mount compass

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[This post is part of the series 50 to 50, started last year to mark my 50th birthday. One post per year, y’see. The series ground to a halt due to a combination of work and personal pressures, as well as finding that such intense reminiscences of my own past were emotionally draining. Last night there was a conversation that triggered this attempt to resurrect the series.]

I’ve already written how we lived on the Mount Compass dairy farm for a decade, essentially through the 1960s. I’ve already written about its continual financial struggles and the joys of growing up as a free range kid. Today, to get this series back on track, some childhood memories that I’m sure have shaped my adult personality.

A dairy farm is a seven-day business, and a family farm is a family business. Everyone is expected to contribute. From the age of eight or nine I had my share of chores, and was given plenty of lessons in taking responsibility. I can remember simple tasks like feeding the dogs, helping clean the milking shed and lots of fetch-and-carry. But there were other chores that to a 21st century urban ear sound like a lot for an unsupervised young kid.

At the easier end of things was taking the two cattle dogs out to round up the cows for milking. Actually, the dogs did all the work. They’d see dad heading to the milking shed to start setting up and they’d kick off the round-up themselves, circling back to herd me and my brother if we fell behind. I’d also cycle the four or five kilometres into Mount Compass village to buy milk or bread or whatever. Easy stuff.

But there was more.

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[This post is part of the series 50 to 50, fifty posts to mark my 50th birthday next weekend. Originally intended to be one per day, with the final one on the birthday itself, it’s been disrupted by my work schedule. There will still be fifty posts, eventually, just not one per day.]

On Sundays, as often as not, we put on our Sunday best clothes, slicked down our hair with Brylcreem and were driven in our white Holden Special HR station wagon to church. And here’s a picture [embiggen].

This photo was taken some time in 1969, again when I was around nine years old. That’s me on the right, my brother on the left, and a cattle dog called Duke in front. The farmhouse is in the background, the dog house on the right. Here’s another picture.

My mother, descended from some of South Australia’s original German immigrants who arrived in the 1840s, was of course brought up Lutheran. But my father was of English Protestant stock, Methodist to be precise, and a wife must take on her husband’s religion. So our regular church was the Nangkita Methodist Church, a sparse white-painted rectangle with a rust-free corrugated iron roof about a mile east of Mount Compass.

I’ve marked the building on the map below, though it doesn’t seem to be a church any more.

Back in the 1960s Nangkita Road was just a graded strip of gravel and yellow clay. In summer it was rough and dusty, in winter slippery with mud. When we hit some of the bigger potholes, the car would lurch and my mother would swear under her breath, “Shit and tomatoes!”

She also swore if my hair got messed up. She was obsessed with making sure it looked exactly right. If she noticed a few strands out of place she’d spit on a clean handkerchief and wipe them back into place. I’d push her away. “Hold still,” she’d say.

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[This post is part of the series 50 to 50, fifty posts in the lead-up to my 50th birthday in May. Originally intended to be one per day, with the final one on the birthday itself, it’s been disrupted by my work schedule. There will still be fifty posts, just not one per day.]

The great thing about growing up on a farm is that there’s about eleventy hundred ways of killing yourself and you get to try them all.

In the photo, there’s a pine tree on the right behind me and my brother. Yes, a brother. He was born in 1963, so there’s a three year gap. I’ll get to the pine tree in a moment.

On the left is the cement-brick milking shed. Immediately to its right, off in the distance so you might want to look on the embiggened photo, is the pumphouse. And then the truck, well, that’s just a truck — although my father built it like Dr Frankenstein from bits of other, dead, trucks.

Just behind the truck’s engine compartment is dad’s shed, a crumpled heap of corrugated iron that’s no longer there. It was poorly lit and full of tools and wood scraps and junk and half a dozen unfinished projects. I didn’t like going in there, it was creepy. Strange creatures lived in the dark corners and would kill small children, I know that for sure.

Even if they were good children.

Mum and dad were pretty busy most of the time. My brother and I were left to our own devices. The huge open spaces of the farm, the sheds, the random bits of equipment all meant I could invent my own imaginary world.

Every trip out with the dogs — and the dogs went everywhere with us and took care of us, so we couldn’t possibly get into any trouble — became some sort of combat patrol.

But watch out for the snakes!

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One core issue affected everything while we were living on our farm at Mount Compass: we were poor.

I suspect my father’s enthusiasm to have his own patch of land blinded him to the economic realities of trying to run this property as a dairy farm. He presumably bought it cheap after the drought of 1961, but I’m told the bank manager was sceptical — even though he still approved the loan.

The facilities were basic. The milking shed was a simple cement brick rectangle with a corrugated iron roof. The dams and concrete water tank were only constructed later, and initially the sole water source was the bore and its unreliable pump.

One image that stays with me is my father in the middle distance, striding through the overgrown bracken over to the pumphouse, often in heavy rain or even a storm, to get that damn pump working again.

The house was basic too, but more about that another time. And I’ll talk about the effects of being poor later too.

Today, though, the three factors that caused the farm’s continual financial struggles, and an explanation of that photo.

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My father hated working for other people. He always wanted to be his own man. So some time in 1962, when I was about two years old, he took me and my mother to live on a dairy farm at Mount Compass.

Sure, as I mentioned last time, in 1961 we lived on a farm near Kersbrook. But dad was just a labourer there, living in a worker’s cottage. His dream was to create a home for his wife and family. So to Mount Compass it was, and a 120-acre dairy farm on Lanacoona Road, Pages Flat, where we lived until 1971.

The boundary of the farm is still the same today. It’s even marked in Google Maps so, as usual, there’s a map over the jump.

The photo above was taken some time around 1962 or 1963. That’s Fern, one of the cows. I’ve marked the spot on the map where this photo was taken from.

Yes, the farm was so small that each cow was known by name. There were 25 to 30 cows “in milk” at any one time, plus perhaps four to six heifers, half a dozen calves and a bull. Plus two dogs and four cats.

Every cow gets pregnant every year — that’s how come they’re always lactating. But why aren’t there as many calves as cows? Well, some of the the female calves are kept, to grow into milking cows. Others are sold to other farmers. But you really only need one or two bulls to keep all the cows pregnant — yeah, dairy bulls have a pretty good life. So the other male calves are what we call “veal”.

The farmhouse is barely visible between the trees immediate above the cow’s head. I’ll post some more photos of that soon. Then from right to left we’ve got: a small shed where we kept the car; a high-roofed sideless shed where we kept the tractor and stored hay; the milking shed immediately above the cow’s tail; and finally a small run-down structure which was “dad’s shed”, full of tools and scraps of wood and a workbench where he was always at work on something that was probably never going to be finished.

I must say, I’m a little overwhelmed looking at the map and the photos and trying to decide what to write about.

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