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Wentworth Irrigation Trust
13 Feb 2009

Talk presented at the 75th Anniversary of the Curlwaa Fruit Growers and Progress Assocation on September 7th 2007 by Leigh Watmuff.

The Early Years of The Wentworth Fruitgrowers Association

It has been an interesting and instructive experience trowelling through the early entries of the Curlwaa Fruitgrowers and Progress Association in its first incarnation as The Wentworth Fruitgrowers Association. It has not been an easy read. Anyone who has ever read handwritten notes that are over a century old will know the difficulties of attempting to decipher old style writing written with a nib pen and ink. Consequently, this is only an account of the early entries in the first minute book. Perhaps anyone who has a few spare months – possibly years – could volunteer to index and catalogue all seven minute books, or put them in a more readable form.

Nevertheless, the results have been rewarding, and have provided a snapshot about early life in the settlement.

The inaugural meeting of the Wentworth Fruitgrowers Association is a bit of a mystery. The first recorded meeting was on August 31, 1907. It must have been a very early meeting because it was called specifically to set meeting times and to plan a fundraising ball. It is unlikely however, that it was the first meeting because, although there is a list of office bearers, there is no record of their election, nor of the setting of subscriptions, which must have been set at some time prior because the second meeting on September 21 records the collection of members’ subs. It seems reasonable to assume though, that the first meeting was held shortly before the August 31 meeting.

What sorts of matters were discussed by our fledgling association? They talked about much the same things as we talk about now, which upon reflection is quite understandable. The same things shape our lives now as then – water, the price of our products, the difficulty of growing them, the facilities in the settlement and most importantly of course, the social life in the area.

In fact, fundraising and social activities were always high on the agenda. The preferred means was usually to hold a ball or a dance (sound familiar?). As early as the first meeting, the Fruitgrowers decided to hold a ball in order to raise funds for themselves. The figures show that after revenue and expenses were accounted for, the sum of £8/17/6 was raised. This could not have been enough for the good Fruitgrowers of Curlwaa – they must have been hard taskmasters (or perhaps something untoward had taken place!) because at the next meeting the treasurer was asked to forward his resignation to the committee! (So watch out at our next meeting Brad, if the amount of money raised falls short of our expectations!)

Some things however, were much different from the present. The settlers worked out from bitter experience – unprofitable functions – that in order for a social function to actually raise a decent amount of money, the settlement’s ladies must become involved in its organisation. Still, the men could not bring themselves to hand over too much control of these events to the ladies. How they got around it was that the men formed a subcommittee to organise the function, and gave this subcommittee the authority to approach the ladies for “assistance”. Then, after a profitable and successful function, the ladies would be accorded a somewhat patronising vote of thanks in the minutes. At least today, although the ladies still do all the work, at least they get to be on the committee.

Other regular popular social and fundraising events were Sale of Gift Days and Sports Days. In the Sports Day held over Easter in 1911, you could enter events such as Throwing at the Wicket. If you won it, you would have become the proud possessor of a safety razor, donated by Mr Kerridge. If you had managed to step 100 yards more accurately than anyone else, you would have gone home ten and sixpence richer, courtesy of Mr Philp. Other novelty races included the Thread Needle Race, a Nail Driving Competition, a Potato Race, an Egg and Spoon Race, a Sack Race and a Sewing Competition (for the ladies of course!).

The minutes record many problems that the Fruitgrowers faced in the early years, not the least of which was the continual attacks by crows on their fruit. Poisoning was a regular event, although not always highly successful, so in February 1909, the Association adopted a novel approach to the problem – it decided to hold a crow shooting competition. This was to be held on a Thursday afternoon with shooting to commence at two o’clock sharp, and birds had to be shot within one mile of the boundary fence. The Fruitgrowers set aside £1/0/0 as prize money, with four of the settlement’s leading figures, Mr Baird, Mr Wells, Mr Dunn and Mr Cummings, each contributing 5/- towards prizes. First prize was to be a healthy 12/6, second 7/6 and in order to encourage as many participants as possible, entry was free! And of course, it wouldn’t be an event on the settlement unless a dance was held as well. Unfortunately the crows of one hundred years ago were just as smart as they are today, and they made themselves scarce. No claims were put in for the prize money, which was duly refunded to the donors. The day was not a total write off though, as once again the ladies came to the party and raised the tidy sum of £1/12/0 through the dance.

Not unlike today, the Fruitgrowers always had plenty of questions for their irrigation provider. In the days before the Fruitgrowers elected a Water Advisory Board, there was much correspondence with, and representations to, the local Department manager. Usually it was in relation to the frequency of irrigation pumpings, the capacity of the pumping plant and the irrigation system, expansion of the irrigation area and maintenance of the settlement’s boundary fence. It is worth noting that in one of its early meetings in 1907, the Fruitgrowers requested fortnightly irrigations to enable the growing of a wider variety of crops and more adequate irrigation of their existing ones. Not for the first time, it appears that the Department was a little behind the times. It was not until the 1980’s that fortnightly pumping was finally introduced for exactly the same reasons that the Fruitgrowers put forward in 1907.

In the minutes, it is possible to detect undercurrents of impatience and frustration in its dealings with the Department, but the correspondence was always crouched in terms that were measured and polite, as befitted the gentlemen of the time.

With one issue however the frustrations of the settlers bubbled over. Although as is the case with many items in the minutes, the background information that enables complete understanding of the issues being discussed is not available, it appears that during the summer of 1910 there must have been a failure of the pumping plant to deliver water. The pumping plant was referred to as the Suction Gas Plant, and may have been a challenging unit to operate. Perhaps river levels were low – it was the time of the Federation Drought – which may have presented a further complication. Whatever the reason, the Fruitgrowers fired of a terse letter to the department stating, on the motion of Mr Kerridge and Mr Kennedy that “if they intend to keep the Suction Gas Plant, a thoroughly competent man be placed in charge as the settlers have no confidence in the man now in charge”. Just why he was incompetent is unfortunately not revealed.

The settlers must have lost heaps of production and therefore income, from this failure because, on a motion of Mr Lord and Mr Sage, the Fruitgrowers wrote to the Manager of the Department itemising their losses and putting forward a “demand of compensation as per claims enclosed”. This later evolved into a determination amongst the settlers as expressed in a motion sponsored by Mr Hart and Mr Lord that the settlers “hereby agree that no further rental will be paid until the question of compensation has been answered”. The mayor was asked to call an “indignation meeting” to which invitations would be issued to the Department heavyweights and the local member, presumably to allow them the privilege of facing some exceedingly hostile Fruitgrowers. The settlers further agreed that in the event of any costs in their struggle for compensation, they would be equitably shared by all the settlers. In September 1911, their struggle was rewarded when the Department offered and the Settlers accepted compensation of half a year’s rental on their properties. Perhaps we could have taken a lesson in unity from these Fruitgrowers when we locked horns with the Department in the 1980’s and 90’s over the massive increases in our rental payments.

One of the most notable events in the minute book in these early years was the construction and opening of the Curlwaa Mechanics Institute (which quickly became known as the Curlwaa Hall). The £53/-/- tender of Mr Woods for the construction of the Mechanics Institute was accepted in June 1909, and a Building Committee of “Messrs Lush, Philp and Hart (was to) supervise the erection of the Institute”. The minutes reveal the extent of community cooperation that was invested in the Hall – most of the social events were held in the hall and its surrounds, and the proceeds from these events funded its gradual expansion. The Hall was opened in October 1909, and the occasion was of course marked by a dance. It must have been a pretty important occasion on the Island, because this dance was free!

Other entries include references to visits by politicians, support for prohibition of bananas into the area because of a fruit fly outbreak, a twopence per head bounty on the killing of crows during the fruit growing summer period and the recommendation in 1908 that the Settlement be named Abbotsford in honour of the recently deceased local member Sir Joseph Abbot. The Fruitgrowers also moved to purchase a dairy bull, presumably to service the milking cows of the settlement, which would attract a hiring fee of five shillings.

The early minutes of the Wentworth Fruitgrowers Association reveal a community that faced and dealt with many hardships and difficulties. It knew how to fight for what its members needed to survive and was willing to do so, but above all else, our early settlers knew how to enjoy themselves. So perhaps the best way that we can honour what has gone on before is to make this event a huge success. So have a wonderful time tonight – after all, its part of a great Curlwaa tradition!

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