From the time I was five years old I spent my school holidays on a sheep and wheat farm owned by my Uncle Ned and Aunty Mary. The farm was at Swanwater, about 14 miles north of St. Arnaud, in the Wimmera district of Victoria. I kept going there until I was 16 years old and my uncle died. I then spent school holidays at various other uncles’ properties.
As I grew older, and a little bigger, my chores varied.
The very first task was to gather the eggs. After some few years I milked the cows. Then, when harvesting and haymaking came along, I would help build hay ‘stooks’, which were heaps of sheathed hay.
Following that, I would help load the wagon with these sheaths. We would then transport the hay to the farmyard from the paddocks, where we would build haystacks. Enough hay was cut to provide the stock with hay for 18 months to 2 years. We would also cut chaff to provide for the horses.
My next duty was to sew the bags of wheat which had been stripped by the harvester. In the early days, before the introduction of wheat silos, the sewing had to be very tight. We used a fine type of sewing twine with the loops close together and utilised a ‘bag filler’ to get as close to 3 bushels as possible.
The bags of wheat were loaded onto the wagon by utilising a horse and a ‘bag loader’. This loader was affixed to the side of the wagon, and as the horse tugged forward, the bag would rise and could be stacked by a person on the wagon. My duty was to lead and direct the horse. We would then tow the wagon with the tractor, a W30 McCormack Deering steel wheeled machine, to the Swanwater rail station, a trip of 3 or 4 miles.
At the station, the wagon and its load would be weighed. It would then be moved onto the wheat ‘stack’, where men were unloading wagons and motor trucks into a huge wheat ‘stack’ in readiness to load onto the railway trucks. The wagon was then weighed again, only empty at this stage, so as to ascertain the weight of the wheat delivered. We would then proceed home to get another load.
When wheat silos were erected some years later the same procedure was gone through, with the exception that the bags were not sewn as tightly. They were sewn with baling twine, just enough to stop the wheat from spilling. Consequently, a bag, then, did not truly represent 3 bushels. At the railway station we had to cut the twine so that the bags could be spilled into the pit ready for the elevator to carry the grain into the silo. Bulk railway trucks would later be filled from the silos and transported to the depot.
My next duty was to drive the tractor which towed the H. V. McKay Massey Harris 10 ft. comb harvester. To many this would appear to be a monotonous deal, but I would have to be on the alert in case the wheat tusks clogged the comb. One day I was manouvering the tractor and harvester to get all the grain from the headlands. This resulted in me driving to the heap from the opposite direction. I only realised why my uncle was yelling when I was abruptly stopped by hitting the heaped wheat bags with the comb. My uncle then took the steering wheel from me and reversed out of trouble. The damage was easily rectified.
Once I had learned to drive the tractor my duties varied to harrowing, ploughing, sowing wheat and barley and general use.
1945 was a drought year and as there was no grass in the paddocks we had to feed wheat to the sheep. This involved placing several bags of wheat in the spring cart, going down the paddock, slitting each bag of wheat so that the grain fell to the ground. The sheep followed behind the spring cart eating the grain.
Also, in this drought year there were many dust storms, restricting vision. To get from one paddock to another, I would have to follow the fence line. It was not possible to ride through a paddock without getting lost. Which brings me to horse riding. Aunty Mary owned a paddock six or seven miles from their home and I had occasion to go to this paddock frequently. My transport was my horse, Denny. His real name was Dennis Boy, named after a Melbourne Cup winner. Denny was normally a flighty animal, but with drought conditions and lack of good food Denny quietened down. However, he regained some of his vigour as the season improved and used to endeavour to bite my leg as I mounted. To overcome this I would lead him to a gate and I would climb up the gate from the opposite side. This action overcame the bites.
Uncle Ned contracted cancer in 1948 and was very ill. His only child, Des, (who was about 12 years older than me), and I were making little headway with the December 1948 stripping when a group of five or six local district farmers, with their tractors, headers and harvesters arrived on the farm, completing the job in no time.
Uncle Ned died in January 1949, and thereafter I spent school holidays spread around other uncles.
The last uncle I stayed with, Uncle Tom, while having wheat crops, was more interested in sheep trading. He went to a sheep sale in Donald and purchased some sheep. He also scouted around to see if he could get a job for me with a stock agent. The sheep had to be driven from Donald to Swanwater and this was my job. He had an old utility, either a Rugby or an Overland. It often wouldn’t start, but I had the happy knack of fiddling with the spark plugs and the carburetta and getting it to go. Anyway, I acted as drover, droving the sheep to Uncle Tom’s home at the Swanwater Homestead.
This was possibly my last farming experience before starting work with a Stock and Station Agent.