Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

My Formative Years: Part 1

© 2015, 2020 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

After having worked in various laboring jobs, my father, Wally, decided to try his hand at dry-land farming. As such, he signed a 5-year agreement with a Dr. Lyons to share farm (US: share crop) Dr. Lyons' 4,000-acre farm at Nadda, on the southeast edge of the Riverland district of South Australia. We moved there around April/May 1961, when I was seven years old. My dad was 37, my mum (US: Mom), Esther, was 44, my oldest brother Ken (18) and sister Dawn (17) had long ago left home, my brother Terry was 14, and my sister Pat was 12.

Today, whenever I hear a local farmer here in Northern Virginia say their farm is 50, 75, or 100 acres, for example, I smile and say, "You call that a farm! Down Under, my dog was kept in a pen bigger than that!"

This is the first part of a series of essays about my life on that Australian farm and in several other places from 1961–1970, from age 7–16.

The Farm

The official name of the property was Border Park, and its eastern boundary was the state border (US: state line) between our state, South Australia, and Victoria. Across the border lay a very large (as in tens of thousands of acres) sheep property called Sunset Station. Between the two was a substantial fence that stood about six feet high, which was originally intended to be kangaroo- and emu-proof. [Today, that station is Murray-Sunset National Park.] Running from the west through the farm to the state border was the dog-proof fence (not to be confused with the Dingo Fence, which was much further north).

The farm was three miles from Nadda, eight miles from Taplan, and 30 miles from the county seat, Loxton, in the heart of the Murray Mallee. Most of the farm was in the southeastern corner of the local government area then known as the Loxton District Council. The rest was on the other side of the dog-proof fence, in Browns Well District Council. [Today, the former Councils (US: counties) of Loxton, Browns Well, and Waikerie have combined to become the Loxton and Waikerie District Council.]

Like all the other farms in the area, the business of the farm was to grow wheat and barley, and to raise sheep for wool and meat. The average annual rainfall was 10 inches (250 mm), which made it marginal country for cereal growing, and a lot of fertilizer was used. (See Goyder's Line.) On average, two out of each five years were droughts. There was no irrigation. However, we did have a public water supply (from Loxton's pumping station on the Murray River), so pipes ran to each paddock (US: field) to provide water to sheep troughs. [Significant parts of neighboring Browns Well Council relied on (sometimes salty) water pumped from the extensive artesian basin via windmills.]

Much of the farmland in the Council area had been cleared of mallee trees many years earlier, so was easily tilled by farm implements. [This was in contrast to parts of the neighboring Browns Well Council area, which were still being cleared by bulldozer and chain, and fire. Brother Ken's first-time share farming took place in Peebinga some 30 miles to the south in that Council area on land that was known as new ground, having just been cleared of mallee scrub.]

Most farms were about the same size as ours, and the distance between the houses on neighboring properties was usually one or two miles. In our case, we had two neighbors: a cousin, Margareta, and her husband Cliff and their young children, and the Cockshell family, who's youngest, Gary, was a year older than me.

The Annual Cereal-Growing Cycle

Each year, approximately 2,000 acres were planted in wheat and barley. To raise a crop, a farmer had to make multiple passes over the same land: till the soil at least once, sow the seed, spray with chemicals, and harvest. For 2,000 acres, that requires a lot of time and diesel fuel.

As mentioned earlier, the low rainfall and poor soil were not especially conducive to the growing of cereal crops. As a result, a significant amount of superphosphate fertilizer (or more simply, super) had to be applied. Prior to the availability of bulk handling equipment, this was all done by the manual handling of 187-pound bags that were delivered to Nadda by train from the state capital, 160 miles away.

Farmers kept seed from each harvest to use to plant the following year's crops. A South Australian entrepreneur, Alf Hannaford, developed a machine that pickled this seed grain in order to prepare it for seeding. This was done by machines mounted on trucks that moved from farm to farm around the state. The plant operator generally stayed overnight with the farmer.

Many kinds of weeds grew, especially turnip and saffron thistles, and if they weren't dealt with during the growing stage, they flowered and were mixed in with the grain during harvest. [If grain containing black saffron seeds was milled, the resulting flour would be substandard, thus reducing the grain's value.] Of course, weeds stole moisture from the crops.

More than a little crop was lost through pests, such as rabbits, birds, and in some years, mice. In some areas, farmers laid poisoned carrots to kill the rabbits. An extreme measure was the introduction of myxomatosis to the rabbit population, which resulted in their going blind and starving. Another source of damage was herds of emus wading through a crop, knocking it down.

Grain was harvested by a header (US: combine harvester) pulled behind a tractor, and, until the introduction of bulk handling, the grain was offloaded into 180-pound bags. The process of carrying such a bag on one's shoulder was known as lumping. Bags had to be sown shut by hand, and that was an art in itself, especially as each bag had to be rammed as full as possible. This was done with a bag needle, bag-sewing twine, and a tall, metal funnel rammer. [I remember Grandpa Jaeschke sewing bags for us one year.] To keep bags off the ground (where they might get damp) they were stood on top of logs, called dunnage. These bags were loaded into a truck using an elevator and were taken to the train station where they were offloaded for transportation to the state capital, Adelaide. Bags not loaded immediately on a train car were arranged into stacks inside mouse-proof walls and were often stacked 50 feet high! With the advent of bulk handling, each farmer had a bulk bin on the back of a truck, which was filled directly from the header using a belt-driven auger. When full, the truck was driven to the nearest silo (US: grain elevator) where it was dumped. Our nearest silo was at Meribah, some 7–8 miles away. Some farmers had field bins, large bulk bins on wheels that could be used for temporary storage in the field while another person drove the truck bulk bin to the silo.

It's important to know that there could be at least two droughts in each five-year period. This means that after spending all that money on fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals, the harvest might be less than the seed used to begin with, or even none at all. And unlike Europe and the US, Australia has no history of farm subsidies.

Back then, state and/or federal government agencies had a monopoly on the purchase of cereal grain. So much so, that it was illegal to sell most wheat and barley privately. Under this system, growers were paid a big part of the selling price at the time of sale and then smaller, partial payments over the following four years. This helped with planning and cash management across the drought years. [For better or worse, that system is long gone.]

Domestic Animals and Pets

At any time, we probably had 500–1,500 sheep, and these needed regular attention, especially in summer when blowflies would strike them by laying eggs in wet and manure-stained skin around their rear end. For this reason, lambs had their tails cut off quite short within days of birth. And apart from annual shearing for the wool, sheep were crutched, which involved clipping the wool from around their hindquarters. I remember helping with the shearing, sweeping up the fleeces from the floor, packing them into large bales, and filling and emptying yards of sheep using our sheep dog Ringa, a male Border Collie. The shearing stand was driven by a petrol (US: gasoline) engine that powered two stations, one per shearer. The farmer's wife delivered morning and afternoon tea to the shed, and everyone drank hot tea even in the hot weather! It was backbreaking work with a good shearer shearing 200 sheep per day at a rate of £10 (AU$20) per 100 sheep. The wool was sorted on a large table and then pressed in a bale using a mechanical ratchet with long metal handles. Finally, each bale had "Border Park" stenciled on one end. Each worker in the shed had access to one or more water bags, canvas bags with ceramic spouts, which kept the water cool. Unlike cereal grain, the sale of wool was not controlled by a government agency. Instead, it was handled by a number of Stock and Station Agents, of which the area had offices for three companies at that time.

Another sheep-related activity was treatment with chemicals to get rid of lice on their skin. Traditionally, this was done by running them through and down into a sheep dip, a deep channel filled with chemical-laced water through which they had to swim. This was known as dipping, and the sheep dogs were thrown in as well. Later, the same affect was achieved using spray guns mounted over, under, and around a pen of sheep.

At times, we had 4–8 cows that we milked by hand each morning and night. I only milked in the afternoons and, as my cow, Peggy, stood still anywhere without having to be tethered, I milked her out in the yard. I recall our having an engine-powered milking machine at some stage. Now after the morning milking, the cows were let out to graze all day in pasture, so each afternoon I had to fetch them with the dog. That often involved walking a couple of miles. Once the cows were milked, the cream had to be removed by a separator, a hand-turned machine made by Alfa-Laval that was very intricate. After each use it had to be completely broken down and sterilized, and that task took as least as long as the separating itself. We used the milk in the house and any excess was fed to the pigs. One way of earning money was to sell cream, and one could buy a stainless-steel cream can for that purposes. However, without refrigeration, this had to be kept in a cool place until the can was full and then taken to the railway station for shipment to an agent some 60 miles away.

We raised pigs, and as I got older, I got more involved in feeding them and cleaning their water troughs. I found them to be very intelligent animals and I enjoyed working with them.

Another chore I recall having was feeding the chooks (Aussie slang for hens) and collecting their eggs. From time to time, we raised new broods of chickens—which arrived on the train as day-olds in a cardboard box with air holes—under a heated device called a brooder. Like cream, eggs could be sent by train, for sale, and they were packed in large wooden crates with 30 to a layer. I also remember Mum delivering eggs to clients each time she went to Loxton. Hens that got behind in their laying duties finished up in the cooking pot.

Near the henhouse, there was a pen with a small cement-lined pond in which we sometimes kept ducks.

At various times, we had one or more farm cats, which lived in the outbuildings where they had to fend for themselves. Occasionally, we gave them a saucer of milk.

As I mentioned earlier, we had a sheep dog, Ringa, and he was my good friend.

Many people kept caged birds and we often had a budgie, short for budgerigar (US: parakeet).

Each time I've seen an episode of the popular TV series All Creatures Great and Small, I've been amused as how the farmers call in a vet for all kinds of domestic-animal situations. As best as I can recall, in all the years we had animals and birds, not once was calling in a vet or taking an animal to a vet ever considered an option. Farmers simply expected to care of their livestock themselves. In fact, I doubt there was even a vet in the whole county!

Wildlife, Game, and Hunting

The neighboring Sunset Station provided a great habitat for wildlife, and whenever these animals could get through or over the fence separating that property from ours, they did. After all, we had juicy cereal crops to eat! The two large kinds of animals that did this were kangaroos and emus.

As emus are diurnal, they are rarely seen out at night. Often, they moved in large groups and with their large size and very strong legs, they could knock down a large swath of cereal crop as they waded through a paddock. Of course, chasing them through a crop made the damage even worse. When we could get up close to them by chasing them in an open paddock in a ute, short for utility vehicle (US: coupe utility, such as the Chevrolet El Camino), we killed them with a 12-guage shotgun. Back home, we cut them up with an axe and fed them raw to the pigs, which loved them. However, due to the presence of parasites in and on the meat, we had to remove the bones and feathers from the pigsties within a few days.

While kangaroos were sometimes seen during the day, they seemed to be more common at night. Most years, rabbits were also plentiful, and I earned non-trivial pocket money by trapping them. Bob Lindsay ran the local rabbit chiller (a refrigerated room), and he'd come by early each morning I had traps set, to buy my rabbits. Occasionally, we saw a hare or a fox.

Hunting was done at night, from the back of a ute, with a spotlight powered from the ute's 12-volt battery. This was known as spotlighting. It was best done on nights without a moon. The idea was to drive around looking for kangaroos, hares, foxes, or rabbits. If a kangaroo was spotted and it sat still and it was no more than a hundred yards or so away, the ute was stopped and the shooter used a high-powered rifle. Oftentimes it was a .303 army-surplus gun that could be bought quite cheaply (for less cost than a box of bullets, actually). [In previous times, people used to have one of a number of breeds of hunting dogs, which chased down kangaroos.] Foxes were chased and shot with a shotgun, which required us to get quite close; likewise, for hares. In the case of rabbits, when they stopped, using a .22 rifle a shooter shot into the ground very near the rabbit's head, which deafened temporarily the rabbit while a runner ran in the dark and came in from the side to grab the rabbit and to wring its neck. By not shooting the rabbit directly there was no damage to the carcass, which was essential if it was to be eaten or sold. The rule was that once a shooter had shot, they never shot again unless the runner called them to do so. That way, the runner was not in danger of being shot (which could easily happen when a trigger-happy guest was invited to join the hunting party). I very much appreciated this rule, as I was most often the runner.

Chasing a fox or hare involved very quick changes of direction and driving fast in loops and circles. My Dad, who drove the ute, had the uncanny ability to know exactly where he was in the paddock even on the darkest night, as it was important to know where the fast-moving ute was in relation to fences and rabbit burrows.

When we killed kangaroos, we took them home and after cutting them up roughly with an axe, we cooked them in one or more oil drums around which was burned a fire of mallee-tree stumps. The pigs loved the resulting kangaroo soup/stew. Occasionally, we ate a kangaroo steak, which was fried in a pan along with bay leaves. [At that time, kangaroo meat was declared unfit for human consumption, and when hunted for sale, was used in pet food. Many years later, it was offered for sale to humans in butcher shops.]

Occasionally, we'd see a wedge-tail eagle, and even one of their nests. They had a huge wingspan and were capable of carrying off a newborn lamb, as were foxes. As such, the farmers in the local region formed the Border Fox Club to which they could each pay a certain amount for each 100 sheep they owned. Then when they killed an eagle or a fox, they presented the eagle's head and legs or the fox's scalp to the club's secretary/treasurer, who paid them a bounty.

From time to time, feral goats passed through the area, especially in the dense bush of Sunset Station.

There was no shortage of birds, the most common being crows, magpies, and galahs, the latter being a large pink and grey parrot. [Apparently, at one time, someone considered them rather stupid, and the term galah entered the vernacular in that context, as in, "He's a bloody galah!"] Because they could be taught to talk, it was not uncommon to find galahs as pets. Another, more beautiful, cockatoo was the Major Mitchell. Except in certain years (possibly wet ones), these were far less common.

I remember one year that we had a budgie plague. And although budgies sold in pet shops came in a variety of colors, these wild ones were always green and yellow.

Birds in the area nested in open or closed nests made in trees, or in the hollows of tree brunches and trunks. The Murray Magpie made an open mud nest on a tree branch, and it was not unusual to see emu feathers embedded in the mud. Birds from the kingfisher family lived in burrows, usually near bodies of water. One particular member of that family is the kookaburra, also known as the laughing jackass. [If you watch old movies set in the jungle, you will often hear kookaburra calls despite the fact that those birds don't live in such places. It just makes for an impressive noise.]

A rare bird was the Malleefowl, which made a nest on the ground and buried its eggs. I don't believe I ever saw such a bird in the wild, but I did see several nests, which had grown very large over many years of use.

Personal Vehicles

When we moved to the farm, we had a Ford Zephyr. However, that was destroyed in a car crash (as will be described later). I also remember a large pickup truck (perhaps a Dodge or Chevrolet).

As best as I can recall, after that we had a sedan, possibly a Holden FB. The reason I remember that car is one day Dad, Mum, and I drove it to Adelaide, where we were involved in an accident. I must have been sitting in the front either in the passenger seat or between Dad and Mum. I was taken by ambulance to the Adelaide Children's Hospital where I was treated for an obvious injury, a gashed mouth caused by glass from the broken windscreen (US: windshield). When the Doctor asked me if I hurt anywhere else, I just happened to mention that my right shoulder was a bit sore. Once they got my jumper (US: sweater) and shirt off they found a good-sized gash there where the rear-vision mirror stem had penetrated. So, they stitched up both wounds.

After one especially good harvest, one day, Dad came home with this enormous, light-blue, 4-door Chevrolet Bel Air, direct from America. It was one of only two in that area. I expect that he really couldn't afford it, but that was Dad being Dad. Immediately, that car had an unexpected impact. At the front of the garage sat the 32-volt home-generating plant, but as the new car was so long, it wouldn't fit into the shed. As a result, the generator was moved to the front garden into a shed that was erected for that purpose. [In recent years, my sister and I found that we both remembered the night we thought we were going to die in that car. It was the days of 6 o'clock closing for drinking at bars and clubs, with the wife and kids sitting outside in the car waiting for the husband to come out at 6 pm and go home. This night, Dad had met up with a former neighbor who asked Dad to bring his family home for the evening meal. As that was on our way home, Dad agreed. However, some hours later, the two men had a major disagreement (about what, I have no idea), and we left with Dad in a vile temper (which, unfortunately, was one of his trademarks). Of course, sensible people know not to drive when they are very angry and/or have been drinking, but drive we did. And not only did we go fast on the dirt roads all the way home, but once when I looked over the front seat, I saw the speedometer read 100 mph; I kid you not!]

After a year or so, my guess is that Dad couldn't keep up the payments, and he traded the Chevy in for a new, smaller, cheaper, maroon Holden HD hydromatic. It was one of the first models to have an automatic transmission. [In the early 1900s, Mr. Holden had a coach-building business, and when General Motors (GM) opened up operations in Australia, they bought out Mr. Holden's business, becoming General Motors Holden (GMH). They developed their first Australian model, the Holden FX, in 1948.]

When we moved to Nadda, brother Ken owned a Ford Prefect. That was his first car, and it was light brown. Then he bought one of the most popular cars GMH ever made, a 1964 Holden EH 179 sedan. A unique feature he purchased with it was that in the center of and on top of the dash, there was a (rather large) transistor radio that could be removed and used as a standalone portable that ran off its own batteries when disconnected from the car. It was in this car that I had my first driving lesson, and I remember well sitting on a pillow looking through the steering wheel over the dashboard as we drove on the main dirt road near the farm. It had a column-mounted, manual, 3-speed gearshift (US: stick shift) and I used only first and second gears. I must have been 11, which is about the age when big boys started operating equipment around the farm.

Brother Terry got his first car, a used, bluish Holden FB. He mostly drove into Loxton to work and to football practice. Then he bought a new 1965 Holden HD sedan. It was light green and had what we called wheel spats, semi-circular covers over the back wheels, which were "all the rage" back then.

The Fuel Supply

The farm tractors ran on diesel, which was stored in an overhead tank near the house and filled into tractors by gravity. We could also take 44-gallon drums (US: 55-gallon, as the US gallon is only 80% of an Imperial gallon) of it on the back of the ute out to where tractors were working and pump it by hand.

We also had a ground-level petrol tank with a hand pump. All car, truck, grain elevator, and shearing engines ran on that.

We used kerosene to run refrigerators and to help light wood fires.

The use of propane gas in cylinders was new, and, eventually, we used it for a small kitchen stove.

Although a great deal of land had been cleared many years earlier, there were still large heaps of mallee-tree stumps in the area, and these were cut by hand axe and used in wood stoves and lounge room fireplaces. [In the late 1990's, during a houseboat trip with my Mum and all my siblings, Mum told us that when Terry was young, he told her, "You only had me to chop wood!"] I put in my time chopping stumps.

Utilities, Appliances, and Services

As I mentioned earlier, we had mains water, which we referred to as river water. Most buildings in the state had, and still have, gutters and rainwater tanks. In my day, tanks were circular and made of galvanized iron. [These days, they are often green, plastic, and cube shaped.] It was common to have a leak or overflow at some point near the top of such tanks, and we had a passionfruit vine growing to take advantage of the drips. Some older farms (including my maternal grandparents') had cement-lined underground water tanks and an old-fashioned hand pump.

Rural electricity was produced on-site by a petrol engine that charged a series of batteries to provide 32-volt DC power. This was really only good enough for lighting although a few 32-volt appliances could be found. We got our first TV while at Nadda, and that was 240-volt AC. As such, we needed an inverter. While the batteries stored enough power for several days of lighting, the generator engine had to be running to watch TV. Instead of using a petrol motor, some people had what we called a free-light system, a 3-bladed propeller high up on a tower that was driven by the wind.

Rural electrification came to the area in the early 1960's, but property owners had to pay a significant amount per pole to have it routed across their property to the house and outbuildings. It did not come to our house. In any event, it magically worked on a single-wire system, and was 240 volts, 50HZ (unlike the US, which is 110 volts, 60HZ).

Each room in the house had a light bulb set in or hanging from the ceiling, and these were switched on and off via a pull-cord that hung just inside the entrance. As this was often not near the bed, enterprising lads like my brothers and me tied one or more old neckties to the end of the cord and over to our bedhead, so we could switch the light off and on while we were in bed.

For heat, we burned mallee-tree stumps in fireplaces or the kitchen stove. Stumps were also used to heat water for bathing. I remember one near disaster when Mum pumped fuel from a drum labeled "kerosene" into a glass bottle for use in the bathroom to start the chip heater fire. Unfortunately, the drum actually contained petrol, which is highly inflammable. Of course, when Mum poured some over the fire it exploded. She raised the alarm, and Dad, who just so happened to be nearby, came and knocked out the bathroom window and dragged through it a garden hose to put out the fire. One whole prefabricated wall of the bathroom was singed black.

I've already mentioned using kerosene-powered refrigerators.

We had telephone service via a large, walled-mounted, hand-cranked phone with hand-held earpiece and fixed mouthpiece. This connected us with the Nadda Post Office. It was a so-called manual exchange, whose hours of operation were weekday business hours. Outside those hours, you could try to place a call, and if the operator was there and you agreed to pay an opening fee, you could do so. The phone was powered by a pair of huge non-rechargeable batteries. Unlike some areas, we were not on a party line; that is, one on which other subscribers shared a single line and anyone on that line could listen in.

We collected our mail at the Nadda Post Office. I remember the introduction of Decimal Currency (1966-02-14). In preparation for that, the Post Mistress took delivery of some new decimal coins, and I got to look at them before they went into circulation.

Radio, TV, and Newspapers

Back then, a radio was actually called a wireless, because it was, well, wireless! We had several in the house, and one in the car. At that time, Australia only transmitted on the AM band. [FM was introduced around 1976.] Because of the remoteness of many of the country's people, the Federal Government provided rural coverage through a series of radio and television stations run by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). The local ABC radio station was 5MV. The local, independent station was 5RM, which Mum couldn't stand (and incorrectly called it "Renmark" even though it was transmitted from Berri, not Renmark), as it played that modern stuff that really wasn't music, at least not in her humble opinion.

There was a small radio on the top of the kerosene refrigerator in the kitchen, and around lunchtime each weekday, Mum sat with a cuppa (cup of tea, that is) and listened to a 15-minute episode of "Blue Hills, by Gwen Meredith". There was also a radio play, "Pepper Young's Family" broadcast around the time of the evening meal. Late afternoon, 5MV had a radio show for kids that involved games, puzzles, and serialized stories one of which I recall was called "The Country of the Skull." There was also an early-morning program featuring "Curtis the Cat and Marmaduke the Mouse." One time, I entered a competition by sending in a letter, and lo and behold, I got a letter back—signed with cat and mouse paws—with some sort of a prize. I kept that letter for years! I recall that some nights, I'd lie in the dark in Terry's bedroom and we'd listen to an episode of the American radio play, "Randy Stone's Night Beat."

When TV first came to the area, it was in black and white, and there were three channels: 2, 7, and 9, and they were often quite snowy. After all, we were 150-odd miles from the transmission towers up on Mt. Lofty. Some years later, Channel 10 was added. For some odd reason, all TVs came with a channel 5A on their dial. [Some 20 years later, the ABC built a relay antenna just outside Loxton, and it transmitted on that very channel. Color television didn't start in Australia until the early 1970s, and it used the PAL system.]

Loxton was the only Riverland town to have its own newspaper, the Loxton News, and that came out weekly. The regional weekly was the Murray Pioneer, which is still operating and based out of Renmark. These came to us via the mail along with two agricultural publications, the Chronicle and the Stock and Station Journal.

[Unlike the US, Citizens Band (CB) radio came much later and was nowhere near as popular as in the US. In the 1980s, some people used VHF for on/near-farm communications.]


Stay tuned for Part 2, which covers market day, the farmhouse, the outbuildings, the food we ate, the local towns, church and Sunday school, sports and social activities, and the Big Car Crash.

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