Soldier settlement schemes in NSW have a chequered history, but among the failures were some notable successes. Among the latter was the subdivision of the former Edgeroi Station near Narrabri in northern NSW. In this second of a two-part series, PETER AUSTIN traces the history of the Edgeroi settlement from its pastoral origins.
AT THE time it was resumed by the NSW Government for soldier settlement in 1947, Edgeroi Station represented the largest private estate to be acquired and subdivided for that purpose.
Comprising 119,000 hectares, it sprawled 67 kilometres north from present-day Edgeroi to the Bellata-Terry Hie Hie road, and 58km from the foothills of the Nandewar Range west to Boolcarrol.
It also turned out to be one of the most successful soldier settlements, providing its 65 founding settlers with a secure income base and a foundation for future development and growth.
The announcement in January 1947 that negotiations had been finalised with the New Zealand and Australian Land Company for the resumption of the renowned Narrabri station was received with jubilation in the district.
It marked a particular triumph for local farmer Stan Carberry, who as chairman of the Narrabri Repatriation Committee had been lobbying the government for several years to look at “Edgeroi”.
Carberry could see the future agricultural potential of the former sheep run, as could the 1695 returned servicemen who entered the ballot for the 65 available blocks in 1947. And having learned its lesson from the mass failures of the ill-conceived soldier settlement schemes that followed the First World War, the government this time was taking no chances.
It heeded the advice of local advisory committees as to the capabilities of land resumed for soldier settlement, so the blocks being balloted were of a size consistent with a home maintenance area. In the case of “Edgeroi”, the blocks ranged from about 900 acres (360ha) for the top-class “agricultural” country, to 2800ac (1120ha) for the lighter country better suited for grazing.
Block sizes were broadly based on the theory that the smaller blocks should support a flock of 500 breeding ewes plus 400ac of cultivation, and the larger blocks a sheep flock of 1500 ewes.
The Edgeroi settlers had three big things going for them: the country was only sparsely timbered, the soils were uniformly rich and ideally suited to cropping, and the timing was impeccable.
A reporter for The Land, visiting Edgeroi in October 1950, quoted a recent survey putting the estimated sheep count at “about 100,000 Merinos”, while “about 8000 acres” of wheat had been planted.
Within a couple of years of the settlers taking up their blocks and stocking them with sheep, the 1950s had ushered in the Korean War wool boom, followed by a run of favourable cropping seasons. A reporter for The Land, visiting Edgeroi in October 1950, quoted a recent survey putting the estimated sheep count at “about 100,000 Merinos”, while “about 8000 acres” of wheat had been planted.
Cropping plans for the following year, however, were in the order of 30,000ac, and today virtually the entire former station is, or has been, under cultivation, growing the full range of winter and summer crops. In the early years of the settlement crops were grown successfully without fertiliser, such was the natural fertility of the virgin soil, only a few hundred hectares of which had previously seen the plough.
Apart from the suitability of its fertile, friable and moisture-retaining soils, the country is blessed by a relatively high (600-650mm) and reliable rainfall, thanks to the proximity of the Nandewar Range.
By 1954, when The Land next reported from Edgeroi, the settlers were each growing an average of 300ac (120ha) of wheat, while flock numbers ranged from about 800 to 1500 sheep.
More than 2000 bales of wool were being railed from the Edgeroi siding, along with fat lambs to Homebush, bred from Merino ewes by Border Leicester rams.
The reporter for The Land who visited the settlement in 1954 was clearly impressed with what he saw. His assessment was perhaps as much a tribute to the government’s much-improved criteria for soldier settlement since the previous war as it was to the efforts of the settlers themselves.
As he put it: “(A) big factor in the striking success of Edgeroi is the fact that all the settlers are men experienced on the land. A big percentage of them were either born or have share-farmed in districts with similar conditions, and the men all pull together with a good team spirit.”
Other visitors also remarked upon the strong “cooperative” spirit evident among the settlers, as they helped one another to get established, and came together for social functions at the woolshed (or later, the hall).
The sense of community was strengthened by the early establishment at Edgeroi of a local branch of the Country Women’s Association and a sub-branch of the RSL.
A cooperative spirit of a different kind was on display in 1963, when settlers and others filled the Narrabri Town Hall to protest against the government’s decision to allow the Californian plantation owner J.G. Boswell Company to buy three Edgeroi blocks to grow cotton.
Settlers weren’t allowed to buy additional blocks, yet here was a foreign interest scooping up three. Those three blocks, however, became the launching pad for Boswell’s Australian offshoot, Auscott, which soon grew into a major local force and a boon for Narrabri.
As time went on, and the initial rules governing multiple block ownership were relaxed, some settlers bought additional blocks, while others retired to town, or moved to other areas.
Today descendants of six of the original 65 settlers still hold one or more blocks, but the industry-wide trend to larger holdings since the 1970s has seen the number of enterprises shrink by more than half.
Meanwhile the value of the land – for which the government paid just three pounds 11 shillings and sixpence ($7.15) an acre – has steadily increased in line with its productive capability and development.
By the mid-1970s Edgeroi country was fetching $300 an acre, and today it sells for nearly 10 times that. So the government got a good deal with its 1947 purchase, and the settlers got a flying start, and the real agricultural potential of the rich and well-watered blacksoil plains was at last unlocked.
HOW ‘CALATOOTA’ TICKED THE BOXES
WHEN he threw his hat into the ring as one of the 1698 returned servicemen taking part in the 1947 ballot for the 65 blocks of Edgeroi Station, Peter Campbell had a list of preferences. His first “pick” was the “Old Edgeroi” block, as it was towards the rain-favoured eastern end of the settlement and, unlike most of the blocks, it came with a homestead and woolshed.
In the event, he missed out on that block, but he fared well when his sixth choice – the nearby block he named “Calatoota” – came his way. And today, 70 years later, his son Andrew lives and farms on that same 870 hectare (2150ac) “Calatoota” block with his wife Tracey.
The Campbells are one of just six families from the 65 original settlers still farming the land of their forebears. Other families represented are Freeman, Cameron, Albert, Johnston and Smart. Peter Campbell, who died in 1998, was descended from the pioneering Campbells of Inverell Station, and grew up on a family grazing property at Woolbrook. When he drew the “Calatoota” block, it consisted of just two bare paddocks, watered by a bore. There were no buildings, but Peter and his first wife Eris were able to live in a cottage on “Old Edgeroi”. Tragically, Eris died from leukaemia just six months later, and in 1952 Peter remarried, to a bank manager’s daughter, Judy Smith.
The newlywed couple “roughed it” for several months, as did most of the settlers, living in the garage with a dirt floor while their modest homestead was being built. They finally took up residence in 1953. The Campbells’ homestead, like others, was constructed from plentiful local cypress timber, and today, after considerable updating and extending, it’s a comfortable home to Andrew and his family.
Like most of the other settlers, Peter first stocked his block with Merino sheep – 2500 Rossmore blood Merinos – which were shorn at a neighbour’s shed until his own woolshed was erected in 1965. Farming machinery was scarce after the war and most of the “blockies” relied at first on sharefarmers – local farmers with plant, however humble – to plant and harvest their first crops.
Len Hall, the share farmer who grew the first crop on “Calatoota”, did the job with a 25hp kerosene tractor, a 2.4 metre (8ft) set of disc harrows and a 3m (10ft) combine. Peter grew his first wheat crop unassisted in 1953, and over the next 20 years the farming program broadened to include summer crops such as grain sorghum, and cattle were added to the mix.
He was an early adopter of bulk handling, at a time when most wheat was still being bagged, using two 2.5-tonne trailers towed in turn by a Land-Rover to convey grain from the header to a farm silo.
After a childhood of which he remembers much of being a “sheepdog and cattledog”, followed by boarding school in Sydney, Andrew returned to the farm in 1974. Two years later, the Campbells bought a second block further north, the 910ha “Myall Hollow”, which became home to Andrew and subsequently his family, following his marriage in 1980.
“Myall Hollow” was later taken over by Andrew’s brother Duncan in a division of family assets, and when his parents retired to town in 1991 Andrew and Tracey moved to “Calatoota”. A self-confessed “farmer” rather than a “grazier”, Andrew lost no time ramping up the cropping operation to take advantage of the property’s rich and friable soils and a generous 650mm rainfall.
He was among the first to grow dryland cotton in the district in 1981, and cotton now forms an important part of a winter/summer rotation that also includes sorghum, chickpeas and durum wheat. Not far from the homestead in its lush garden surrounds is a large machinery shed housing an impressive array of modern farming plant, all of it testament to the success of a settler’s family, and the eminent suitability of a once-great sheep station to closer settlement. The story of that historic transition is preserved for posterity in a booklet, entitled “Then and Now”, which Peter Campbell compiled to coincide with the settlement’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1998.