21 April 2012

The mystery of the silos

Consider the silo….

No graphs, no statistics or rainfall averages this posting. Few words too.  Just a long-time annoyance resolved (to call it a mystery solved is to put it too highly), and a couple of long forgotten photographs rediscovered. Lets deal with the construction of the wheat silo at Eumungerie.

The official and near-official records (Forsyth’s excellent summary of the records) state that the two northern-most bins were opened in 1926 and the workhouse was built in 1932.  Scant details indeed, but official histories need brevity otherwise they would never be finished, or read for that matter.

Here is a stock standard photograph of this blog’s subject, taken around 1980.

Take another look at the photograph. It holds all of the clues if its construction.  First, it is of concrete construction.  The yellowish hue is testament to the western river sand forming its walls. Then there are the ‘rings’ – irregular horizontal lines which tell the story of the primitive hand-poured silo bins.  There are 35 rings in all on the northern-most bin.  If a couple of days interregnum were required between each concrete pour, then it is possible to estimate that each bin took at least three months to complete, good weather prevailing.

Then there is that mystery.  What was the scar across that northern-most bin, about one-third of the way up the wall?  The most obvious answer is that it was a roof line for a shed.  But there is no record of a shed ever being erected at Eumungerie – for wool, wheat, livestock or any other produce.  Indeed, it is well documented that all bagged wheat was loaded at the dump or using an augur.  So, what was that shed ever used for, and what caused it to be torn down and when?

Eighty years on, there is no chance of obtaining a first-hand account.  Those who could testify to the 1940s (and we’ll get around to him soon enough!), have indicated that no shed stood in that decade.  Old photographs had been scoured for clues, without success until recently. 

We’ll return to the mystery soon, but salvation on several fronts arrived recently with the uncovering of no more than two dozen new photographs from the family collection, all thought to be dating from the 1940s.  It is this next photograph that made it very clear that the photographs were at least a decade older.   This photograph shows the construction of the work house – dating the time to either 1931 or 1932.

Of course this photograph tells much more than just a date.  It shows the labour intensive methods used in the work house’s construction – which appears to be in the early stage of pouring of foundations.  There seems to be some steam powered contraption involved in the process, but this is not certain as 44 gallon steel drums loaded with burning coal were favoured as a means of warmth and to keep the billy on the boil. The steel reinforcing rods can be clearly seen, along with the hoists ready to swing the pots laden with concrete above the corrugated-iron formwork for pouring.

Then, as if to tantalise the viewer, above the men at the northern end of the silo bins there is the unmistakable form of a building eave.   Yes, the mysterious shed existed in 1931!
The next photograph is thought to be only a little younger than the last.  It shows the final silo structure - two bins and a work house – and appears to be in near-new form. One can see the semi-temporary wheat bulkhead adjacent to the silo, used for the overflow in years of bountiful harvest. 

Disappointingly, the shed has gone.  But its imprint can be seen clearly.  What’s more, there is a strange lighter imprint running from the apex of where the shed once was to the top of the silo bin. 

Finally, the view is somewhat obscured by railway sleepers stacked in the foreground.  For a while I thought little of this.  There had been a sleeper stacking site in the vicinity of the railway yard, and Eumungerie was a transportation spot for new sleepers.  After closer examination it is pretty clear that these sleepers are degraded and not new.  They are wooden sleepers which may have been used around the Eumungerie area, or they may even have provided the base (floor) to the building.

So that was as far as the story went until recently.  Instead of studying the foreground of the following photograph – the signal, the two dogs, the indistinct family relative atop the signal gantry.  And then I looked harder.  And, looking past the obvious, there is the shed.  It was a pitched roofed, corrugated iron structure, partially open to the elements.  And it wasn’t a storage shed at all.  It was the receival shed for the two wheat bins in the period between 1926 and 1932 when the work house was opened with its internal elevator.  Yes, it is even possible to see the external elevator existing the shed roof and heading skyward. 

Yes, its so confoundedly straightforward an obvious, now that the photograph explains it all.  It was no grand edifice, just a modest though essential component of the nascent bulk grain infrastructure at Eumungerie.  It was also an early casualty in rationalization, superseded within the decade by a more modern facility.

There is little else to say.  Thankfully someone within my lineage decided to purchase a camera around 1931 – which was no mean deal in that depression-era year in a family of modest circumstances.  Thanks also go to those who brought forward these photographs in recent times.  Finally, there is also relief that an annoyance has been resolved, just by paying a little more attention.  We can now move to other things!

09 April 2012

Bagging the grain 1923 - 1926

This blog entry takes wheat farming to the cusp of modernity – the 1926/27 would be gathered in the shadow of fully operational bulk wheat silos.  However the three harvest years in the lead-up to that date were highly eventful.

While the 1922/23 harvest was disappointing, surely better times lay ahead for local farmers?  The 1923/24 harvest was an improvement; Eumungerie produced a creditable 60,000 bags – nearly half of the 133,000 bags produced by the seven farming communities along the entire branch line.  Even with this improved result there was a sense of missed opportunity; as if the farming gods had again intervened to remove real success from the farmers’ horizon.

Under the very bleak heading of On the Road to Eumungerie: Crops very mediocre, the Dubbo Liberal reported that:

Some of the finest wheat growers in the West are around Eumungerie. Consider, at random, a few of the names as you pass along the road (from) Dubbo to Eumungerie -C Purvis, A. McLaughlin, Ferris Bros, R. Shanks, L. T. Edey,  R.W P. Edey, DR Frater, Fred Schneider, E Buck, R. C.Linguard, H. Griffiths, the Schukraft Bros, P. Dawson; the MacCullaghs of Globelands, H. A. H Brown, the Branston Estate (Brown family), R. C. MacCullagh, P. H. and P. M. MacInnes and onto the Wheaton Estate.  Add to these the dozens of good names just off the track, and you begin to realise the quality of the settlers round Eumungerie.  All these growers, in common with others in the Dubbo wheat belt, just missed a bumper crop this year and missed it by the fraction of a second in agricultural time.

It is heartbreaking to recollect the stiff luck of these magnificent triers. The Fates tantalised them with a mirage of gorgeous promise right up to early October. The dissolving mirage then skipped out of view, and from the rosiest prospects the actualities have gone pretty well deep blue - all the same the Eumungerie district will fare a little better than seemed possible.

Some will get five-bag crops (per acre); in fact, it will surprise a good many if Mr. MacInnes does not exceed it. It seems to be conceded that the " Baroona" crop will lead the district, and others close by expect to garner four to five bags. In the same area there is a fair amount of hay, one grower gathering 180 tons from 200 acres.
What will be the average? Mr. K. Buck, of “Rocky Bend” Eumungerie, puts it three bags wheat to the acre, and half-ton of hay per acre. It is going to be an exceptional hay crop, he says, that will exceed his estimate. ''Rocky Bend" is well-known as one of the nicest-looking places on the road. Well-cared-for looking; rabbit-netted, and paddocks all lying handy to the homestead. Mr. Buck has been there since 1908; he knows the vicissitudes of the life as an open book, and he wastes no time in "grouching." He will buck anybody up to have a yarn with him, and enter into the hearty creed of his that '' Eumungerie will come again."

Total failures at Eumungerie this year are few. The farming is so thorough, the soil so fertile, the wheat proposition so likely to come off that nothing but the cruelest luck can stop it… Nervy Dubbo-ites can take courage there is a lot of good results coming from the near surroundings of which Eumungerie, perhaps, takes the lead. The men out there haven't dropped their bundles by a long way. Their slogan is simple and short, "We'll come again.”

While Eumungerie was the wheat-producing powerhouse with highly skilled farmers tilling good cropping lands in an indomitable spirit, perhaps in response to previous poor harvests other farming communities returned to the pastoral activities considered to be the original imperative for the railway coming to Coonamble.  In 1923/24 farmers produced 478,000 sheep for market along the branch line, 64 per cent increase on the previous year’s production. 

This doubling of stock exports was no doubt a factor in the Railway administration raising the permanent speed restriction on J483 class engines on the Coonamble line to 25 miles per hour between Dubbo and Gilgandra in 1925.  This permitted these locomotives to work 585 ton stock trains in four hours and 49 minutes between Coonamble and Dubbo.  The Weekly Notices noted the rationale for this permission was specifically in ‘order to expedite the transit of livestock.’

The increase in running times for the J483s was not an isolated act.  Within a year the Weekly Notices carried an authorized acceleration of goods trains hauled by 24 and 25 class locomotives working on the Coonamble branch to four hours and 28 minutes, with the run from Dubbo to Eumungerie being scheduled in just under an hour (57 minutes to be precise).

All this hurrying-up was indeed propitious.  The 1924/25 harvest was the “biggie” that farming families all along the line had hoped for since the Great War had ceased.  By the time that it was all over, 709,315 bags of wheat had been moved along the Coonamble branch.  This was 54,000 bags higher than the previous record (the 1921/22 harvest).  While they weren’t to know it at the time, wheat farmers between Dubbo and Coonamble would never see such prosperity again in their working lives.  This was a once in a generation event – not to be eclipsed until well after the Second World War when bulk grain handling processes had removed the necessity for bagging, stacking and  then later un-bagging wheat.

Eumungerie’s share in this bountiful harvest was beyond large.  It produced over a quarter of a million bags of wheat for transport – 261,426 to be precise –one-third of the line’s production.  While the silos were part-opened for storage by mid-November 1924, the overwhelming majority of the bags were stored on the ground in the railway yard until railway trucks became available.

Even before the harvest season got properly underway, the signs were good for Eumungerie’s farmers.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that for the week ended November 29 (1924) the quantity of wheat remaining stacked at country stations and stored at country silos (across NSW) was 56,626 bags.  Eumungerie’s wheat stack totaled 8,700 bags – 15 per cent of the Statewide total.  By way of juxtaposition, Talbragar held just 963 bags and Dubbo had 482 bags on the same date.

The next two months was when the real action occurred in the district.  It was such that the post-Christmas edition of the Dubbo Liberal could file the following report about Eumungerie during the yule season.

Christmas passed off in our village in a very quiet way, and although business was very brisk during Christmas week, the greater portion of the community spent the evening in Dubbo. 

On Boxing Night the cricketers held a social in the Presbyterian Hull, which was in every way a success, and a credit to the workers. A large crowd attended, £10 being collected at the door. The evening was cool and favorable for dancing. ..

Quite a record (wheat) season indeed! On Tuesday last the silos were emptied and 20,000 bushels were trucked to Sydney. The total of f.a.q. wheat which has been received at the silos since they were opened is 100,000 bushels, and the greater portion of this bus been put in the pool.

The next harvest after the record-breaking 1924/25 harvest was always going to disappoint.  As if to counter this sense of relative gloom, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that:

Mr. B. M. Arthur, H.D.A., senior agricultural Instructor for... (the Orange district, which included the area from Eumungerie to Coonamble), states that as alarming statements have been circulated that the wheat crop is practically a failure this year.  
In the Dubbo district, he would like to dispel such an idea. Although the general average of crops cannot in any way be compared with that of last year, there are many fine crops, likely to yield up to eight and nine bags per acre, to be soon in all directions radiating from Dubbo…

There are many crops on the Eumungerie … centres, which in a number of instances would be better without any more rain, as they are filling well and will produce good plump grain.

This positive view of the 1925/26 harvest in the Eumungerie area was echoed in the second week of December 1925 when the Dubbo Liberal reported:

Extremely hot weather has been experienced during the past week, Sunday in particular, with mercury going as high as 108 degrees. ...

The railway yards present a very animated appearance at present, and a constant stream of waggons (sic) and lorries are waiting their turn for a place at the silo or wheat heaps. Very little sign is in evidence of the supposed existing drought.

Indeed, the hot and dry conditions experienced in the early part of 1926 were reported as a positive by the same newspaper during the first week of February 1926:

The absence of rain during January enabled the later wheat crops to be taken off, and most of it carted, without loss of time arising from bad weather, Now that farmers can total up their yields there are reasons for thinking that the Government Statistician's estimate of loss than 34 million bushels (based very largely upon returns supplied by growers prior to or in the early stages of harvest) may be slightly exceeded.

More than one agricultural instructor comments on the fact that yields have exceeded growers' own anticipations.   Mr. B. M. Arthur, H.D.A., referring to the Dubbo district, says that from all accounts the harvest has been slightly better than expected around Narromine, Dubbo, Eumungerie, Wellington, and Cumnock, but disappointing at Gilgandra, and the northern part of the district.

And indeed, while the 1925/26 harvest was no record-breaker like its antecedent, over 105,000 bags of wheat had passed through Eumungerie’s railway yard – a very creditable result and certainly one to give farmers in the district hope that next season they would perhaps be filling the newly-erected silos to the very brim.