A step back in time

There is no need to find a time travel machine to experience the life of the region’s first dry-land farmers. Driving into the township of Meringur, situated 90km from Mildura on Millewa road, the first thing you see is a series of large, black metal sculptures representing national monuments of the dry-land pioneers of Australia. The artwork is only a hint of what lies ahead at the Millewa Pioneers Park – a collection of buildings and relic from the region’s first farming families – which local volunteers have been tirelessly preserving for more than 30 years. Marina Hacquin got to know the volunteers behind the park. Pictures: Jayne Alderton

IN Millewa Pioneers Park (MPP), located in the small township Meringur, time stopped somewhere between the 1920s and 1940s, when early settlers first established their homes in this semi-arid land.

With its church, school, train station, blacksmith shop and fully furnished cottage, the 10-hectare property, sometimes referred to as “the Millewa Pioneer village,” lets visitors experience life as it must have been for the region’s first grain growers.

It is also an important remnant of MPP committee president Heather Yates’ family – she is a descendant of Millewa pioneer Ben Bailey who was allocated about 260 hectares to engage in work on the land in 1925.

Still living on her ancestor’s domain where she produces grain and sheep, Heather has pledged to protect the district’s legacy, along with about 20 volunteers who dedicate their time to maintaining the park and providing guided tours to visitors and school classes.

“Back in 1975, when the Millewa had been open for 50 years, we had a wonderful celebration and we planted trees at three different locations with plaques remembering local pioneers,” Heather says.

“Someone then suggested we should get a building from the era, so we collected an old tin hut, some photos and it grew from there.”

In the following years, donations of old artefacts, from books to farming machinery poured from the community and council to the newly formed Millewa Pioneer Park, which officially opened in 1986 thanks to what Heather calls a “collective effort”.

“There was a great willingness to help preserve the history from the district — if we didn’t do it, all this memorabilia would have been lost.”

Since its launch, the park celebrates the pioneer’s memory during an Annual Open Day, where memories, photographs and a barbecue are shared among several hundred attendees.

“We pick a theme and ask if people have photos of it, now we have a great collection of photos from local early farming,” Heather says.

“Our theme in October this year is ‘changing technology in the Millewa’.

“It shows how much effort it was to live there and make a living back then, when it was so labour intensive.”

At the time, most jobs were done by hand, with horses the main source of farm power until the 1940s.

That is something local farmer Bill Duncan, whose parents Alex and Mary Duncan, originally from Melbourne, moved to the region in 1928 to start off their farm, knows all too well.

“With about 700 farm blocks, workers putting down railways, others figuring roads, there was a reasonable population in those days,” Bill, who was born a few years later, says.

“Yet there was no electricity and no hot water – a lot of things only came later.”

The park’s horse-drawn carriage, in which workers slept in while working on the roads, is a precious witness of this era, along with the full-size baker’s oven and a large pine log shed which contains old harnesses, horse bits and other horse-related equipment dating back to the 1920s.

It was donated to the park by Heather herself, who still has fond memories of it being used as a chicken barn on the family farm.

While the lots on which pioneer families were set up were big enough to manage to clear and settle, they proved too small to make a living off.

“Many, either voluntarily or forcibly, had to leave the district so in 1949, there was a re-allocation and those who remained had four of the original blocks,” Heather says.

The park carries the heritage of not only local families, but also the descendants of those who had to relocate, with people chasing up their family history regularly crossing paths with the park’s volunteers.

“They discover that they have roots back there and we fill a lot of questions from people wanting to find out their family history from back in the 1920s and 1930s,” Heather says.

Schools from across the Mallee region also make up a significant part of the park’s visitors, Mr Duncan says, adding that surprise is often visible on children’s faces as they learn about the conditions in which early settlers had to produce a crop that forms the basis of many diets around the world.

“People who have a close relationship with the land know where it comes from but people who have lived in the city for two or three generations, some of their children are a bit mystified about where things come from,” he says.

Bill says volunteers were hoping to see some fresh faces come on board ahead of the centenary of the Millewa settlement in 2025.

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