school closed in 1979 and the post office, nine years later.
These days, Whangamomona is a low-key, out-of-the-way kind of place kept alive by the fond memories and family ties of its close-knit, though spread out, farming community and Republic Day is as much a celebration of the town's present success as it is it's past glory.
If there is one thing that the Whangamomona of the past, and the Whangamomona of the present stand for, it is optimism. Its 20 years as a republic stand as a testament to the little town's durability and persistence despite the adversities it has been subjected too.
By Leon Gray-Lockhart