Chapter 4 - Farm Visitors & Boyhood Pursuits
Mum and Dad made friends easily, and frequently accommodated people overnight in their spare bedroom, which was kept for just such occasions. It contained the “good” bedroom suite and was only used by the family when sickness or such an emergency struck. The wardrobe was used by Mum for her Sunday clothes and her hatbox, and also to store on the top shelf some weighty volumes like the Family Bible and a huge medical book that we children used to sneak a look at and thereby become terrified at the prospect of “catching” some of the terrible diseases that were dramatically illustrated in a special colour section. It also had graphic models of the male and female bodies with transparent sheets whereby one could peel off various organs and see what was underneath. As the female was pregnant this was a source of much inquisitiveness and confusion. But, other than clandestine reading sessions, the family seldom had cause to enter the main bedroom except on Sundays for Dad to get his three-piece suit out of the wardrobe and Mum to get her black dress and her hat. The wardrobe included a full length mirror on one of its doors, while the dressing table also had a large mirror, so these were visited from time to time to check the hang of a petticoat or, by adjusting the wardrobe door to the correct angle, getting an idea of what one's back-view looked like.
But the room was essentially there for visitors. In the very early days this included my Grandparents. Grandfather Hunt (John Charles Hunt 1856-1930) drove a very large car. It was an “Overland”. Grandpa Pegler (Walter Pegler) drove a very large motorcycle and sidecar. It was a “Harley-Davidson”. I seem to remember their vehicles better than the occupants, although I got to know the latter better as I got older. The Hunt Grandparents were in the habit of spending their holidays at Terrigal at a large boarding house where the Florida Hotel is now situated. We used to visit them there, or they would come up to Kulnura to visit us and sometimes spend the night, because it was all of thirty miles back to Terrigal!
Later, because Grandfather Hunt became a semi-invalid with diabetes and Gran Pegler was invalided in a motor accident and was confined to a wheel-chair, their visits ceased. But there were other visitors. For example, Uncle Ken Hunt would organise a concert party to come to the Mountain and two or three of the artists would stay with us. I well remember a conjurer who simply amazed us with what he could do with large coins (I think they were old U.S. dollars) cards and silk handkerchiefs. And there was Uncle Ken himself, who had, in my opinion, the finest tenor voice I ever heard (very much like the Irish tenor, John McCormack who was born in 1884, about a decade before Uncle Ken) who was always full of fun and who scandalised us one spring morning by dancing around on our front lawn in his white linen underpants. And he must have weighed close to eighteen stone!
There were also a couple of people who used our place as a convenient overnight stop on the journey from Sydney to Newcastle. One of these was Alex McCorquodale who, at that time was a salesman for his family's flour mills in Sydney and Parramatta. He later became their Manager. Mum and Dad became very friendly with him and he was a man with many advanced ideas and willing to put them into effect. Around about 1930 he persuaded Dad to subdivide a small piece of land separated from our main orchard but which had a nice north-easterly slope running down to a creek and which Dad had cleared and planted with some young orange and lemon trees. Dad fell in with this idea and sold the little block to Alex McCorquodale who built a small two-roomed humpy on it and used it for holidays. Dad continued to look after the small orchard as well as his own. There were two boys in the family about the same age as Wally and myself, Lex and Jeff, and we looked forward to their visits as we spent all our time together when they were in residence. They taught us to improve our game of cricket which we played in the cow-paddock using two convenient trees for wickets. Many a test match was played there! We also built play-houses in the bush, using saplings, bark and leaves as the building material. One year we pitched our play-tents that we had been given for Christmas. Between our house and McCorquodale's week-ender was a small stream that frequently dried up in periods without rain. Over this we built a “replica” of the Harbour Bridge that was under construction at the time.
I am quite sure that the sale of the small subdivision was a financial Godsend to Mum and Dad at the time. But the McCorquodales helped in other ways too. We were never short of flour through the whole of the Depression and bags of bran and pollard for stock and poultry feed were available at reduced prices. We also got large bags of Granose biscuits (like Vita-Brits) which were mill rejects because they were damaged. Although these were bagged and sold as poultry food they were quite clean and we thoroughly picked them over for domestic use before the fowls got their share.
One idea of Alex McCorquodale's that helped the farm tremendously was to put in reticulated water. This was achieved by putting a small weir that we called “The Dam” across one of the natural streams that were fed by the springs that bubbled up from underground about half a mile from our farm. Below this weir they installed a hydraulic ram to pump water to two 1000 gallon tanks on the hill at the north-west of the orchard and from which the water was fed by gravity down to the farm with a branch-pipe across to McCorquodales.
This was a great success and revolutionised the growing of vegetables and cash crops such as tomatoes, peas and beans. Prior to that our water supply consisted of two 1000 gallon tanks filled by rainwater from the house roof and a 500 gallon tank fed from the shed roof. Until the new system was put in these tanks frequently ran dry and Dad then had to get water from the creek by using a small tank mounted on the horse-drawn sled.
The hydraulic ram was an ingenious device that pumped a small quantity of water up to the head-tanks each time a piston dropped. The piston was operated by the main flow of water from the weir. The amount of water pumped was only a tiny fraction of the flow through the device from the weir, but it worked night and day and was powered by the water flow itself so it didn't require an engine to drive it. It was a reasonably reliable device, but occasionally the water supply failed and it was then the job of Wally and myself, quite often accompanied by Percy Mullard who lived over the road from us, to go over to the creek to see what had interfered with the ram. Generally it had a leaf caught in it but sometimes the piston had stuck open for no apparent reason and just needed a bit of a thump. To make it more reliable, Dad was forever adding to or taking away from the weights that balanced the piston against the water-pressure, quite a delicate adjustment that sometimes involved sitting down by the creek for hours until it seemed to be just right!
We loved these walks through the bush, up the rocky hill, down the other side, through a small swamp, over a couple of fallen tree-trunks (watch out for snakes here) and down to the creek which was a fascinatingly beautiful place with ferns and reeds, frogs and yabbies, and, if one kept very quiet and still, an abundance of bird life and an occasional small animal come to drink. There were snakes there, but we seldom actually saw one, and even then it was to see only its tail disappearing at speed into the undergrowth. On a hot day, a quick swim in the waterhole was always welcome. Occasionally the whole family would go across to The Dam and make a picnic of it. In Mum's photo albums are some marvellous photos of us all having a swim in unbelievable togs in the swimming hole that Dad enlarged as the years went by. The Dam was a special place for me. I have returned their once or twice since and some of the magic remains although the ram is replaced now by a large pump with an electric motor.
There were one or two other good swimming places on the creeks. One was further down the same stream but over the road in a property owned by the Collins. It was entirely surrounded by bush but there was a track wide enough to drive a car to it. This was in some ways more attractive than our own swimming hole because there was a large ledge of rock on which to sunbake. It had swampy ground around it with scrubby bushes and, in spring, an abundance of wild-flowers.
The other spot was on another creek about a mile further north on the road to Yarramalong and at the bottom of a farm owned by the Burns. It was quite a large and deep pool with high banks on one side. A group of lads used to go there after school in summer, and although Wally, Percy and I went occasionally, we weren't encouraged to do so by our Parents, thereby, no doubt, missing out on many educational opportunities.
Besides loving the area around The Dam I used to enjoy walking into the bush on the south side of the farm. This involved crossing the road, climbing a rocky hill covered in a great deal of quartz-like rock about which I had fantasies of discovering gold, and then through fairly open but wooded country down to a very deep gully. There were tracks, probably formed by animals that were easy to follow and I only occasionally had fears of getting lost. In season this area was a mass of Christmas Bells, Flannel-flowers and Christmas Bush. There were also Waratahs and Wattle and it was always a delight. Several times the whole family walked down there on a Sunday afternoon but I often did it alone or with Wally and Percy. Wally was a couple of years younger than Percy and I were and although he was very energetic he didn't like walking too far and we were pretty unkind to him at times, going on ahead and wishing he would stop at home.
Sometimes Percy's sister Joan would also come with us on our adventure walks and swimming trips, but she was a couple of years older and, in turn, we found her too bossy! When, many years later, I read stories written by Norman Lindsay based on his boyhood in a Victorian country town I was able to relate to those stories because, I suppose, the experiences of country boys and girls wherever they lived had a lot in common.
There was another gully about a mile south of home that I once went into in much less happy circumstances and never wished to repeat the experience. I suppose I was about ten or eleven years old at the time and Dad had driven me over to Black's farm to pick up our Jersey Cow and lead her home, he having gone ahead in the car and me leading the cow on foot. Daisy had been visiting the Black's bull and all went well for the first mile of the journey home as she trotted along beside me without trouble. The way to lead a cow is with a slack rope and walking near her head, with an arm across her neck occasionally to keep her headed in the right direction. But after the first mile Daisy seemed to get a hankering to return to the bull. I couldn't lead her in the right direction at all and made the mistake of trying to pull the rope instead of being patient and persuasive. Daisy tossed her head in the air, pulling the rope from my grasp and careering off the road down the gully. There was no track to follow and so I raced after her, doing a great deal of superficial damage to my legs and arms as I brushed against the undergrowth and a great deal of deep hurt to my composure.
Finally, I got hold of the rope and eventually got Daisy to quieten down. In the meantime I had been yelling “Help” at the top of my lungs. Two of the Shorrock boys, whose farm adjoined the gully came to see what the commotion was all about and, as they were several years older than I, were able to get Daisy up out of the gully. We tied her up to their fence while I ran home and, in tears, told Dad that I was a failure as a Cowboy. In my relative innocence I had thought that the cow would be ruined for life after her gallop through the bush. Indeed she might well have been, but she bore a calf in due season and many were the evenings and the mornings that I milked her the next summer.
Not all the orchardists kept their own cow, but we invariably had one or two in the yard, together with the horses and a pig or two. The only other livestock were fifteen to twenty “chooks” and a cat. Most farms had a dog, but I don't remember having one. The cows provided milk for our own use as well as for some of the neighbours. We made our own butter, separating the cream from the milk with a small hand operated separator. This was a device in which the fresh milk ran down from a top bowl into a centrifuge operated at high speed by turning the handle of the machine by hand. The cream rose to the top of the centrifuge from whence it was thrown out into a spout under which a jug or basin was placed to collect it. The skimmed milk was discharged in like manner through a separate spout. The faster you turned the handle the thicker the cream that was separated from the milk. Operating the separator was quite a chore, but dismantling it and washing it was even worse.
The cream was generally left for a day in the drip safe after which it was put in a churn, also hand operated, until it was suitably whipped and the curds of butter appeared. The buttermilk was then poured off (and added to the swill for the pig or fowls), leaving the curds to be salted and patted into a block of butter. This chore was invariably carried out by Mum. Any skim milk not used by us, (we preferred skim for drinking to the very rich full cream milk from the Jersey cows) was fed to the pigs, the cat and, if we happened to have one at the time, the calf.
The poultry not only kept us in eggs but also provided us with the occasional roast chicken. At appropriate intervals, when it was agreed that a particular hen had stopped laying, Dad would catch it with a bit of bent fencing wire and proceed to the wood-heap where its head would be severed and the body allowed to perform its macabre dance of the headless chook. In the meantime a bucket of steaming water was ready to plunge the lifeless body into to facilitate the removal of the feathers and “innards”. The giblets were then cleaned and kept separate to produce the delicious broth which we always called “giblet soup” but which I have never seen on a restaurant menu.
Occasionally the dead body also produced in the cleaning process a couple of eggs already in their shells and numerous others in varying stages of development from tiny yellow blobs to fully grown eggs but without their shells. Then Dad would say, “Darn it! I've killed the wrong one!”
The task of raising the chickens was usually delegated by Mum to us children who found it fascinating. It was a favourite job of ours to feed them with dry oatmeal and then later wean them on to cracked corn. Dad generally bought chickens that were two or three weeks old and could be kept in a “brooder” which was a contraption made of wood and wire-netting with a box at one end from the lid of which strips of flannel were suspended and into which the chickens would go for warmth at night-time.
Sometimes a hen would “go broody” and the opportunity was then taken to separate her from the other fowls, set her on a clutch of eggs and await the marvellous results. Have you ever seen a chicken pecking its way out of an egg? Marvellous! The mother hen and her chickens were then given free run of the place until they were old enough to be put in with the other hens. Of course, a proportion of these eventually turned out to be cockerels one of which was usually kept to understudy the rooster of the time and the rest ended up on a large platter surrounded by roast potatoes and pumpkin.
Every so often the time would come to kill a pig. This was a much more traumatic experience than preparing for roast chook. I was never very fond of pigs and rather disliked having to feed them with the kitchen scraps mixed up with bran and pollard in a bucket with skim milk and sloshed into the pig's eating trough. Pigs are really noisy, grunting, squealing things and I am afraid our pigsty was not the cleanest, sweetest smelling part of the farm. And I certainly didn't enjoy the process of converting a pig into ham, pork and bacon. As in most country pursuits Dad was able to accomplish this task with great skill. To catch, hold and kill a pig requires two men, so usually a neighbour helped and was suitably rewarded with a sugar-bag full of pig-meat. A stuck pig makes a tremendous amount of heart-rending noise. It's squeal can be heard, I imagine, a mile away. I usually retired to the house and covered my ears. The corpse was then dumped in a big tub of boiling water previously heated in the laundry copper and the hair scraped off, leaving the skin looking clean, pink and soft. Then the butchering took place, copious amounts of butchers' salt being used to preserve the hams and bacon and the pork skin scored to provide Sunday dinner's “crackling”.
There is no doubt at all that Mum and Dad were a remarkably effective couple when it came to running the kind of farm on which I was brought up. Mum was an excellent cook, not only for the usual meals produced on the wood-fired stove, but also in the sweets department, with puddings, custards and every conceivable delicacy. Her catering for birthday parties was astounding, with jellies set in orange skin quarters, cakes of all sorts and sweets made of sugar and caramel. Not for her the traditional slices of bread spread with hundreds and thousands. She spread them on much more imaginative things ranging from cup-cakes to buttered arrowroot biscuits. Having our own grove of “summer fruits” such as plums, peaches, figs, apricots and guavas she made great use of these by preserving them in Agee jars and also by making innumerable pots of jam. She could also do remarkable things in the preserving line with tomatoes of which we always had an abundance left over after the bulk of them were packed and sent off to market. But there was one thing she preserved that I did not like! That was beans, my taste for which is still rather unenthusiastic unless they are very young, very fresh and only lightly boiled.