From blunder to bonanza, what a difference 50 years makes

A bulldozer drags a massive ball and chain across bushland to clear land for the Heytesbury settlement.
A bulldozer drags a massive ball and chain across bushland to clear land for the Heytesbury settlement.
Author Ken Unwin with signs at the Simpson historical park that detail the history of the Heytesbury settlement.100205eh02

Author Ken Unwin with signs at the Simpson historical park that detail the history of the Heytesbury settlement.100205eh02

AS far as anniversaries of settlements go, 50 years is not a long time.

For the organisers of this weekend's 50th anniversary celebrations of the Heytesbury settlement around Simpson, that's a good thing.

Although many of the original settlers have passed on, it means there are still enough around who can remember the transformation of what was once a big tract of native forest.

Ken Unwin, one of the last to get a land allocation under the settlement scheme in 1976, said the Heytesbury was one of Victoria's last big land settlement schemes.

Restrictions on the clearance of native vegetation meant schemes such as the Heytesbury would not be possible in today's times, he said.

Mr Unwin, of Simpson, said many of Simpson's population of 190 were people who had come off farms that were developed under the Heytesbury scheme.

The scheme developed a strong community spirit among settlers that was still part of the character of the 800-1000 people who live in the Heytesbury area today.

"Everyone came in on the same footing and they all progressed together," Mr Unwin said. "The strong bond is still there."

Mr Unwin has written a book, The Heytesbury Settlement 50 Years On: Memories, Madness and Miracles, that will be launched at the settlement's anniversary celebrations on March 6-7.

The book contains the memories of a number of settlers as well as updating the history of the settlement.

Mr Unwin said the scheme was not a soldier settlement program but involved people from a wide range of nationalities, many of them Dutch.

While ex-servicemen got preference in getting a land allocation, those who received them ranged from a former German serviceman to a Dutchman who served in the resistance against the Germans.

"This type of scheme united all peoples," Mr Unwin said.

He said many Dutch immigrants were attracted to the scheme because they had a background in dairying and saw the prospect of getting their own farm.

Most settlers got a block of between 73ha (180 acres) to 81 ha (200 acres), a three-bedroom weatherboard home, dairy and a machinery shed.

The settlers leased their property for the first three years after which they had the opportunity buy it at low interest rates.

It was a barren outlook for those first settlers, with wide-scale clearance by heavy machinery leaving a treeless landscape that earned the area the moniker of the "Simpson Desert".

Left without windbreaks, strong winds swept endlessly over the barren hills.

When trace element deficiencies in the soil and attacks by grubs on new pastures prompted about half of the first 13 settlers to walk off their properties, the settlement became known as "Bolte's Blunder," - a barb aimed at the settlement's principal advocate Victorian Premier Henry Bolte.

The walk-offs prompted the Settlement Commission to provide further assistance, clearing up windrows of felled timber left on properties and resowing failed pastures.

After farmers implemented new pasture establishment practices, the area took off to become a successful dairying area.

Sir Henry was delighted to declare it "Bolte's Bonanza" when opening the Simpson Kraft factory in 1966.

One of the original settlers was Bridget "Bridgie" Allen, who came to the Heytesbury in 1960 as one of the first 23 families in the area.

Mrs Allen, who still lives in Simpson, said times were tough, particularly after her husband Bill died four years after they arrived.

The family, which had eight children, started off with 29 cows and eventually expanded the herd to 80 after establishing pastures.

She and one of her teenage sons worked the farm until 1975 when milk prices dropped dramatically and her son embarked upon a career in teaching.

Mrs Allen returned to nursing and eventually became the nursing matron at Timboon hospital.

She said the bond between the first 23 families was "marvellous."

"The first 23 were mates," she said.

After her husband died, she received great assistance from other families and the Settlement Commission, which helped her remain on the farm.

Mr Unwin said many of the original 376 farms in the settlement had since been absorbed into larger properties. He said the area's reliable rainfall had seen it develop into one of Australia's best dairying producers.

Blue gum plantations made inroads into the dairying land in the past few decades but that move stalled some years ago, he said, further hit by the collapse of two of the biggest plantation owners around Heytesbury - Timbercorp and Great Southern - during last year's global financial crisis.

The Heytesbury reunion celebrations on the March 6-7 Labour Day long weekend at the Simpson Recreation Reserve will involve historical displays and markets, a Saturday night dinner that is already sold out and tours on Sunday.