Village Irrigation Schemes in the Riverland- Waikerie.
One of the most amazing episodes of SA history occurred with the setting up of communistic village irrigation schemes. Partly as a response to the great depression of the early 1890s and high unemployment the SA government made amendments to the Crown Lands Act in 1893 to allow communes to set up villages along the Murray and pump water from the river. Eleven village communities were set up including Ramco, Waikerie, Kingston, Pyap, Lyrup, New Era, Gillen, Cadell and Murtho etc. The commune leased Crown Land from the government. The rules were fairly uniform across the villages and the control of the villages rested with the village Trustees, not the government. Single members paid around £40 to join a commune and couples around £60. They were allotted 5 acres of land or more to grow crops and produce fruit. No unmarried people could cohabit; no alcohol was allowed. Both these regulations were flouted. Jealousies and rivalries doomed most villages and all were hamstrung because they seldom could raise sufficient money to install a large enough pump for irrigation. The communes ran up huge debts for which the government was ultimately responsible! The most successful villages were Lyrup and Waikerie where they moved away from a commune type settlement to individual perpetual leases and a form of village cooperative. They also had the advantage of starting with more members, 70 at Lyrup and 40 at Waikerie. Overall the program was a disaster and many communes disappeared quickly in the mid-1890s. In 1900 they held a Royal Commission into the scheme which proposed closing down the scheme. The 1902 Village Settlement Act repealed the 1893 legislation. Most villages closed down in 1903 with only four continuing for a few more years as the leases moved towards their termination- Lyrup, Waikerie, Ramco and Kingston. The last village leases expired in 1916. But in the short term the Village Settlement Scheme produced amazing results and a number of the current irrigation areas of the Riverland owe their origins to this movement. By the end of 1894 across all the Village Settlement schemes there were 1,748 people living on the settlements in 389 houses with 5,602 acres cleared and with 2,623 acres planted in wheat. Within this one year works had been constructed to provide 305 irrigated acres with vines, citrus and stone fruit trees, 43 irrigated acres in potatoes and 27 irrigated acres in vegetables with 1,063 chains of irrigation channels built. This was a startling achievement and it became the basis for much of the Riverland expansion rather than the Chaffey experiment at Renmark. The story of what happened at Waikerie Village Settlement is typical of other village settlements but it was more successful than most.
Waikerie began as a village settlement scheme in 1894 on land near the Waikerie Station. The settlers arrived by horse and cart from Morgan where the train line ended. The group compromised 40 adult men and 110 women and children and their mix of skills and occupations indicated that the settlement should be a success provided the members worked hard and got along with each other. That was not to be. Many of the men had more than basic labouring skills Of the men there were: 38 labourers, 3 carpenters, 2 builders, 1 farmer, 1 nurseryman, 2 bootmakers, 1 tanner, 1 wheelwright, 1 sawyer, 3 painters, 1 storekeeper, 2 bakers, 1 miner, 2 plumbers, 1 gardener, 2 engineers, 1 school teacher, 1 dairyman and 1 blacksmith. The men set about felling and cutting the Mallee which they sold for firewood to passing paddle steamers, making bricks and levelling the land and digging irrigation channels. Next came planting. The money used for pumps for the irrigation area was not sufficient to get a large enough pump but it sufficed for a few years. By 1895 the settlement had :-700 lemon trees, 4,000 apricots, 3,400 vines, 14 stone and 3 wooden houses with 27 acres under irrigation, 7 acres planted in potatoes and a large acreage not irrigated in wheat. The commune had a large vegetable garden and commercial quantities of onions. Waikerie Village Settlement was a well organised and hardworking settlement unlike most of other settlements. Waikerie Settlement “had a degree of initiative unheard of in other settlements “but problems still existed. Single men and married men paid different rates to join the settlement and almost immediately conflict arose between the single men (mainly but not entirely) and the married men about the division of work and who should do the washing and cooking etc for the single men. This conflict led to the breakaway Village Settlement at Ramco. But Waikerie Settlement persisted and in 1897 it decided on ten acre blocks for individuals rather than having all lands worked communally.
By 1908 Waikerie had only 23 lessees and by 1909 it owed £666 collectively for land and works to the government and others. Some of that work included the old chimney on the river cliffs which acted as a flue for the first 1894 pumping station. At that point in 1909 Waikerie petitioned to be taken over by the government. Leases changed from village settlement ones to Irrigation Perpetual Leases controlled by the Lands and Survey department. In 1910 all this was reorganised and Waikerie came under the control of the new Irrigation and Reclamation department and the township was surveyed. The government began significant work in the Waikerie area and had over 400 applications from prospective settlers and farmers for this expanding irrigation area. The government almost immediately installed a much bigger pumping station to cope with the new development. So much of the visible history of the town begins around 1910 with the government survey. A town with eleven main streets and 66 housing blocks was surveyed and the land sold quickly.
The state school was established on its present site in 1913. It was built as a grand freestone school for several hundred children and identical buildings have been added to the school over the years to maintain conformity of design. Stores and shops did not really develop in Waikerie until around 1912. The Waikerie Hotel opened its doors in 1912 but it burnt down a few years ago and has been rebuilt with just a couple of the original walls remaining in the new structure. The Methodist Church in the centre of the Main Street was built in 1912 like the hotel. The Anglican Church behind the Woolworths Shopping Centre towards the Murray was built slightly earlier in 1911 making it the first church in Waikerie. It is a fine stone Gothic style building. The other early churches in Waikerie were the Evangelical Lutheran Church built in 1925 but now the primary school library. Prior to its opening Lutherans in Waikerie often attended the Lowbank Lutheran Church which was completed in 1913 although the congregation was formed earlier. The second Lutheran Church in Waikerie is a fine modern stone and terracotta tiled roof building which opened in 1953. It is now the only Lutheran Church in Waikerie. The Catholics of Waikerie purchased a block of land for the erection of a church in 1918 but the church was not completed until 1936. It is probably now the church hall. The impressive modern limestone severe facade Catholic Church was opened in 1958. The new railway line from Tailem Bend reached Waikerie in 1914 but there is nothing left of the rail yards or the station building these days as the line closed in the 1990s. The first Post Office opened in 1910. In 1914 Waikerie’s first Coffee Palace opened to offer a teetotal alternative to the hotel. It burned down a few years later and was not replaced as the teetotal movement waned. Landseer’s, the river traders and merchants from Milang, established a large warehouse and store in the town in 1911. The institute building came later and was not completed until 1921 as the town experienced another surge of development with new soldier settler farms in the district after World War One. One of the other very important early buildings in Waikerie was the Irrigation Managers Office in the Main Street just below the roundabout. The early pumps of 1910 which were the basis of the irrigation area are in the street parallel to the main street.
Most early industry in Waikerie was based around servicing the needs of the broad acre wheat farmers of the district and to some extent the orchardists too. Blacksmiths and implement makers were always important. But Waikerie had another early industry from the Village Settlement days which was based on selling Mallee logs and roots for fuelling paddle steamers in the 1890s and early 1900s. After the railway reached Waikerie in 1914 the fruit blockers were providing Mallee firewood for Adelaide homes. The major employer in Waikerie township today is Nippy’s Fruit Juice. Alic Knispel started this business in his packing sheds at Moorook, near Kingston-on-Murray in the 1930s. It was extended a little in the early 1960s by his sons with orange juice being sold to local shops in flagons. The Knispel family now owns three juicing facilities one in Moorook, the second is in Waikerie, and the third facility is at Regency Park in Adelaide. Waikerie is a major citrus, stone fruit and grape producing district like the rest of the Riverland. Waikerie has a second major juice production company in Crusta, owned by Coca Cola Amatil. To attract more visitors to Waikerie the town has recently completed an impressive silo art installation on the old grain silos at the former railway station site. South Australian artist Garry Duncan designed and painted some of the silos and Melbourne artist Jimmy Dvate painted the rest. Duncan concentrated on the River Murray itself and Dvate painted the yabby, the parrot and the Murray Hardyhead fish. The project was funded by the SA Government and a small grant from the Nature Foundation of SA. The theme depicts the health of the River Murray and its links to the community. The silos art is designed to be viewed from the River Murray as well as from the town. Two groups of silos have been painted in Waikerie one by each artist.
Tagged: , Waikerie , Riverland , Yabby , Regent Parrot , silo , silo art , art , Garry Duncan , Jimmy Dvate , bird , River Murray