Tuesday, August 25, 2009

LIFE ON THE FARM

To tell you a little of the history our farm called Aintree, at Goolmangar, I need to delve into the history written by my father, John Patrick O’Keefe.

Dad tells us that his father, also John, was born in Gerringong on the NSW South Coast in 1864. Both his parents died in 1874, when he was ten. He was raised by the Taylor family. In his teens, he travelled to Lismore, on the North Coast and worked for a time as a surveyor. He then worked for the Beveridge family on their farm at Goolmangar. Whilst there he selected fifty acres adjacent to the Beveridge farm. In an effort to encourage the opening up of farming land, any good citizen could select land, at no cost, provided they then developed it into a productive farm. My grandfather built a house, dairy and bails and became an independent dairy farmer.

In 1890 he married Emily Boyle and started a family. Gradually they bought up surrounding land until they had 200 acres. They built a new house which is still there today and into which we moved in 1953. He moved the old house to become the kitchen of the new house. In those days, the kitchen was always a separate building, because of the fire risk. It has long since been demolished.

Dad was born in 1900 on January 20th, so for all of his life (minus 19 days annually) he was the same age as the year. He was always known as Pat, to distinguish him from his father.

So it was this farm which Dad inherited on the death of his mother in March 1953. His only brother inherited the family home in Lismore. I remember visiting the farm around 1949-50 when Dad drove the family to Lismore, a three-day trip, in the old 1926 Dodge.

I quote here from Dad’s memoirs:

In March 1953 my mother died. I inherited the farm at Goolmangar. My underprivileged sister Lily was declared my responsibility for as long as she lived. The farm at the time was leased to Fred Savins. He offered to buy it for 16,000 pounds ($32,000). Had I not Lily to consider I would have probably sold. But not knowing what might be involved in her future, and realising that property was a safer asset than cash in the hand, I wasn’t game to sell. I took a trip up and had a look at the place and a talk to Fred. He showed me his returns for the last twelve months and they were very encouraging. On my return Mum and I talked it over, and decided there was no better place to rear our family of boys so we sold up and headed north.

So what did we find? The farm house was a typical four rooms with a hall from the front door (which no one ever used) and a veranda on four sides. When we arrived, the back veranda had been converted into kitchen (with fuel stove and no hot water), a dining room and a bathroom (with no hot water). I once went into the bathroom and found a green tree snake had come up through the plughole. There were two other small rooms on each side veranda. Later, Dad enclosed more of the verandas to make bedrooms, an extra kitchen for dual living and a sleepout. I don’t think you got planning permission in those days.

When I arrived in December 1953, the family (and our cousins the Blewitts) had had three months start on me. What did I find? Behind the kitchen door was a string bag, that is, a bag to hold string from packages – Sellotape was still a novelty –another bag for brown paper bags – essential for school lunches – and the Strap. (Mum and Mum only administered this round the back of the legs when necessary.) We kids were expected to make a brown paper lunch bag last a week, though we trashed the wax paper the lettuce and vegemite sandwiches were wrapped in. From the kitchen ceiling hung numerous flypapers – long, spiral, sticky strands which helped to keep down the fly population of plague proportions. (Remember, this was cow shit country.)

Mum cooked the usual meat and two veg for dinner each night, on the fuel stove (which had a constant tub of hot water on one side) and later on the Metters electric cooker. But there were some treats for us kids. Firstly, Mum made buckets and buckets of ice cream, using the Sunbeam Mixmaster on full bore – after all, we had no end of milk – and it was great. (I don’t think that I have said that our farm produced cream for the Norco butter factory at Byron Bay. We separated the cream from the milk in the dairy and the creamless milk was fed to the Tamworth pigs that we raised also.) To make us eat our lettuce, we were allowed to sprinkle it liberally with white sugar. And best of all, when the white bread was getting stale, we could sprinkle it also with sugar and pour on lashings of cream. Why are my arteries still functioning?

The dunny was an outdoors affair and Dad emptied the pan regularly in the bull paddock. The laundry was out there, too. It contained two cement tubs and a copper which got filled with water on washing day and heated by a wood fire. Mum stirred the sheets, towels, etc with a wooden copper stick. It was a happy day when she got a washing machine with a hand-operated wringer.

In the cow bails where there was a source of hot water – everything had to be scrubbed to death – Dad had rigged up a shower. This consisted of a ten gallon drum, a pulley and a rope. You filled the drum with hot water, hoisted it up on the pulley, secured the rope to the wall, and, voila. The drum had a shower rose soldered into its underside, with a tap. Bliss. That’s where Dad and we boys usually showered.

We had a herd of Jersey cows of pedigree standard. Jerseys have the highest cream to milk ratio, Guernseys produce larger quantities of milk. (Black and white Fresians are best for milk, not cream.) In the summer, the herd got up to around 70 to 80 cows and, believe it or not, they all had names and we knew every one of them by name and they knew us. I recall one old slump backed cow with one horn broken that Auntie Pauline christened Madame de la Plonk. Another, called – would you believe – Daisy, would sit in the holding yard waiting to be milked and was quite happy for me to sit on her back. In the winter the herd would drop to 20 or less as their milk dried up, and in the spring there would be all those poddy calves, thanks to the diligence of our prize bull, Bellington Nomad II and his mates. When the calves were weaned we’d hand feed them with separated milk, keep some to build up the herd, and send the others off, with the latest litter of porkers, to market. The milk truck came three days a week to collect the cream and deliver the papers. Though not refrigerated, the cool room kept the cream from curdling – probably just.

I remember that my life on the farm was spent in bare feet. I had school shoes, of course, but no working boots. So I, and Robert, would be up to our naked shins in cowshit, as the dairy yards were somehow always boggy – it was a high rainfall area, of course. In our leisure time us kids would go down to the creek that flowed through our property and dig out cubby houses in the floodbanks of silt on the creek’s edge. Or we’d go to Santo’s swimming hole, a huge lake carved out by floodwaters in a bend of the stream. On one occasion, excavating away, I sliced into my big toe with an axe. Off home to Mum, mercurochrome and bandage, then Dad drove us the ten miles to Lismore to the doctor. No, no stitches needed. I still have the scar.

The only major illness I can recall on the farm was when we all came down with yellow jaundice, a highly debilitating disease, which I believe is today a version of hepatitis. We fell like dominoes and took to our beds. Mum soldiered on and when she went down, Dad took over. We recovered in due course with no apparent ill-effects. Of course there were colds, measles and chicken pox. You know I’m not one to boast, but Mum said I was the best patient. When I’m sick I’m like a cat – I crawl into a corner and worry no one until it’s all over. But if ever I wanted a day off school, I could put one over Mum every time. My sick-acting must have been superb. I remember being rapt in Nicholas Monserrat’s “The Cruel Sea”. It was winter, too, so I spent the day in bed reading while Mum supplied hot lemon and lunch. Shame!

I learned to swim in the creek. One hot day, Dad, Mum, Robert, Chris and myself were cooling off in the water. I was wading slowly when suddenly there was no creek bed under me any more. I panicked into a sort of dogpaddle and Dad, from the bank, shouted encouragement and told me I was swimming and indeed I was. Other styles came later.

Nimbin Road stretched the 15 miles from Lismore to Nimbin. About ten miles from Lismore you came to the Goolmangar village: General store with petrol bowsers (and these days a bottle shop), run by Mr and Mrs Alf Jux, the post office, School of Arts and the telephone exchange. This was a manual exchange. The telephonist would call you on the party line – our ring code was “two longs and a short” to differentiate from other farms that shared the same line. I’m sure she listened in, but I doubt there was much to hear.

Then West Nimbin Road (now called Boyles Rd) branched off – a gravel road with constant corrugations, despite the attentions of Ada the Grader and Lola the Roller – and after you passed the Catholic Church, the Boyles, the McLennans (the Only Protestants!), the McNamaras and the Colefaxes you came to Aintree. Now I appreciate what a beautiful valley it is. Then it was my prison.

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