Heartbreak Plains

Ghost Towns of Australia (George Farwell) 1965, Chapter 11


There are certain towns that belong to the classical tradition of ghost towns. Waukarinbga is one of them. It was once a place of some significance, then condition changed; it died. Others, like Hammond, have managed somehow to linger on.

It will not do to dismiss such towns of small value to the present age. They are part of our landscape still. There are scores of them around Australia, and few of us could even make a comprehensive list. They stand half-way between affluent present and a past we tend it ignore. You could come upon them unexpectedly, often with surprise, in remote valleys at the centre of some otherwise features plain, in the northern jungle, at the back of some coastal range, or on a forgotten mining field; and suddenly you become aware of a name you thought you had never known. They belong almost to the pre history of a continent that has advanced and aged at a rate unappreciated among civilizations said to be much older and more mature.

And so it is with Hammond, which is a small town aged before its time. It’s winkled and shriveled limbs have shown up far to soon. Yet is is quite unlike the usual mining centre that hangs on after it’s claim to riches is gone. Hammond had no mining, there are no mullock heaps, no skeletons of shaft heads, or dangerous chasms in the earth. It’s features have not changed at all; except there are now less of them. Sixty miles west of Waularinga, if you could drive it direct, it lies among low, sun-reddened foothill of the Flinders Ranges. You reach it across a dry plain totally devoid of creeks, and wonder why men ever settled there.

The houses are all old, brown as the earth, built of freestone and pug. It seems as if no one has thought it worth the trouble to set up new ones in fifty or sixty years. Now no more than half a dozen of them are habitable. The rest have been abandoned; in some cases roofing iron had been removed; in others window frames and doors are missing. And once the weather gets in, their life span is pretty short. The most handsome of its building is, as usual in such towns, the pub. At least on the outside.

It stands at the junction of two bare thoughfares at the western end of town. The large freestone blocks give it and air or permanence. You feel that the place could easily last another century or two; if there should still be a Hammond by that time. The inner bar is a shadowy, utilitarian place. Rather disappointing. Along the walls are a couple of old benches, with a long cedar bar counter cheapened by a coat of paint. The one notable wall decoration is a large framed photograph of Rome. With the ruins of the coliseum well in the fore ground. Why make a feature of this noble ruin here? as if Hammond did not have enough ruins; on a rather more ordinary scale.

The publican was not taken with such remarks, After all, he had lived here a long while; the scenery was no doubt part of the natural order. "Not many believe me when I say I’ve seen two hundred families shopping here at the one time,” he said “That’s going back a long way. Now you can tot up those that live here on the fingers of both hands.”

There was only one small store left these days, he told us, pointing across the road. Isolated at the cross roads was a converted cottage, with a singe show window; the kind of corner store you find selling pennyworth of lollies to children in some city suburb. In the good days there had been three large general stores to supply townsfolk and farmers. One had been burnt down; the second vanished and the third a pathetic relic opposite the hotel. It’s bay windows, with most of the panes smashed, had a quaint Dickensian air. Inside were two enormous counters; the dusty floor and high ceilings had planks of excellent cedar. An underground cellar was completely lined with valuable white cedar. “Worth a fortune if you could sell it,” was the publicans comment. “but I’d cost a fortune to pull down the building first.”

The shoppers here had been protected from the weather by a shady veranda, whose stout posts now leaned crazily in all directions. We had to tread carefully on the footpaths footing the store, for the paving stones were broken and loose. In several of the posts iron rings had been bolted for tying up saddle horses when farmers came to town. No doors were locked here, so that you could walk into the living quarters, where the only piece of furniture remaining was a magnificent double bed of early Victorian vintage, with silver mountings. I doubt if anyone had occupied it for many years.Somehow I have since come to associate Hammond with the baroque magnificence of that discarded bed.

So much here was in the discard; the solid-looking houses you could now buy for a few score pounds; even the one bank, which appeared to have monopolized credit since the early days. And credits, it seemed, had always outnumbers savings. The pleasant little freestone bank had now become a private home, where an eighty-six year old grazier and his wife were living in retirement. John Bunting had been born in the town, married here, prospered where others had failed or moved away, and was content to live out his existence in an atmosphere that left him to himself and imposed no social strains. He was a moderately successful man whose career had spanned the entire life cycle of the town. It came into existence the year he was born. He was one of the first few to be christened here, at a time when there where three churches. Now there is only one.

He talked of more exuberant days when the Hammond Racing Club ran regular meetings, when dressmakers as well as saddlers did a thriving business with local families, when a man like C.H. Tuckwell could build successful butter factory. David barker employ thirty to forty men in the largest blacksmith shop outside port Augusta, and a teacher of music make a good living from the young ladies of the town. Of Barker’s smithy no trace can be found today. Only a vacant allotment. Yet, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was turning out wagons, buggies and ploughs for seemingly prosperous farms on the plains.

Farmers…….. Not one farm remains.

You can travel for miles in any direction and see no farmsteads standing. At least, none of them intact. There are ruin everywhere. Theses pathetic little houses are swiftly returning to the earth from which they came. Some are of freestone, some of pise’ or rammed earth. There are complete walls standing on some paddocks; in others only a pile of rubble or solitary fireplace still blackened by the smoke of homely fires.

Along the twelve-mile road from Willowie north to Hammond you pass such places repeatedly, each on what was once it’s own block of land. The old fence posts have rotted too, and the landscape is now one large sheep paddock.What happened to cause this bygone blight? How did a thriving town of six hundred people recede to a cluster of decaying houses for which no one will these days bid?

The founders of Hammond, though they did not know it, staked all their savings on a gamble. Yet they were by no means gambling men. They wre quiet folk, good church goers, hard-working people with families to support. Nor was it even their fault they staked the little capital they had against the indifference of nature. The Government of the day had assured them that climate and fortune would favor them. They were hoodwinked by a single, deceptive phrase “Rain follows the plough……” It was a proverb imported from old England. A splendid proverb in a land where rain was common place. In semi arid South Australia it made no sense at all. If the mere use of a plough could work such miracles in ten inch rainfall country then men could have afforded golden ploughs. The kind of plough that Barkers made in Hammond used no such metals at all.

During the 1870s a run of exceptionally good seasons had lured South Australian settlers farther and farther north. They forgot the droughts of 1864 to 1866, which should have urged caution in a community still largely ignorant of farming conditions in an arid zone. They forgot George Woodroffe Goyders’s warnings. The Surveyor-General had long ago drawn his famous line through the northern regions, dividing what he considers pastoral lands from those suitable for cropping. Beyond Goyder’s Line was saltbush country, adaptable to sheep as long as there were shepherds to watch them and keep the dingoes off.

Then came the big spread of farming especially wheat. Men moved up beyond Gladstone, Laura, Wirrabara, and Booleroo until al the land was taken. And still distant horizons looked more promising. They began to agitate for the removal of Goyder’s restrictions and in 1874 the Government gave in. The waste Lands Atc was amended, credit offered to farmers as far north as the 26th parrallel if they wanted it, and a new advance began. In the new climate of optimism men could only talk exuberantly of “the golden north” And, for a few years, the dry plains were warmed by the gold of wheat. Settlers moved into the flat country and the valleys of the Southern Flinders Ranges, they raked up stones to drill their seed, they cut down trees, and used Ridley’s famous stump jump plough to clear even more acres for their golden harvests. New towns began to appear on maps. Carrieton, Cradock, Hammond, Gorden, Amyton, Johnsburg…..

Several of these were named as attribute to the new Governor Jervois, whose children were Hammond, Amy and john. As the friable red soils were scored by a hundred ploughs, other industries began to follow. Two flour mills went up at Hawker, of all places; two more at Quorn. There were more at Port Augusta, Melrose, Wilmington. Even farming equipment was fabricated at such place as Carrieton, Hammond & Quorn.

In 1880 another of those long-forgotten droughts returned. It was a bad one. The harvest was very poor. Farmers barley made expenses the following season. A year later no wheat came up at all. There was an outcry for government aid. A number of men abandoned their homes, walked off, leaving the machinery to rust. But others hung on; quite a number of them. When slightly better seasons came, they produced more crops. They were never quite so good.

More abandoned homesteads appeared on the landscape. Once there had been one wheat cocky to every mile. The Government had apportioned him a mile square as a safe minimum for sowing. By the turn of the century there were Hardley any farms at all. Nowadays the golden wheat is only a memory in these parts. Not only around Hammond, but around all those other optimistic towns as well. Hammond, in fact, is one of the few that still remains. You can drive through this country and hardly be aware that any group of people made homes, lived, and celebrated their good harvest years on the empty plains.

Amyton; there is nothing there at all, except a few shells of homes. Johnsburg; deserted, Eurelia; one house only beside the road. And further north, on the notorious Willochra plains, Gorder-Wilson-Cradock…….. Absolutely nothing. Gorden and Wilson, once thriving townships, managed to exist as late as the second world war simply because there were wayside hotels along the road to Hawker. One of these was owned by “Barefoot” Hermann Schmidt; the other by his wife. Barefoot had been a great character in his day; he had driven the mail up the far more arid Strzelcki Track to Innamincka, and was accustomed to these very dry landscapes, as long as an occasional traveler arrived with a decent thirst. But fewer and fewer of those drove by, and he had to close his doors. The two pubs were pulled down, and there walls used for road metal.

Hammond, then, is comparatively lucky. Yet no one knows how much longer it can survive. In 1948 a government survey on the marginal lands reported, “During the last decade thirty-one per cent of the people of this area have departed. Further depopulation is inevitable.” The decline went on one stage further in 1963, when Hammond alone lost another half-dozen families. They said they could no longer afford to live there, because thei children needed better schooling. The following year it was announce that the school itself was soon to close.

These days the southern Flinders Ranges have been given over entirely to sheep. Here and there you can see them browsing peacefully around the crumbled homes of farmsteads. On other holdings, all of them are large, the masonry and free stone blocks have found constructive use. They make excellent foundations for ground tanks and the damming of rarely flowing creeks.

To see this variable country in perspective you only need to talk to Liddon Fry. He would have been born in Hammond had his father taken up a lease of the hotel in the 1890s, went to work in Tuckwell’s store for ten shilling a week, and knew the Hammond Hotel when it needed two barmen, three housemaids, two waitresses, an ostler, and a cook. “We used to send a buggy down to the railway for commercial travelers coming up from the south,” he told me in Melrose, where he is now retired, “and there were two trains in each day.”

The town is lucky to see one per week these days, and few passengers arrive or depart. There is not even a station master any more. As for wheat trains, there were plenty of those too. “I can remember two hundred thousand bags of wheat passing though here, “Fry said. “all in one year. The wheat used to arrive on horse-drawn German wagons and bullock drays. Why, there were four buyers of wheat here permanently.”

As a lad he used to go down to the great storage shed, marveling at the quantity of wheat stacked in four-bushel bags. He would spend hours there, listening to the talk of Bullockies and carters, to their tales of long haulage over the plains beyond. When the town began it’s decline, he too moved out to those plains, he made a living carrying stores to stations hereabouts, then found more lucrative work as a stock and station agent.

Liddon Fry is one of the few men who remember the change-over from wheat farming to sheep. It was a reversal of the earlier order that had brought Hammond and other towns to life. “The farmers should never had gone up there,” he said. “The government should have known better. You know, things were so bad by the time I left that if a man had a five pound note you’d look at him twice. “In the drought time most farmers gave up the wheat to raise cows. And even that wasn’t too dependable. I’ve seen them going up into the Horseshoe Hills to gather porcupine grass. What you fellows call spinifex these days. They used to boil it down, mix it with molasses, and feed that to the cows to keep them alive.” Nor was the raising of sheep too profitable then. “My old man used to send us out to buy sheep on the Willochra plain. You know, you could buy them for five bob each. Fat sheep they were too. These days you couldn’t buy much more than a pound of chops for that.”

“I recall the time when E. N. Twopenny was managing Kanyaka Station and reckon he’d like to buy it. They wanted four thousand pounds for the place. So he went down to Adelaide and arranged a meeting with Sir Jenkyn Coles. “Twopenny, ‘the old man said’ and he had plenty of money, ‘I’d be mad to lend you four thousand to throw away on that drought-stricken country.’ So he had to go home again without the money.” “Later on, Twopenny managed to buy a smaller place over by Quorn. In those days you could buy land a four and six an acre. Sheep country, that is. you’d be lucky now to get it for a fiver. All the same, the district wasn’t always that bad. There were a good few young men in my day who hung on, weathering the dry times. They were mostly original landholders’ sons. They stuck to the land. They made a success of it. They’re well off today.”

At sundown the hills around Hammond are slag-red and bare. It is a country of spare grasses, of saltbush that supports sheep if a man had a large enough acreage. When good rains come, which is rare, these soils will nurture all manner of growing things. But the early settlers had to learn the rules of it. They came from an easier land, even though there had not been enough of it. They have learnt now. They have learnt what they need to know about food, crops, and the conserving of water.

The fading towns like Hammond, whose ruined homes have become almost picturesque, are little monuments on the landscape to record the struggles and the courage of those whose challenge to these Heartbreak plains was sometimes quixotic, sometimes an unforeseen success.