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Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two-thirds of Australians live in cities and towns near the coastline. Nevertheless, the agricultural landscapes of the inland remain deeply inscribed with a colonial narrative about the heroic occupation of a difficult environment. The wheatlands region stretching across Australia offers a graphic illustration of the processes of social and economic change in rural and regional Australia. This chapter examines the role of social memory in Australia’s wheatlands, focusing on a farming landscape in the Lachlan Valley of central western NSW. It considers ways in which history and memory have embraced and mythologised the story of Australia’s golden age of agriculture in the mid-twentieth century, and reflects on the intersections between the experiences of Indigenous and settler Australians in this farming region.

That is the true test of a vital culture – to be able to sift through earlier achievements and rediscover new ways of seeing it, or us, or the world we live in, this ‘place’ that we all take as a map for our journeys (Shapcott 1991 p. 23).

In 1999, the Commonwealth Government conducted a national inquiry into the impact of its National Competition Policy reforms on rural and regional communities across Australia (Productivity Commission 1999). Personal testimonials to the inquiry revealed the extent to which people living in these regions harboured great anxiety about the fragile state of their communities. The regions most seriously affected were concentrated in the Mallee and Wimmera districts of western Victoria, the wheat-growing districts in the central and western regions of New South Wales, and in the south-west of Western Australia. People talked about the unravelling of their communities’ social fabric, and attributed blame to the government’s policies (p. 11). Meanwhile, larger regional centres, so-called ‘sponge’ cities, soaked up people relocating from the scattered farming settlements, strangling the life of small towns and villages. Across the settled inland, these small settlements were withering, and the ‘dying town’ syndrome was most dramatically represented in the dryland wheat and sheep ‘belts’ (p. 27).

The wheatlands regions are dedicated to the production of agricultural and pastoral commodities for world markets.1 These cropped and grazed landscapes are neither mountainous, nor coastal, nor desert. Australian geographer, Joe Powell has called them Australia’s ‘landscapes of hopes’. ‘Perhaps the most salutary lessons of the postwar era’, he wrote in a history of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science published during Australia’s Bicentennial year, ‘are encountered in the intermediate spaces between the urban and outback or interior zones of Australia’ (Powell 1988 p. 264). These intermediate spaces loom large in the psyche of urban Australia.

In the years after World War Two the expanding wheatlands, sparsely-settled and infernally dry, came to be imagined as a tide of progressive agricultural and pastoral enterprise in an acquiescent, if not benign, landscape. They were primed for a new phase of closer settlement, equipped with the new tools of technology and science from which the potential fruits of reconstruction would be reaped. It was an unruly environment, progressively being brought to heel by twentieth century technology and scientific know-how (Reeves 1990). The wheatlands emerged as the public face of the post-war nation, invoking its true character and spirit. In one of the most highly urbanised nations in the world, they were deeply inscribed with a colonial narrative about the heroic occupation of a difficult environment. This ‘national rural myth’ memorialised the story of settlers who arrived in the first years of the colony and later became selectors of rural land from which they struggled to make a living (Hirst 1978 pp. 316–337; Hirst 1982 pp. 14–37). Many older Australians were nurtured on school and media images depicting a rural prosperity and abundance that flowed out to the coastal cities from the vast, swaying paddocks of the inland slopes and plains. The history of colonisation was neatly contained within a consensus of rural settler narratives that sought to erase the unsettling histories of environmental change and Indigenous belonging. The following stories explore this interplay of history and social memory in the wheatlands, suggesting ways in which these agricultural landscapes have become deeply mythologised.2

Figure 3.1 The extent of Australia’s wheatlands at the end of the twentieth century.


On a winter’s evening in 2002 ten friends, all local farmers, settled in for a reflective post-dinner conversation about the landscape they call home. Most of the group were related by blood or marriage. Some had attended the same one-roomed schoolhouse at Yaddra in the central Lachlan Valley, part of the wheatlands of New South Wales. At its peak in the 1960s, the Yaddra schoolhouse boasted up to seventeen pupils. It drew children from a nine-mile radius, and the local families used to get together for bonfires in June, a concert and tree at Christmas time. Parents taught children to swim at the weir in Booberoi Creek. They would play tennis on Sundays. Then there were sports days, cricket games, community picnics, dances at local halls. Small farming communities like Yaddra seemed to be everywhere then. They were the fruits of closer settlement policies that had been sown by successive state governments since the turn of the century.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the pastoral stations of the Lachlan Valley had provided the nucleus of social and working life for settlers. The pastoral industry generated a huge demand for labour, typically employing and accommodating a core group of permanent workers and their families. In the first decades of the twentieth century, settlement and farming activity intensified, enclosing the pastoral landscapes of the Lachlan Valley into wheat paddocks and weaving new threads into the social fabric. The forms of transport available in the years before World War Two limited the distances that farming families could travel for social events, and consolidated the small wheatlands settlements as the nucleus of community life. Railway lines knitted across the central western plains of New South Wales, creating a network of tiny settlements in their wake. Typical of the wheatlands across southern Australia, many were little more than grain receival centres dotted at regular intervals along the line, their presence signalled by a cluster of cylindrical grain silos and a few modest cottages.

Figure 3.2 Lachlan River, New South Wales.

Adapted from NSW Department of Environment and Conservation map (

In the aftermath of World War Two, the Rural Reconstruction Commission embarked on a national program of agricultural expansion. Agricultural communities had been dissipated by two decades of economic depression, war and drought, and the fate of the nation seemed to rest with their well-being. The Australian Government was keen to instil a sense of confidence in the nation’s economic fortunes, and the wheatlands were to be part of the solution. Even as the Second World War raged, it was assumed that agriculture would be central to the economic and emotional revitalisation of the nation. The government’s strategy involved a variety of subsidies and bounties to assist farmers. The strategy coincided with an escalating demand for wool and wheat on international markets. It was a period in which technological and scientific advances offered farmers the means of increasing productivity, and the means to address environmental problems such as the rabbit plagues and soil deficiencies that had so troubled them before the war. It was also a period in which climatic conditions became more amenable to agriculture in south-eastern Australia. By 1950, wool and wheat combined accounted for nearly half of the rural economy, and provided up to 90 per cent of Australia’s rural exports. Market prices and farmer incomes soared. Rural social reform was central to the government’s strategy. The reforms focused on modernisation, decentralisation, and civic progress, and the social calendars of local farming communities began to swell with civic events and celebrations. Institutions like the agricultural show and the Country Women’s Association became the hallmarks of community cohesiveness and stability (Brown 1995 pp. 147–149; Darian-Smith 2002 pp. 96–97). Almost every farm owned a wireless by then, and families tuned in daily for news and entertainment. The Australian Broadcasting Commission obliged them with shows such as the ‘Country Hour’, launched on 3 December 1945. It provided up-to-date information dedicated to farmers and graziers, including weather, market reports, and local and international developments in agriculture to help ‘the man on the land’, broadcast at lunch-time to enable farmers to tune in. Long-running serials such as The Lawsons, then Blue Hills, not only entertained but also helped to promote cultural values and stereotypes about rural life (Inglis 1983 p. 9).

When the acclaimed Australian poet and author, Judith Wright, penned an essay on ‘Country Towns’ in the 1960s she invoked life in an imaginary country town (Wright 1963). Hers was a vibrant community. Full employment, diverse rural industries, and sociable sale days prevailed. According to Wright, it was ‘a prosperous and cheerful place to live in’. Local inhabitants were ‘enterprising and friendly, or retiring and quiet’ and, above all, resourceful and satisfied (Wright 1963 pp. 10–24, 32). Their town was small enough to know everyone. Wright’s cheerful account formed part of a series of articles published by Oxford University Press under the banner, ‘Life in Australia’. The series was undoubtedly pitched at prospective post-war migrants, Wright’s contribution serving to promote the image of post-war Australia as an agricultural idyll and to illustrate the pivotal role that the countryside still played in the life of its inhabitants.

In reality, however, extended drought and severe economic stress were never very far beneath the surface of rural life. Even as governments were aggressively promoting agricultural development as the elixir of national prosperity, an undercurrent of anxiety persisted in the southern agricultural regions of inland Australia. In the 1930s and 1940s, a diabolical combination of drought and economic depression had ravaged wheatlands communities. In the early 1930s, the Commonwealth Government’s Royal Commission on the wheat, flour and bread industries dealt at length on the ‘conditions of adversity’ amongst Australia’s 70,000 wheat farmers, and the role of government relief in keeping them on the land (Commonwealth of Australia 1934). In the midst of World War Two, The University of Melbourne’s School of Agriculture conducted two surveys of social conditions and attitudes in rural Victoria. One focused on country towns, and the other on farms (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944; Holt 1947). These wartime studies offered a raw snapshot of daily life in towns and farms across the wheatlands in the mid-twentieth century. People worried about whether their town or district would have a function once the war ended, and they felt keenly the centralisation of administrative powers. Civic progress associations and closer settlement schemes were on fertile ground here. The McIntyres, for example, highlighted the nexus between the fate of the towns and the farms that surrounded them. ‘The two interact on one another’, they observed. ‘Failure of agriculture means, ultimately, failure of the towns dependent on it’. Conversely, the failure of a town as a social centre impacted on the ‘mental attitude of farming families’ (McIntyre and McIntyre 1944 pp. v–vi). Rural farming regions were socially divided, conservative, and culturally impoverished. And if the inhabitants of country towns were isolated, the social prospects for families living on farming blocks were positively bleak. Holt described how farming families were suspicious of town people. They even preferred to use the telephone to talk to their neighbours who, by now, were more widely dispersed as farmers acquired more land to remain economically viable. Women living on farms were, he concluded, virtually ‘social hermits’. ‘One cannot be other than impressed by the isolation which smudges with a dirty finger almost all the fabric of the social organisation of the wheat areas’ (Holt 1947 pp. 175–176).

The agricultural boom of the 1950s and 1960s seemed all the sweeter for the difficulties of the preceding decades. For farmers who grew up in this period, it took on the image of a ‘golden age’ that came to represent the full flowering of the closer settlement ideology and the pioneer legend. The difficulties and failures of the 1930s and 1940s were deeply etched into the memories of farmers, but the solutions offered by technology and science empowered them to reinvent the heroic pioneering narrative as their own. The idealised image of the technically-skilled, hard-working and, above all, independent farmer was central to the rhetoric of decentralisation and rural development. The image was grounded in the knowledge that the independent farming family would be ably assisted, not by workers, but by improved farming technology and the application of scientific research to increase productivity and prosperity. It developed into a powerful touchstone for social memory, looming out of a dark period in which drought and soil erosion had quite literally blackened the inland skies and stirred up vitriolic debates about whether Australia had an agricultural destiny at all. The mid-twentieth century crystallised in local memory as the period in which the normative state of Australian agriculture was achieved. Nevertheless, even as governments continued to resume swathes of pastoral land for resettlement of returning servicemen and their families on small-scale farming blocks, the doctrines of closer settlement were starting to unravel. ‘The irony’ notes Nicholas Brown ‘was that, despite the relative rural prosperity of the fifties, the self-employed farmer and his civic-minded wife presided over a highly mechanised (and often generously subsidised) enterprise at the beginning of a steady decline in both the rural labour force... and in the commercial infrastructure of rural society... coupled to a gradual increase in farm size’ (Brown 1995 p. 150).

In the central Lachlan wheatlands, nostalgia for the apparently easy comforts of the post-war decades is palpable. Farmers wistfully recall shorter working hours, and especially more time and opportunity for social gatherings. Most of the places that people value are intimately connected with extended family and neighbours, born of the shared legacy of creating a farm in ‘new’ country. They locate their identity in small-scale farming and an intimate sense of community, the epitome of closer settlement ideology. Local histories lovingly detail the evolution of civic organisations, and the importance of cultural activities. With the rough roads and long distances between towns, the amenities of closer settlement provided the opportunity for social interaction.

Vermont Hill, Melrose, they had little tennis days, every 20 miles or so there’d be a little tennis court, and they were as active as anything. Kiakatoo, they were all over the place.3

Like so many other farms in the central Lachlan, Kiakatoo had been a large pastoral property prior to closer settlement. Just after the Second World War, the farming community around the newly-established railway siding built themselves a hall. It was a humble tin shed surrounded by sheep pasture, but it was the focus for local gatherings. At the end of the twentieth century, it was still a meeting place for groups such as the Country Women’s Association. Vera Thomms recalls how:

the shed on Kiakatoo was a dance hall. They used to be great, those. And they were special places because they were where everybody congregated. Quite a lot of the places used to have balls. These little communities used to have a hall and a tennis court. Somebody would give a bit of land, and then these things would be put up on it, because that was our only entertainment then.4

The local hall was a social lifeline for farming communities, a place where people separated by property fences could meet. Many were built by local farming communities using donated materials, and they gradually replaced ageing woolsheds as the twentieth century symbol of community spirit and connectedness. They provided the venue for local club meetings, rural celebrations, shows and, perhaps most memorable of all, local balls and dances. In the post-war decades, dances were ‘overwhelmingly the most popular form of social recreation in rural Australia’, and the very identity of a district could depend on their survival (O’Shea 1993 p. 73; O’Shea 1998 p. 708).

The Yaddra group mourns the loss of these local gatherings, the diminished opportunities for socialising. Neighbours and friends still gather to help someone clear a ‘back paddock’ or fight a fire but they are more likely now to see each other at agricultural training days, or the increasingly frequent property clearance sale. As the locus of social memory, the relics of closer settlement have come to emphasise feelings of irreversible change and rural abandonment in the wheatlands. Each interview in this farming landscape yields a litany of lost places.

There’s the same sort of thing as what I’m talking about all through that country between Narromine and Tullamore and Tullamore and Condo. There’s old tennis courts and you look at them and you think, ‘Gee, people used to come out on Saturdays and Sundays in their whites and that court was immaculately groomed and with lines all on it’. Now the bloody fences are falling over and the net posts are there, but if you put a net on them it’d pull them down. I hate it. I absolutely hate it because it’s an era that’s finished.5

In the wheatlands, the heartland of rural decline, memory illuminates the social significance, rather than the agricultural or commercial viability, of the farming landscape, and locates it in those places most closely associated with social interaction and a sense of community. ‘Suddenly’, David Lowenthal remarked when writing about similar processes of rural decline in Europe, ‘landscape seems to be everywhere... The locus of memory lies more readily in place than in time, in locale than in epoch. In the shift from centralized history toward dispersed patrimony, landscape seems the seat of collective memory, rooted as it is in specific sites and suffused with the quotidian and the communal’ (Lowenthal 1997 p. 180). Echoing through local stories in the central Lachlan is a sense of regret that such connections are eroding, not only materially, but in the collective memory of the district. Their decay underscores the apparent erosion of things that were once valued, the sense of loss sharpened by a perceived weakening of community ties. It suggests that the unravelling of small settlements and closely settled farmland fractured any sense of a shared destiny, however illusory that may have been. As one of the Yaddra group remarks:

The people play a huge part in your association with the land, your neighbours, friends... they’re all doing the same thing, they’re farming, we’re all in the same boat.6

Figure 3.3 Telling the wheatlands story. A mural in Condobolin’s main street.

Photograph by Joy McCann.

Writing about American urban life, Dolores Hayden (1995) argued that the fracturing of the relationship between history and memory has generated a sense of disjunction between past and present. Social memory revealed through story-telling, she argues, serves an important function in making the past comprehensible, particularly for those groups that have been marginalised in dominant historical narratives. By locating social memory in place, she suggests, we gain the greatest insights into the ‘human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments’, helping people to define their shared ‘public pasts’ and represent them to outsiders who seek to understand the physical and social history of an area. Edward S Casey’s term, ‘place memory’, captures this idea. ‘It is the stabilising persistence of place as a container of experiences that contributes so powerfully to its intrinsic memorability. An alert and alive memory connects spontaneously with place, finding in it features that favour and parallel its own activities’ (Hayden 1995 p. 46). In the rural landscape, particular places trigger social memory and assume a subtle, but heightened significance for the wider community. This is the essence of the heritage concept of social significance, as played out in the farming landscapes of Australia’s wheatlands. Links between people and place run deep, regardless of the temporal scale involved. In a landscape where the past is counted in two or three generations, the Yaddra group locate a sense of community in small-scale farming, intersecting interests and common destinies. The places most closely associated with a sense of community reverberate in local stories. Even as people relinquish their farms, social ties and a sense of community continue to play a crucial part in the farming landscape. Everyone in the group regrets that the stories, and the places they inhabit, are disappearing. Most of the places mentioned are intimately connected with extended family and neighbours. They render social differences and exclusions irrelevant to the more powerful myth of community cohesion and identity.

Perhaps one reason for the emphatic referencing to a diminished sense of community, symbolised in derelict woolsheds and abandoned tennis courts, may be found in the mobility of farming life in Australia’s wheatlands. Migration stories figure prominently amongst the farmers of the central Lachlan. Indeed, the movement of farmers, from South Australia into the Wimmera and Mallee regions of Victoria, and into southern New South Wales in the early twentieth century, was a defining characteristic of the expanding wheatlands ‘frontier’. For many of those who settled in the central Lachlan, family associations with the wheatlands began in another place, and the ties that bind people in this landscape offer a heightened sense of stability and belonging. As the Yaddra group ponders the experience of change, they talk in the language of survivors of the ‘onslaught of economic, environmental and cultural transformations’ (Darian-Smith 2002 p. 99). By the end of the twentieth century, young people had apparently left the land in droves. City-based corporations occupied large tracts of farmland. Farming families enjoyed the increased mobility that comes with car ownership and regular bus services to the larger towns, previously considered too far away. Administrative and service centres such as Condobolin thrived, but often at the expense of smaller settlements.

Around the table, the farmers move closer to the collective mud-map of their district, adding their individual place memories in fragmented stories. The Yaddra school site is now not much more than a group of stumps, a gate, trees, a flagpole. It still serves to give this group of farmers a potent sense of connection, with the past, with each other, and with the landscape. Places of belonging, often generated within just two or three generations, are powerful mediators between present and past. Within their own lifetimes, traces of early settlement have been ploughed under the paddocks, left to the elements, or dismantled, the materials reused for other more urgent or practical purposes. The material culture of settlement is rendered surprisingly ephemeral in working agricultural landscapes. Places like Yaddra assume heightened significance, and their demise sharpens local perceptions of eroded values and community. A former president of the Ootha Landcare group muses that people are now seeking alternative ways to maintain their social connections, and the quest to stay on the land becomes the common bond.

I always said that that was one of the reasons why the Landcare group went so well, because people were missing that tie with their neighbours.7

The relics of pastoralism and closer settlement offer stark evidence of rural change. They also provide fertile ground for the mythological flourishing of a golden age, where social divisions melted away and a sense of community prevailed. The farmers of Yaddra demonstrate that links between places, people, and feelings of belonging run deep. With the death of each ‘old-timer’, the departure of another farming family, the disappearance of places like Yaddra, historical understanding has become embedded in the landscape, and mobilized through social memory.


About half way along the Lachlan River, at a place called Gobothery Hill, a stone cairn stands somewhat forlornly amidst a dusty scattering of trees. The memorial commemorates the site where the colony’s Surveyor-General, John Oxley, camped with his expedition party in 1817. The party had travelled from the Belubula River, through the sites of present-day Cowra and Forbes, then detoured south-west around marshy country, returning north-west to rejoin the Lachlan River and explore it downstream to Booligal. Returning upstream, they found the grave of a tribal leader who had been buried after drowning in floodwaters. It had been a hard day, with the horses constantly mired in the claggy grey soils of the Lachlan River floodplains. As Oxley’s men and beasts trampled the ground to make camp G.H. Evans, the expedition’s second-in-command, sketched the grave and two trees that stood guard to the north and west. The grave was distinguished by a semi-circular tumulus mounded in the centre and three tiers of seats on one side. Two cypress pine trees, carved with traditional markings, signalled the presence of an important Wiradjuri man. This was the traditional country of the Calare or Kalar, a distinctive group of Wiradjuri-speaking people.

Wiradjuri was one of the largest Indigenous nations in Australia, embracing more than thirty separate clans, and their country ranged from Lithgow to the Hay Plains. Wiradjuri occupied much of the southern and central plains of NSW, between the Wambool (renamed Macquarie by later settlers), Kalar (Lachlan) and Murrumbidgerie (Murrumbidgee) Rivers. As Oxley’s men dismantled the grave, Oxley noted in his journal the exhumation, the appearance of the corpse, and the reburial (Oxley 1820 pp. 139–141). Years later, someone would erect a stone cairn, and etch a brass plaque to commemorate Oxley’s achievements at this Wiradjuri site. On 29 July 1914, a small group of settlers gathered around the cairn for the unveiling ceremony. The Minister of Labour and Industry spoke of the ‘truly Australian national spirit’ embodied in this site. ‘It was the bounden duty of all Australians’, he said, ‘to search for and preserve the earliest links of the discovery and opening up of Australia’.8 By this time, the Wiradjuri nation was decimated, and settler narratives echoed official opinion that the Indigenous people of the Lachlan were part of a dying race. The Aboriginal landscape was all but silenced by the din of agricultural progress.

Barbara Allen grew up at the old Condobolin Mission. She used to organise gangs of young Aboriginal people to undertake contract work on local farms, and she used to do tractor driving, fencing, landmarking, stock picking, burr cutting. ‘Whatever had to be done on the land, I’ve done it’.9 As she talks about her life, Barbara describes her relationship with local farming families and their properties:

Figure 3.4 Frontier history. Cairn commemorating the first exploration of western New South Wales and the discovery of a Wiradjuri grave, central Lachlan Valley.

Photograph by Joy McCann

I thank the lord for my grandmother and my mother, and for the other elders, because they were the ones that worked the land too. And with the farmers, a lot of farmers wouldn’t understand... how we feel about them running the land, and how much we hurt when we know that a farm’s getting sold, because we know the people... we’re part of it. You never tell the farmers that, and we should... You’ve got to understand the farmers, their battle, and you worked in with them... they’re the people that, because they love the land and [my] people love the land, you feel so close to them.10

The farming landscapes around Condobolin are also Harry Webber’s country. In his younger days, he worked on the big local pastoral stations and acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the district’s settler history.

Well, see, years ago in Kiakatoo, I can show you the spot, after the 1914 war they give a lot of that country of Kiakatoo to the returned diggers. I can show you a little stone plaque where there was houses. Go down the main road, back this way from Wardry Weir, there’s apple trees and quince trees and everything where there used to be gardens along. There used to be a pub down there too... and there was a pub down there at the Eleven Mile.11

The old pubs that used to break the long distances between properties provide a useful reference for recalling localities and events in the district. Harry remembers an elderly woman coming to ask him about the history of Melrose Station where her family selected land after it was subdivided for closer settlement. He knows where to find the site of the family home, indicated by a large tree that now grows there.

Then you go out to No man’s Land. I was out there looking for cattle in No Man’s Land, it’s pretty rough country, and I ran into a cemetery out there. It was all red marble headstone. Out in the scrub.12

He reported the grave to the owner of the property. Each story leads to another. There is a cluster of graves at Moonbie on the banks of the Lachlan, where a school teacher and group of children drowned trying the cross the river in flood. A swag of flood stories follow. The anecdotes are a rich chronicle of local places and people, Wiradjuri and farmers and immigrant labourers intermingled, and recounted with much laughter and gusto. As Harry talks, the silent Wiradjuri landscape swells into life. Any distinction between settler and Indigenous history evaporates.

In the wheatlands of eastern and southern Australia, the intensity of closer settlement, the enclosure of land into family farms, and the concerted efforts of successive governments to disperse then assimilate Aboriginal people into white society might easily have erased their connections with country. Wiradjuri stories, however, offer an exquisite paradox for the heroic pioneer legend. The agricultural phenomenon of the wheatlands may represent the centrepiece of rural settler history, but its stories are vividly remembered by local Aboriginal people who also worked in this farming landscape. Meanwhile, local settler histories move swiftly through early European accounts of tribal groups along the river, as a preface to the main story of settler occupation. Where Wiradjuri appeared at all, they were portrayed in a narrative about their ‘passing away’, the precursor for the ‘more important drama of white settlement’, as William Cronon (1992) put it. Their physical marginalisation to the fringes of town, contributes to a perception amongst farming families that Wiradjuri had been all but erased from the wheatlands. Meanwhile, the material culture of the dispossessed is stored in local museums and private collections, and any meaningful connections between contemporary Wiradjuri and their ancestral country are vigorously denied. W.E.H. Stanner called it ‘the great Australian silence’ (Stanner 1969 p. 25). This ‘strategic forgetting’ became a way of remembering the past that legitimised and normalised European occupation, rendering Aboriginal people invisible in the colonised landscape.

Farmers of the central Lachlan are not without feeling for the experiences of the Indigenous Wiradjuri people. When asked about Aboriginal affinity with the land, some express empathy for the effects of dispossession and cultural fragmentation, the need to have links with the past or, as one farmer put it, some ‘sense of ownership and being owned’. One farmer recalls the thrill of excitement as a child, always digging up axe heads and polished stones on his family’s farm, and taking them to show his father. He recalls how he grew up with the son of an Aboriginal couple who worked on Kiakatoo. They became good friends over the years. While farmers may reflect warmly on early friendships forged with the children of Aboriginal workers, the question of whether this continues to be Wiradjuri country invariably elicits a guarded response. Even here, in the implacably settled and cultivated landscapes of the wheatlands, farmers reveal nothing for fear of being ‘Maboed’. Those who can still recall Aboriginal families living on surrounding stations allude to them as the last of the generation who had, as one farmer put it, a ‘natural affinity to the land’. Their willingness to work on farms was considered to be not only a sign of respectability, but also cultural integrity. The demise of Aboriginal farm labour is linked to the demise of the old Aboriginal ‘gentlemen’. This denial of authenticity goes hand in hand with the observation that local Wiradjuri no longer have any ties to the farming landscape.

I think it’s very hard for Aboriginals to be close to the land because they just don’t get to wander on it. It’s all been shut down. Yes, they don’t get an opportunity to experience the land.13

The apparent weakening of Wiradjuri memory, stories and language reinforces the perception that traditional Wiradjuri country in this part of the wheatlands is now populated only by archaeological sites. This perception has forced Wiradjuri to focus their claims for cultural authenticity on the physical evidence of occupation. Sites containing the remains of pre-mission life are highly valued, and they are rarely inanimate. Barbara Allen tells a story about her son running home one day to tell her that the children had been raking out some sand delivered to the school. They found it contained human remains from an old burial ground. She traced the source of the sand to a private sand-mining operation. The soft sand hills along the Lachlan were favoured for Wiradjuri burials. She remembers looking down into the pit, and seeing the remains of her people exposed.

They had the skulls, all smashed with bullet holes, and there was hundreds, all around embedded, all around the walls... I sat there, and you know I went down on my knees, I cried for them, and this wind come. And it was just like all of them was howling at the same time.14

The site became the subject of a legal case to halt the sand-mining. It was subsequently fenced and labelled as a significant Aboriginal place, and a portion of the Condobolin General Cemetery set aside for reburial of the remains.

There is a potent sense of engagement with the past in Wirajduri stories. Whilst Western archaeologists have been preoccupied with collecting and preserving physical artifacts of the past, older Wiradjuri harbour vivid stories of new relationships formed with this ‘dead’ country of their ancestors. Long after family groups were dispersed to camps along the river, they continue to resurrect the sanctity of old places, and weave new stories to repair their fractured history. The stories give emphasis to continuity rather than separation, living social and spiritual connections rather than antiquity. The imperative is to regain a sense of belonging, particularly for the younger people educated in settler history and the stories of the cultural demise of their own people. Ironically, whilst the settler stories of old places are infused with nostalgia and regret for eroded values and lost community, Wiradjuri stories convey a sense of vitality and immediacy in the present. The Wiradjuri experience suggests that stories of connection still move lightly amongst the orderly grid of fenced paddocks. In the central Lachlan, Wiradjuri history is literally written into the past. But, all the time, the act of remembering enables Wiradjuri descendants to work against the grain of dominant settler narratives.


With the dawn of this new century, another drought unfolded in Australia. The drought is about as bad as they get. Comparisons are made with the last big ‘dry’ in 1990, and the ones before that in living memory. One hundred years ago, the Australian inland was in the terminal stages of a drought that lasted, with little relief, for six years. Drought and death are part of life in Australia’s wheatlands. As dry conditions prevail, weather maps are scrutinised, crops germinate and falter in the paddocks, and stock and kangaroos compete for dwindling grasses. Dust storms whip ancient soils into life. The whole landscape seems to be on the move as westerly winds drive the lighter particles eastward, towards the densely populated coastal fringes. Perhaps city dwellers will taste the drought and contemplate the physical realities of the inland. Perhaps the dust storms are merely symbolic of a more general exodus, as people vacate their farms and towns and drift coastward, or resettle in regional centres offering greater social and economic opportunity. They may reflect on the fact that soil and population drift are simply a fact of life in the settled landscapes of the inland.

Few historians of the wheatlands have considered these working agricultural landscapes as places of memory and storytelling. The historiography of Australian farming has rarely strayed from the premise that the wheatlands is predominantly an economic zone, and that Australia’s agricultural destiny would prevail.15 Even as the people of the wheatlands struggled to measure up to expectations of easy abundance in the late twentieth century, narrators of settler history continued to portray the development of agriculture as a spiritual triumph and a key tenet of national identity. Yet key historical questions remain about the myth of agricultural abundance, narratives of social and ecological change, and shifting relationships between Aboriginal and settler Australians in working agricultural landscapes. Indeed, a historical perspective is noticeably absent in much of the contemporary discourses about rural Australia. Graeme Davison has written that one of the challenges facing Australian historians is to ‘reaffirm the value of the past to the present, not in the misleading form of a predictive science, but as a study that illuminates the subtle interaction between environmental, social, political and personal forces in the process of historical change’ (Davison 2000 p. 270). Australia’s wheatlands have been shaped by powerful and competing historical narratives that are made explicit through the processes of remembering and storytelling. The land remains a ‘powerfully mythologised’ place (Read 2000 p. 176), its stories capturing and sustaining intimate connections between land and people. In these heartlands of rural decline, the stories of place and belonging lie embedded in river banks, and buried beneath sand drifts along old fence lines. If, as William Cronin suggests, we tell stories to make sense of our lives and to place our experiences in a wider context (Cronon 1992 p. 1369), then the memories and stories that inhabit Australia’s wheatlands are surely ripe for the retelling.16


I would like to thank Dr Tom Griffiths, Head of the History Program at the Australian National University for his unwavering support for the PhD research from which this chapter is drawn. I am grateful for the financial support that permitted me to undertake this research, received from the University of Canberra and the former Australian Heritage Commission through the Australian Government’s SPIRT (Strategic Partnerships in Industry Research and Training) program, and for valuable assistance from Emeritis Professor Ken Taylor, Associate Professor Brian Egloff, and Ms Alex Marsden. Finally, I would like to thank the people of the Lachlan Valley who generously shared their time and memories for this research.


Condobolin News.

Interviews (pseudonyms used; recordings held by the author):

Barbara Allen, 10 May 2001.

Ben Atkins, 5 April 2001.

Harry Webber, 19 June 2001.

Ken Shield, 5 April 2001.

Ted Carr, 3 April 2001.

Vera Thomms, 4 April 2001.

Yaddra group, 22 June 2002.


1     The term ‘wheatlands’ refers to the elongated crescent-shaped agricultural region dominated by commercial broadacre wheat and sheep farms stretching from south-western Western Australia to southern Queensland. The wheatlands, also known as the ‘wheat belt’ or wheat-sheep zone, reflects the complex history of engagement of a settler society with the semi-arid landscapes of the inland.

2     Social memory reflects the way past events and processes are remembered and given meaning by a group of people who share a common history or experience. It sheds light on culturally-defined and shared meanings, and how these meanings are embedded in landscape and place.

3     Interview with Ken Shield.

4     Interview with Vera Thomms.

5     Shield interview.

6     Interview with Ted Carr.

7     Interview with Ben Atkins.

8     Condobolin News, 8 August 1914.

9     Interview with Barbara Allen.

10    Allen interview.

11    Interview with Harry Webber.

12    Interview with Harry Webber.

13    Atkins interview.

14    Interview with Barbara Allen.

15    Edgars Dunsdorfs’ classic history of Australian farming published in 1956, for example, drew on statistical evidence to analyse the changing economic and social fortunes of wheat-growing regions from colonisation to World War Two. Sir Samuel Wadham, writing in the 1960s, used his experience of a joint study on land utilisation in the 1930s to chart the advance and retreat of the wheatlands in each of the Australian states. Wadham hailed the history of the wheatlands as a remarkable transition from exploitative to intensive utilisation of land, pointing to increases in productivity as a result of improvements in scientific knowledge about soils, plants and animals. (Wadham and Wood 1957). See also Callaghan and Millington 1956; Whitwell and Sydenham 1991.

16    The relationship between rural places and issues of social and ecological change has attracted increasing attention from Australian historians since the 1990s. See, for example, Read 1998; Read 2000; Lucas and Goodall 1997; Lane 1997; Gill 1997; Harrison 2004.


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Cite this article as: McCann, Joy. ‘History and memory in Australia’s wheatlands’. Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia, edited by Davison, Graeme; Brodie, Marc. Melbourne: Monash University ePress; 2005. pp. 03.1–03.17.

Struggle Country: The Rural Ideal in Twentieth Century Australia

   by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie