FIFTY-TWO families took up farms at Tarrone's solider settlement after World War II. A new book has captured life on the land, writes JENNY McLAREN.
Wally Robertson will never forget the day he first laid eyes on the Tarrone block that would become his family farm for the best part of half a century.
"It was bloody awful," he recalls.
Nearly 70 years on, it remains indelibly etched in his memory.
Before him was more than 500 acres of rock-strewn, swampy land infested with rabbits and snakes.
But for a returned Digger who'd dodged Japanese bullets and bayonets in the jungles of New Guinea, it was a godsend. At the very least, a chance to build a future.
Mr Robertson and his wife Evelyn were among the 52 families who took up farms at Tarrone under the post-WWII scheme aimed at giving returned soldiers a chance for a new life on the land.
A new publication Tarrone Estate and Soldier Settlement celebrates their stories of new beginnings, hard work and community.
Western District historian and military researcher James "Bim" Affleck, who co-authored the book, says it's important to preserve this chapter in the district's history.
"It was a vital era and it gave those guys (ex-servicemen) the chance to make a useful contribution," he says.
Mr Affleck has previously documented the Caramut and Woolsthorpe soldier settlement schemes and written numerous local military publications.
"I just love doing it and I think it's so important," he says.
Initially settled in 1840 by two Port Fairy doctors, Kilgour and Bernard, it was from later owner Alex Boyd that the Victorian Soldier Settlement Commission purchased Tarrone Station - Aboriginal for 'long swamp' - in 1947.
The then 23,273-acre sheep and cattle station was carved into 50 blocks of an average 500 acres each.
Soldier settlers arrived in four waves between 1948 and 1957 with several blocks later reallocated.
It was 1952 when Mr Robertson made the trip from Melbourne to inspect two Western District properties on offer by the Soldier Settlement Commission.
One was the 520-acre parcel of godforsaken Tarrone land. The other was a fully-fenced block at Caramut.
"We drove onto Tarrone but there was no road in. We had to walk in about three miles across stony ridges and tussocky flats," Mr Robertson recalls.
Hedging his bets, he applied for both blocks, however, by the time he arrived home in Melbourne, he'd reached a decision.
Rocks, rabbits and reptiles aside, he withdrew his application for the Caramut block and opted for the Tarrone property, swayed by its richer soil and proximity to Port Fairy.
"One-hundred-and-fifty ex-servicemen applied for Tarrone, 1500 for the Caramut land," he says.
He secured the farm but It took two winters before he could offer his young wife and infant son the comforts of a real home.
Like the majority of the soldier settlers, home for the Robertsons was initially a galvanised iron shed divided into living and sleeping quarters with no electricity, running water or phones.
Eventually the rabbits were brought under control through a combination of rabbit drives, rabbit-proof fences and ultimately, ferrets, paving the way for a successful venture that began with a small dairy herd and developed into a profitable sheep and beef enterprise.
As the soldier settlers prospered, Tarrone's community spirit flourished.
Woolsheds regularly doubled as dance halls as the farmers and their families stepped out to the beat of the local Fox Family Orchestra. Tennis courts and a recreation hall were built and kids learnt about life on the land.
At 96 and retired to Port Fairy since 2001, Wally Robertson is the oldest surviving Tarrone soldier settler.
A long-time stalwart of the local RSL, his memories of life on the estate are nothing but positive.
"It was a wonderful place to live," he reminisces. "The kids went rabbiting and mushrooming and they learnt lots of things on the farm, especially to appreciate life."
Rex Hockley was still a few years off starting primary school when he moved to Tarrone with his family, but he still recalls a rabbit drive in the early days on the farm that yielded an astounding 1300 pairs.
"We herded them into a V-shaped paddock to catch them," he says, still amazed he and his siblings managed to avoid snakebite, despite frequently putting their hands up rabbit burrows.
Rex's father Richie spent the war years in the Northern Australian Observation Unit patrolling the country's northern coast for signs of Japanese invasion.
Then, with the war over and desperate to secure a soldier settlement farm to support his wife Edie and growing family, Richie must have thought he'd hit the jackpot when he was allocated Lot 18 at Tarrone.
This was despite the fact that it was previously rejected by another applicant.
With seven kids and another on the way, space was such an issue for the Hockley family that two former PNG telephone exchange buildings were tacked on to their three-bedroom garage as extra bedrooms.
Hurricane lamps and candles provided lighting while the school run was made by horse and jinker.
"It was a really great upbringing and a great community. We certainly learnt to tough it out," Mr Hockley says.
Used to the broadacre cropping of his former life in the Wimmera, Syd Dumesny was never enamoured with the Tarrone terrain, according to his son Ross.
"He wasn't that fond of rocks," he said.
Fortunately for Ross, his father, who had seen duty in the Middle East and New Guinea, learned to live with them.
Ross was just six years old when the family settled in Tarrone in 1951.
Now 74, Ross and his son Andrew still work the property, building Syd's original 540-acre block into a 3500-acre holding.
Variously run as a sheep, dairy and now solely beef operation, the farm is recognised as one of the estate's most successful enterprises.
"It's treated us pretty well," Mr Dumesny agrees.
Bruce Christie has enjoyed a successful 50-plus-year career teaching veterinary surgery and anatomy around the world, but it is the 10 years he spent growing up at Tarrone that he credits largely for his bond to the land and love of animals.
"One of the things I remember most about Tarrone was interacting with animals," Professor Christie told former neighbours at Friday's book launch, making special mention of Dolly the Clydesdale who pulled the family spring cart for the 10 miles on the weekly shopping trip to Daleys grocers in Koroit.
His father Hec, who served in the 15th Australian Field Ambulance in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, was among the first wave of the Tarrone soldier settlers in 1948.
Their property, which shared a boundary with neighbour Jack Johnson's block, was also the smallest at 206 acres.
For Professor Christie and his sister Josie, life at Tarrone was an exciting adventure. For Hec and his wife Mary, it was very much a pioneering existence.
"They really were pioneers in primitive conditions. The men and women worked very hard. For my parents, it was a time of new beginnings," he said.
Wayne Johnson and his wife Marlene are still farming on the property that his father Jack cleared and fenced back in 1948 after returning from duty as a stretcher bearer on the Kokoda Track with the 2nd/12th Battalion AIF.
At 220 acres, it was the second smallest block, but Jack, his wife Lorna and their eventual brood of six, made a fist of things as a dairy farm with a few sheep on the side.
When Jack died in 1976, Wayne took over the property and both his brothers Pierre and Adrian also purchased farms on the estate.
Along with the Brians, Chamberlains, Dumesnys and Martins, the Johnsons make up the five original soldier settler families still farming on the estate.
Now, there's a third generation carrying on the tradition with Wayne's son Thomas also on the farm.
His neighbour Neil Martin is likewise following in the footsteps of his late grandfather Garry and father Garth.
Wayne Johnson began collecting the stories of the Tarrone settlers nearly 20 years ago, a project close to his heart.
Now, with the assistance of Bim Affleck, Tarrone Estate & Soldier Settlement brings to fruition his goal to preserve and honour the memories of the men and women who built the foundations for future farming generations.
"I felt it was important to document the histories of the families," Mr Johnson says. "Fifty families coming into a district like that . . . we'll never see that again."
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