Hudson at Murtoa -- Past Links Revealed

North Dam

This chapter is based on an article written by J. E. Schulz in 1950, called "Early Historical Records From North Dam." I have condensed his article and converted it to metric measurements. Permission to publish by Bob Schulz from Murtoa.
In my book this chapter was called "On The Land 100 Years Ago".

North Dam, is situated near Coromby, about 15 km north east of Murtoa. To provide permanent water for their stock, the early selectors chose this natural low lying deep flat for a dam. To dam the water, an embankment of earth, nearly 2 metres high and 200 metres wide was constructed. When full, the dam comprised a sheet of water about 4 hectares in area. A 60 hectare reserve containing bullock & box trees, myrtle scrub, lignum bushes, tussocks & rushes surrounded the dam. Land up to 5 km away was drained, sometimes assisted by plough depth channels on land which was once owned by J. Gerdtz, M. Krause, F. Schulz, F. Sussbier and J. Rutherford.

3 km east of The Gums and 4km up stream from North Dam, there was a similar dam constructed at Coorong Swamp. This was also a natural deep depression with a high catchment around and shallow channels from further away to gather water. Coorong had up to 40 hectares under water but was surrounded by a tree less plain with myrtle scrub, lignum bushes and tussocks with rushes on the water fringe. Picnics were often held at North Dam and Coorong Swamp. People played, cricket, football, shinty, rounders and of course went swimming.

Some settlers dug out wells which were slabbed from top to bottom. This was a lot of work and most failed, being very brackish and containing salt minerals. One sheep owner lost a few hundred sheep as a result of drinking this kind of water. Very few settlers successfully obtained any reasonable stock water. With the assistance of a miner, a few tried boring to test the quality of the water before sinking a well. The Shire Council did a great service by providing large scooped dams or tanks wherever there was a suitable water catchment on roads and reserves. These were fenced in with post and rails. At these dams, elevated Douglas pump stands were erected to allow farmers wagons to draw in and fill their one or two tanks. These dams were a great boon to the early pioneers, but the pumps and fences have now all disintegrated, as since the early 1900's the water needs have been met by the introduction of the channel supply system.

It must be remembered that much of the land in the district was timbered by mostly bulloak and box, with spaces of open plain. There was a sprinkling of other trees such as sheoak, dogwood, sandlewood, native cherry, quandong and wattle. This timber had to be grubbed and cleared. A lot of this work was done by Chinese, whose labour was cheaper than white men. Nearly all the posts and rails were cut and split on the land. There were some giant bulloaks in those days growing to a height of 15 metres and with a girth at the base of 2 metres or more. These made excellent corner strainers or stable and shed posts. There were a wonderful lot of bulloak saplings which when split and trimmed, made great rails and frame work for many of the homes of the selectors.

The walls were plugged and plastered with good loam, mixed with cocky chaff, to give it a bind and then white washed. Some selectors built weather board homes, while others used sun dried earth bricks, or clay bricks. The sheds, stables and other outbuildings were then nearly all paneled with bush brush. One selector built a brush shed in a paddock devoid of trees to shelter his stock against the weather. Another built a brush shed over the top of his water hole to prevent evaporation by the hot summer sun.

Fences were mostly post and wire, or rail. It was fairly common to see portions of brush and log fence, chock and log, zig-zag log and even a dog leg fence. One great problem in the early days was the rabbit. There were literally thousands and thousands, and of many colours, from grey to black, white, yellow and piebald. Destruction by digging out was almost hopeless, as the warrens were deep, matted and woven under trees, roots etc. The job was despairing. Dogs would give chase for a while until weary of it and then simply look at the moving mass running away. Poisoning was also carried out, but it had its drawbacks. Another method used was known as the rabbit exterminator, which was mounted on a barrow like frame of one wheel and a two legged stand with handle bars to move it. A furnace and blow forge blew charcoal and sulphur fumes through a rubber tube into the burrows after the other entrances had been blocked off. The real trouble was on blocks known as "dummied" (illegal) selections which were left to their own fate. In consequence this gave all the worry to the neighbours, who sought the help of the Rabbit Inspectors at the time, Messrs. P. Byrne and D. Powell. Later a highly infectious viral disease called myxomatosis was introduced which brought an end to the rabbit problem.

The old time circular horse gear driven chaff cutter was in evidence. Another familiar sight was the old mounted brick oven out in the yard, where the weekly batches of bread and cakes were baked. The children helped mother bring up the fire wood. Later the colonial oven came into use and also stoves that heated water for baths etc. Most homes had an under ground cellar which was generally pugged and plastered. This contained all the milk, butter and food which needed to be kept cool. Cream was skimmed off the top of the milk. Later, separators were introduced to separate the milk from the cream. There was the old time method of home made cheese, candles (tallow) and soap.

Murtoa, situated on the railway line to Melbourne, was a district centre for the collection of wheat, but the roads were rough. Being of light build, the German pole wagon, drawn by a team of bullocks or horses, was a common sight on the roads at harvest time. The side body had upright stubs like a ladder instead of longitudinal boards. The carrying capacity was about twenty, 4 bushel (100 kg) bags. Another sight to see passing on the roads was the covered in buggy, plus the open double and single seaters and a few 3 seaters. One man being out of drinking water drove to Murtoa in an old time spring cart with a cask to bring the water back in. You can imagine how full the cask was when he returned on those rough roads.

Early settlers improved their properties by planting fruit gardens of some size. Most trees did well, however some of the stone fruits began to perish from various causes. One selector went in for grapes and raisin making. With water laid onto the homestead by windmill pumps etc, most people concentrated on vegetables. Many laid out ornamental trees such as the blue gum, pinus insignia and cypress, but many of these trees perished after a few years. Later, sugar gums were planted and did very well, making shelter belts and when lopped they gave good fire wood.

Ploughing for wheat growing was done by single and double furrow ploughs of the handle and steering rod type. These were soon replaced by the three furrow plough and drawn by 6 horses. They were of a strong iron construction to combat the heavy strain of breaking up new ground which was matted with roots and tussocks. The Frauenfelder (Murtoa) also Kelly and Preston (Ballarat) types were strong and adapted for this job. They soon made four, five and six furrows of lighter frames. It is generally recognized that the system of fallowing (pre-ploughing), which proved such a success in growing wheat, originated in this district. Sowing was done by hand, broad-cast either on foot or horseback following along a furrow. The first wheat varieties grown included, Purple Straw, Prolific, Steinwedel, Pollock and Bluey. Later on Dart's Imperial, Queen's Jubilee and Tuscan came into favour, but recently these have been replaced by bigger yielding varieties such as Pinnacle and Federation. Of oats, Calcutta, Tartarian, Algerian and Foxtail were grown. Cape and English Barley was grown and rye was sown in small plots.

There was a good deal of horse breeding done, mostly of the Clydesdale type, but also some Percheron and Suffolk Punch. These made a great display at the shows, in addition to providing fine teams on the farms. Horse riding was very popular for young and old and to possess a good hack or pony was something to be proud of. For women and girls it was difficult to learn as it was done side seated on a saddle made for the purpose and needed a quiet horse. As time went on the straddle style was adopted which is better for the horse and all concerned. Horse racing and race clubs seemed to be everywhere, two well known trainers were Andy Wilson and Tommy Willoughby.

Popular cattle varieties were Shorthorns, Herefords and Ayeshires. Of sheep the most common were the Lincoln (long coarse wool), Merino (fine wool) and Shropshire & Leicesters for meat and wool. The farm yard poultry were a mixture of Dorking, Black Spanish (good layers), Andalusian, Brahmapootia and Plymouth Rocks, breeds which have gone out of favour now. Ducks, geese and turkeys were also kept, while some people kept Pea Fowls and Guinea Fowls, the last named two being right out now in this area.

Eagles were very numerous and on a fine day they would soar high up in the sky looking for something to eat. If they saw a hare etc they would swoop and unless it escaped into the shelter of a log etc, the animal would be easy prey.

The eagles were a pest at lambing time and the Shire Councils issued rewards of 50 cents per head for their destruction. Some of the young men went shooting them whilst others resorted to trapping them in rabbit traps set around a dead sheep carcass. Rewards were also offered for sparrow eggs per dozen and hare scalps. There were numerous hawks and kestrels which are rarely seen today. Another bird was the black jay which built mud nests similar to the mud-larks. In early evening came the mournful cry of the curlew, more so with a change in the weather. In the quiet of the night you could often hear the mopoke or boo book owl disturb the silence. In the shrub and tussocks could be found lovely nests of chats, tits and wrens with different mottled eggs. Off parrots, the grass and bullock species were common, also parrakets, red-breasts and shell parrots could be found. Bird nesting was common and some collections of wild bird's eggs were displayed at the early shows.
[ ed. One of the best displays of eggs and stuffed birds in Australia is on display every Sunday afternoon at the Water Tower Museum in Murtoa. ]

It can be said that Coorong Swamp was one of the best places in the district for water fowl. There seemed to be always plenty of bird life there, from ducks of all kinds to swans, pelicans, ibises, cranes, spoonbills, sandpipers, snipe, divers and water hens. It was also the favourite haunt for native companions (brolga) during the winter time. This was a graceful bird standing nearly one metre in height with a fine plumage of a slate blue colour. They were very destructive to farmer's crops at seeding time. As the wheat was sown, broadcast on bare fallow, it was exposed for a day or two ahead of working it in by scarifier, etc. These birds would come in hundreds early in the morning and pick up the grain. They would also pull up the young tender plant and get the seed that way. It became necessary for boys to stay home from school and scare the birds off the crops with the help of dogs. But the birds were cheeky and would just fly over the fence to the next paddock and so on to satisfy their appetites. As the day wore on and got warmer the brolgas would fly high in the sky, but at night they held a carnival on the swamp which could be heard up to 3km away. If it became known that the wild geese or wild turkey (bustard) were about, there would be a stampede "to arms" by gunmen from Murtoa and other towns, as these two birds were a favourite on the dinner table.

Kangaroos and emus disappeared about the time of the arrival of the first settlers around the 1870's, but there were kangaroo rats, pademelons and native cats (Dasyure). The later were rather pretty and were in two species, the black & white and yellow & white, both being spotted from head to tail. They were fierce and savage when molested and dogs were not keen to tackle them. They lived in hollow trees, logs and rabbit burrows and preyed on poultry. They became extinct in a very short time, possibly due to some disease.

Ringtail possums have always been numerous. A fine moonlight night was the ideal time to go possum shooting with muzzle loader guns. Gun powder, wadding and shot had to be rammed down the barrel before each shot.

A little brass powder cap on the nipple just below the hammer exploded the charge. While this was going on, the dog scampered off and soon has a possum "treed" by barking. The possums generally perched on the tops of branches. Shooting was by sighting against the moon and aiming for the head, as the skins were used for rugs etc. If wounded the possum would hang by its tail.

Reptiles were also numerous, especially the brown snake and an occasional black snake. They had plenty of cover along fences and brushwood and lignums on water channels. Goannas (lace or monitor lizards), a four footed animal about one and a half metres long, were also plentiful especially around sandy rises. They were also nicely marked with striated yellow bands from head to tail and were remarkably fast in climbing trees by cork-screwing around the trunk. Then there was the blue tongue lizard with very hard scaly backs and slow in their movements. The frilled neck lizard was common and generally found under brushwood and rubbish heaps. On a hot day they liked to perch on top of fence posts and if the opportunity arose, they were fond of eggs, including those of domestic hens.

A pleasing feature was the show of wildflowers in the Spring, presenting a charming display. The ground lying in it's natural state, was literally carpeted with all manner of flowers and blooms of varied colours, from buttercups, various daisies, cowslips, wild violets, pea flowers, bluebells, billy buttons and many other dainty flowers. Some of the girls going to school gathered great bunches and arranged them on the desks etc. Unfortunately, that glory has departed due to constant grazing, erosion and far more land under cultivation. The boys also found joy in digging for wild yams and climbing trees after mistletoe, native cherries, quandongs and wattle gum. They also went rabbiting and yabbying.

The old method of cutting hay was by back delivery mower, drawn by two horses. One man drove, whilst another raked the hay onto a trip table worked by foot. It was then released at intervals of sheaf size. Following on behind came the binders, who tied the sheaves with hay bands known as goose neck and lock bands. In later years the reaper and binder soon came into use and there was a rush for orders from the agents. The following machines were on the market - Buckeye, Walter, Wood, Deering, McCormack, Mercer, Massey-Harris, Osborne and Hornsby. Some of these machines had the wire tie band and field trials were held at different places.

One of the first methods of harvesting wheat in the Wimmera was with threshing machines. The ripened grain was cut and bound into sheaves which were carted and stacked. The threshing machines made their rounds by contract and were driven by a two or three horse, power treader. Murtoa farmers by the names of Schache and Deutscher owned machines of this type. Some threshing machines were driven by a stationary steam engine, but Ned Adler operated a big American thresher with a traction steam engine called "puffing billy" which could travel along at 5km an hour. Working from dawn to dusk, a gang of 20 men could do 300 bags in a day.

Later, harvesting of wheat was done with the stripper, drawn by three horses, which simply stripped the heads through a comb into a revolving beater drum and then into a storage box. When the box was full the contents were delivered to a hand turned winnower to clean and separate the wheat from the chaff (commonly known as blow or cocky chaff). The wheat, in four bushel bags was later delivered in wagons to Murtoa Railway Station. Buyers agents were keen to do business, sampling the quality with triers (a device which perforated the wheat bag to let a few grains out) and offering farmers the best prices and storage conditions. The Railway Station yard was a scene of activity with wheat teams coming from all directions. The blow chaff was also gathered into heaps and stored in sheds to be conserved for feed for young stock in the winter months. There was a prickly weed known as cockspurs which grew amid the wheat crop and those handling hay at chaff cutting had to wear leather gloves. Fortunately it has now disappeared.

Something must be said of the many tramps or swagmen on the roads those days carrying their "bluey" and billy can. They were always on the lookout for food and sometimes to earn it they helped the farmers with fencing, harvesting and shearing etc. There were also many Indian hawkers, some carrying a bundle of wares on their head and others with vans. A couple of Chinese gardeners from Murtoa made their rounds with vegetables, notably Ah Him and Shoo Kit. Another named Him Hay came from Deep Lead in a four wheel wagonette during the summer months selling fruit and grapes. He usually returned with a grate of fowls or some little pigs. He was very intelligent and groomed his horses well. Hawkers in the drapery line included, Scherwitz, Carl Kellner and Bentzin, who travelled around the country side in four wheeled vans selling their drapery and clothing wear. Bentzin, in addition to drapery, sold 12 and 16 gauge bore guns (breach loaders) which were popular at the time. He also sold small music boxes, was a noted bass singer and his depot was the "blue house" in McDonald Street next door to Foy and Gibson's. There were other wanderers and pedlars in small goods lines. Some of these were Staudel, Hilsen, Himmel, Furer (pictures) and Eisenberg (a pig killer and maker of pork sausages etc).

Somewhat later another was on the round named Wagner, who carried a tremendous bundle on his back, in addition to what he could hold in his hands. He just struggled along and generally pleaded hardship and poverty. His clothing gave all those indications and he usually camped in sheds or in the open with a roaring fire, behind some bushy place. It was generally believed that he possessed money in gold. On one occasion, camping in this way in early summer, his fire got away until brought under control by some scooping men working on a channel not far away. The owner of the property reported the matter to the police and he was taken into custody. On being searched, Wagner was found to have a lot of money in gold and he ended up being sent to a home.

An important landmark was Rurade's barn, the largest of its kind and many social events were held in the place. Rurades also owned one of the first sheep dips, constructed with the help of local farmers.