‘We were as poor as church mice, but we had each other’

Mar 28, 2019
John shares the memories of his early life on the farm. Source: Getty Images

We lived a great life in the two middle decades of the 20th century. It was hard and, by today’s standards, we made do with little. Well, certainly, we were as poor as church mice, but we had each other, we had amazing neighbours, and we always found life truly fulfilling.

Our farm was exposed. Bitter cold used to sweep over the hills, the south-westerlies “howling like a dog with sore nuts”, Grandfather would say, as it blew through already century-old macrocarpas lining the gravel road running past the property. On a fine day, we could just see the horizon on the Southern Ocean far off to the west.

School meant part of the day away from farm life, heading off after morning milking and a hot breakfast to attend school in a nearby town of 3,000 people — a huge metropolis — with our return timed to help milk once more in the afternoon. My sisters and I became accustomed to town but a cousin, who’d attended a rural area school, was perturbed about his first trip with us. “I might get lorst …”

Milking was by hand. Dad was a smoker back then and always seemed to have a ‘rollie’ hanging off his bottom lip. He was about as patient a man as I ever knew. Putting a cow in the bails ready to milk, her ‘muddy’ tail might flick him across the face, dowsing the cigarette. He would simply take another from the tin he’d rolled the evening before, light up, then continue milking. He devised a way to overcome the problem. A bent nail driven into the side of the bail was perfect for hooking the brush on Buttercup’s fly swat and prevent further loss.

Sport was important and we’d play whatever we could whenever we could, even if there were often only two or three of us. Football was best, especially finding out who could take the best ‘speccie’, and could be played all year round, but cricket was summer only. Dad bought a secondhand cricket bat. Four of us had a game in the house yard one day and I recall hitting the perfect lofted cover drive. Problem was, the ball went through a house window, glass flying everywhere, but worse still it broke a bobbin post on top of Mum’s Singer treadle machine. Bad mistake; worst possible outcome. I went to bed without tea.

We grew spuds as well as dairying. I remember one day when Grandfather got an urgent phone call and I had to stay, missing school. We’d not long finished the sebagoe potato harvest, and had something like 120 tons (approximately 110 tonnes) bagged ready to go to to Melbourne through Burnie port. Someone rang and said they needed a couple of hundred butts — half-sized, or 56-pound (25kg) bags — to go as part of the order. It meant opening the big bags and re-bagging into the smaller ones. I still think it hilarious whenever I hear a woman call her bum her butt!

Worry the Guernsey had a mind of her own. We took down an old cross-farm fence, installed new posts and swung a nice new gate across the farm laneway, the fence not yet wired. Herding the cows to the dairy, the girls split and passed either side of the gate, but not Worry. Oh no. Madam walked to the gate and refused to move until it was opened for her. Feisty old cow (and read that how you may), she gave a flick of her head as she passed and set me down on my bum. Hard!

Until about 1950, we didn’t have electricity, not even SWER (single-wire earth return). Once it came, we thought we were made. Instead of a radio that ran off a 6-volt car battery (that had to be taken to town weekly for a recharge), we had a wireless in a beautiful big timber cabinet with so much power we no longer had need to crowd around to hear Blue Hills. More important than that was the fact we went into debt to buy a nice shiny new Alfa Laval milking machine. Now, instead of going in pails, the milk was picked up in tanker trucks.

Just a couple of years later, we had a windfall when the mainland spud crops failed. Our Tassie spuds brought £50 a ton on the Sydney market. We’d had bumper crops around 22 tons to the acre that year, and the £15,000 return from our 14 acres cleared us of debt, buying new equipment … and a black FJ Special.

This time we really were made, so sold the farm and became townies.

Did you grow up or spend time living on a farm in your youth? What are your memories of this time?

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