How the Little Grey Fergie saved a town

June marks an anniversary about which a surprising number of Australians know little or nothing: It is 60 years since the
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June marks an anniversary about which a surprising number of Australians know little or nothing: It is 60 years since the town of Wentworth was saved by a tractor, the Little Grey Fergie.

There was above average rainfall through the years 1954, 1955 and into 1956. It was what we commonly refer to as La Niña, and a prolonged event that caused widespread flooding in areas of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The abnormal rainfall had two severe effects. It raised the level of the water table, lifting groundwater salt to the surface and thus ruining a lot of otherwise arable land, and the ground became so saturated it retained no capacity to absorb further precipitation.

Unlike flash floods in undulating terrain, those in the predominantly flat country through which the Murray and, especially, Darling Rivers flow are more turgid, pushing over river banks and spreading out across the land. Additional rain in catchment areas increases flows which can no longer be accommodated in the river channels and must then push out slowly, relentlessly, ever further onto surrounding lands.

Wentworth, Little Fergie Plaque

People downstream along the two mighty rivers, the Murray and the Darling, knew for many weeks ahead there were floods on the way. The problem was that nobody knew just when they would become a major problem.  orecasting was an undeveloped art and, to a great extent, dependent on local postmasters noting river levels and telegraphists passing on warnings. The 1956 event brought a realisation that better forecasting was needed and more funding was made available to the Bureau of Meteorology for such purpose.

Rains in the Queensland and New South Wales catchment areas pushed a greater weight of water downstream and Wentworth, the town at the confluence of the two great rivers, was in dire straits. People feared it would be entirely submerged. Urgent action was called for.

An unlikely saviour existed, although nobody had given it great thought until a local farmer came up with a suggestion that proved a true townsaver. Post WW2, the government had established a soldier settlement scheme, putting returned servicemen on 20-acre blocks in the Sunraysia. Every one of them was provided with a Ferguson tractor. Designed by an English engineer, Harry Ferguson, these were small tractors, light, functional and entirely brilliant in concept, with as many as 100 different implements of coordinated design capable of fitment to their two-point linkage or other parts of their chassis as necessary.

A lot of people were evacuated – hundreds, in fact – but many more remained. An intense period of work saw man and machine coordinate to build miles of levee banks to save the town. Dozens of farmers and their little grey Fergies turned out, working continuously to fill sandbags, to drag and dump and compact soil embankments. It was an around the clock effort, stopping only briefly to pee, to eat and to top up fuel tanks. Human and mechanical workmates teamed together to cut out, carry and dump loads of dirt in rotation. The army lent a major hand and the town was saved.

Wentworth created a monument to the Ferguson tractor. It bears a plaque that reads, in part:

THIS CAIRN WAS UNVEILED ON APRIL 20, 1959

BY MR L. T. RITCHIE, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF

MASSEY FERGUSON (AUSTRALIA) LIMITED,

TO COMMEMORATE THE EPIC FIGHT BY THE

PEOPLE OF WENTWORTH AND DISTRICT

AGAINST THE RECORD FLOOD OF 1956 AND

THE MAJOR PART PLAYED BY FERGUSON

TRACTORS AND IMPLEMENTS IN SAVING THE

TOWN FROM COMPLETE INUNDATION.

A wonderful tribute to the men and machines that worked so hard and so well to help their town keep its head above water.

Share your thoughts below.

  1. Great yarn John. The Grey Fergie played a role in Australian agriculture that only a few would be aware of. Many are still in use on farms across the country and in various other roles. We had one on the farm when I was a kid and it was still in use as a hack when I sold the farm in 1999.

    • John Reid  

      Thanks Rod. I didn’t edit myself too well, allowed a couple of avoidable errors to slip through! Harry Ferguson was Irish, of course, not English. He also patented the three-point linkage in 1926.That was a slip of the mind. 🙁

      We came off the land in 1952 and never had a TE20 ourselves but I did an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic in the 1950s and worked on a lot of them. Apart from Ferguson’s simplicity of design and brilliant hydraulics, one of his little tractor’s greatest strengths was the 2.1-litre wet sleeve Vanguard motor. Start on petrol and run on power kero and do everything ever asked of it.

      When I finally got away from our isolated rural community and did my engineering, an early thesis was on the little grey Fergie, its importance to Australian agriculture, and its use in the Wentworth levee-building.

      • Lynda Turner  

        What a wonderful story. My late husband would have loved it. We couldn’t drive along a country road without him stopping and /or commenting on a tractor. Great was his joy to buy me a blue Fordson (named Bluey) and later a Christmas gift of a Landini (named Maria) . Not sure what I bought him….maybe a new diamond ring – No – I know it wasn’t anything as frivolous as that. It is 7 years since we sold our avocado farm and we both missed it so much – especially “Maria Landini”

  2. I live in town and wanted to buy a Fergie that was for sale out on the highway. My daughter threatened to kill me if I did. My father in law was just as upset about selling the Fergie as selling the family farm.

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