Tag Archives: Paxton

The (lost) road to Sheep Station Creek

THERE MUST BE a hundred or more Sheep Station Creeks in Australia. The one I know is in Kamilaroi Country, and I recently went back to find it because I’m working on a novel about a town that disappeared.

My exploration was a reminder of just how quickly such a thing can happen.

As a kid I regularly traversed the black soil lands west of Delungra, and I recall being told that Dufty’s Lane, on which our farm ‘Paxton’ stood, once ran between the Bingara Road and another place deeper in these blue hills, decades before we moved in.

That destination was Sheep Station Creek, a generous watercourse that often flooded, according to the oral history, cutting off residents of the village with the same name once too often.

Their solution was to head up into our valley along Dufty’s Lane, which runs straight to the Bingara Road crossing creeks close enough to their source to let most of the water get away. From there, it’s a short run into Delungra where there was a railway station, school and post office.

Armed with a map and memories of landmarks (there’s no phone signal out there) I headed west from Delungra to Kaloona. Here, I turned south onto Reserve Creek Road where Gragin Peak sits distinctly almost directly to the north.

After slowly and subtly dropping into a valley, a crusty signpost pointing to Sheep Station Creek greeted me not far south of where Reserve Creek flows into it. The water was flowing beautifully, creating wide, shaded pools as it winds through the district. With plenty of properties along the way, it seems the perfect place to put down roots; but there’s little sign this was once a place with a name.

‘This little spot’

It seems the closest Sheep Station Creek ever got to being recognised was in century-old reports. One, published in The Inverell Times three weeks after the Australian Imperial Forces’ landing at Gallipoli in 1915, called the region “this little spot” in “the corners of Inverell, Warialda and Bingara districts”.

The write up reads as though it was penned by a local, speaking of a rifle club and tennis meets; and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses agisted in the valley during a “recent dry spell”.

The annual minutes of the local “F&S Club” branch were reported, mentioning the arrival of the telephone service, a rise in rates, the plan for a local polling booth, and various road repairs.

“The Shire Council has effected an agreement with St Clair Bros, in regard to the road through their properly, which, though not final, puts residents, on a more satisfactory footing,” the report reads.

The St Clairs were Percival and Harold, second joint owners of Paxton. A 1916 report in the Tamworth Daily Observer mentions the success the brothers were having in the cultivation of various grains on Paxton, with a particular focus on Sudan Grass, a highly nutritious fodder sorghum they were selling as seed. Harold was also doing well out of breeding horses for the track.

The writer of that report didn’t mention Dufty’s Lane by name. They called it “the Road to Sheep Station Creek”.

It certainly sounded like a place that was burgeoning, so what happened?

A changed world

The day I passed though. the weather-beaten pointer to Sheep Station Creek was hidden in the shadow of a signpost to a place with a more notorious name.

I followed it and soon ended up at the old Myall Creek Hall, where, with my siblings and friends, we once played on the swings and performed on the raked wooden stage at Christmas. I’d arrived at this place by another route in 2015 for the annual memorial of the Myall Creek Massacre.

A local volunteer was mowing the lawns, so I got to have a slow look inside.

In the dusty light, I noticed an honour roll, which likely goes some way to explaining the disappearance of Sheep Station Creek. Two of the four St Clair brothers – Harold and Christoper – appear on it. After enlisting late in a war that no-one knew would end soon (a similar board at Delungra was embossed “1914-191_‘), Harold returned but his younger brother did not.

The weekly papers of the New England region are filled with the lists of the war dead and wounded across these years. Harold St Clair’s bushman’s skills were exploited in Palestine, not the racetrack. He returned to a changed world in 1919.

If the residents of Sheep Station Creek – just getting a foothold on their lands in 1916 – were impacted at the same rate of loss as the rest of the New England community, is it any wonder the hopes in those branch minutes were blown away like sorghum seeds no-one was around to harvest?

Out of place

I continued on the Myall Creek Massacre memorial site, taking the short walk to remind myself of the story of the Wirrayaraay women, children and old men whose lives ended so brutally at the hands of colonial settlers in 1838.

The Wirrayarray’s custodianship of Myall Creek was forever interrupted by this episode of Australia’s Frontier Wars. It’s not clear what the residents of Sheep Station Creek knew or understood of the massacre, although I was told about it as a child while playing at the Myall Creek Hall in the 1970s.

War stories tend to get handed down the generations. The loss of large parts of some generations due to conflict is something all cultures have in common. Hopefully we can remember all the fallen on the one honour board before long, by including the Frontier Wars in our ceremonies.

Despite my hunt along every rut, track and open gate, the road down to Sheep Station Creek from Dufty’s Lane appears to be long gone.

Perhaps Sheep Station Creek survives in other memories and family stories? These remote hills and valleys are filled with place names that exist only on maps, or remnant signposts standing by old roads to nowhere, travelled by dreamers like me who are drawn by legends and century-old meeting news clippings.

In that sense, the fictitious town that disappears in the manuscript I’m currently reworking is hardly out of place. It’s just another bend in another creek somewhere.

Back in town

Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).
DAY IN COURT Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).

A Writer returns to the scene of the crime. 

MORE than 20 years after my family moved away from the country town of Inverell, leaving behind failed dreams and a broken marriage, I returned on a rainy evening in late 2003 with some unfinished business.

I’d called ahead to my grandmother, who was still living there in a nursing home. Before taking her to lunch the next day, I dropped into the local courthouse, an imposing clock tower at the centre of town, where a helpful woman proceeded to assist me in finding my mother’s name in the court records.

The court staffer didn’t flinch when it quickly became apparent we were not looking for a plaintiff of any kind, but rather a defendant. Trouble was, I had no specific dates to search, only the barest clues from what I’d been told about mum’s appearance in the court on a shoplifting charge sometime in the 1970s.

That meant mum’s name was still on the police computer database, in which the dates became brutally clear: just before Christmas, 1977, the police had made their way to our property off the Bingara Road, with complaints from two Inverell shops that mum had stolen childrens’ clothing and kitchen implements.

All court records prior to 1980 were stored in the archives of the New England University at the nearby city of Armidale. Would I like them faxed over? I agreed to return to the police station adjacent to the courthouse when they were ready.

Next, I dropped into the council chambers with a request. I had in my possession a hand-sized flat stone which had been picked up off the driveway of our farm, a flint-like rock with a broad space for a thumb to hold the sharpened edge to use it for cutting – an aboriginal hand axe of indeterminate age.

I asked if there was any kind of Aboriginal cultural heritage centre, or perhaps a museum, which would be interested in taking this stone tool off my hands?

The council staffer held her gaze with an open, shocked mouth, and shook her head, muttering “no…,” and, “good luck with that,” before leaving.

The tourist information centre had the name of an Aboriginal elder who lived locally. I drove the streets of our old neighbourhood searching for the address, but there was no-one home, and the only Aboriginal public office was well and truly closed.

SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.
SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.

I began to wonder whether the stories I’d been told about this stone were true, or if they’d been elaborated into family myths? I had taken it to school for ‘show and tell’, with the family name written on it using thick black marker pen in my mother’s hand. She was interested in anthropology, and we had inherited all kinds of fossils and artefacts at her death at decade before.

But on returning to the riverside shopping centre to buy grandma a present, my doubts were allayed by the wall built of local stone at the gateway, the very same blue, brown and ochre basalt. The wall was all that remained of the department store built by my ancestors in the town. I knew then I had the right rock back in the right region.

Grandma was dressed and eager to get out and about, waiting for me outside the door of the nursing home. We laughed as I lifted her into the passenger seat of my four-wheel drive, me allaying any embarrassment she felt by reminding her of the hundreds of times she had lifted me into a car when I was a child.

We had a lovely lunch. She enjoyed the meal and hearing all my news about life in the big city. We’d corresponded about family stuff many times, and it seemed a waste of time to go over it all again – she and I had come to terms already. We loved one another, that’s all that mattered.

I dropped her home when she started to tire, and headed out of town, along a well-trodden road into the uplands south west of Delungra, where fields of wheat in black soil run for miles and miles under enormous skies.

I’d met the present owner a few years before, but I hadn’t come to see the house again. I’d picked-over the traces of my family’s dream many times before: the room where my baby brother died, and the hopeful imprint my parents had made on a property which was derelict when they moved there.

I looked over the stones on the driveway, and sure enough, scattered along the verges were more of those flinty fragments like the larger one in my pocket.

I was headed a few kilometres further west, to a lonely place on the Bingara Road, where a memorial had been built in the year 2000 to the Aboriginal men, women and children who were slaughtered on a hillside in 1838 at the hands of European settlers in what came to be known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).
MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).

There, I walked along the trail which marks the gruesome milestones of this iconic event – the first time in Australia’s history that settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.

I took the Aboriginal axe, with our family name impossible to erase from it, and buried it at the site, not only out of respect for the Aboriginal lives lost, but also those in my own scattered family.

Night was falling when I arrived back at the Inverell police station, where a large envelope awaited me. At a motel out of town I pored over its contents, like some terrible play in which my parents were protagonists.

Buried deep in the court transcripts, describing in detail how mum was found guilty of multiple counts of theft, was the news of one shop owner who’d waived all charges in the light of the psychologist’s report, and the one who’d refused.

The sentence in Mulawa Womens’ Prison in Sydney, a day’s drive away from her children, detailed the number of days’ imprisonment resulting from the value of each item of clothing stolen.

The transcripts of friends who stood in the dock spoke of her good character.

The psychologists’ report itself – one clinical, succinct letter linked mum’s behavior to deep feelings of guilt and shame about the death of her third child, the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

And then the suspended sentence – no jail time to be served, in exchange for a warrant of good behaviour.

I suddenly understood why mum did not put up a fight for her financial share of the marriage settlement. Buying her freedom had cost our family dearly, and walking away with nothing but a car and some furniture, she might have felt she’d repaid her dues.

I could also see why she eventually left town, allowing the myth to emerge that she’d left dad, not the truth, which was all the other way around. Our family name on ‘Burge Bros.’, an Inverell shopfront, speaks of our pedigree as descendants of proud local shopkeepers, which mum might have felt was brought into disrepute by a depressed city girl. Housed in the same precinct was the shop whose owner would not forgive her.

I remembered how mum recalled being interviewed by the police after my brother died. It was a matter of course, apparently, that the mother was the first subject of investigation after the death of a child who had been laid in his bed by her arms only hours before. Lindy Chamberlain was to face that same moment only seven years later.

And I remembered it was mum who told me about the Myall Creek Massacre. While the other adults were playing tennis at the courts near the creek, she pointed to the hillside and whispered to me about what had occurred. Whispered. Not to the other kids, or any of the white adults enjoying weekend sport, but just to me.

The Myall Creek Massacre memorial was eventually the subject of an Australian Story episode in which descendants of the settlers who committed the crimes reached out in reconciliation to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay people who were slaughtered.

SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

But in its first decade, it endured vandalism. Not brainless destruction, but calculated censorship of the facts about the case and its impact on lives.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, the place I was born, but it can be a harsh place too.

The shock and grief wrought on one family in the wake of the sudden death of one baby tells us how magnified the same emotions would have been after the sudden slaughter of multiple defenceless women, children and old men at Myall Creek, but despite the well-known contributing factors of depression and grief-related kleptomania, there was little reconciliation or understanding on offer for my mother in the 1970s. The community was still coming to terms with what happened to the Wirrayaraay.

Mum got away from Inverell and made a new life. Grandma died in 2008 and we gathered in Inverell for her funeral, but no-one in our family lives there anymore.

I’ll go back to Myall Creek one June for the annual memorial service. Hearing the true story of the place probably marks the start of my journey to being a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

The black soil in my blood

A Writer’s birthright.

I WAS born in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales and I spent the first years of my life living on my parents’ farm between the crossroads village of Delungra and the town of Bingara.

The countryside consisted of rolling uplands, the last vestiges of the black soil country before they give way to Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Some of my earliest memories are of the soil, often baked hard into cracked clay beds, or sluiced with water into acres of mud, but always black. Black against the yellow straw grass that covered the hills.

‘Paxton’, the property where I spent my childhood, was salvaged by my parents from a derelict state. Despite a few years of success, death and divorce saw my rural childhood disappear like spinifex on the wind.

Nights of blazing stars. Days of grey skies over blue hills. Hailstorms and wind that blew the corrugated sheds around like leaves… all were replaced by the disturbing lights of cars in urban streets crossing my bedroom wall in town, of houses that seemed insanely close together, and people living right up against one another.

My family bridged a great divide. The country half were tall, Germanic, Presbyterian stock in great numbers, who, by the time I was born, lived with a fading sense of entitlement based on achievements past.

The other half were a small band of establishment city dwellers with a dose of very English mores.

An attempt was made to combine these energies in my parents’ marriage, but it failed miserably.

I left the country, and in many ways I have been running from it my whole life.

But when I left London to take up a job offer in Suffolk, barely an hour from the city, it was to work for a rural media company.

In my application, I evoked the country of my childhood to get the job. I didn’t need to pretend, I’d lived in and around a mixed crop and stock farm, and I knew a bit about how they operated.

Despite feeling like a complete sellout, I used my trump card – being of strong country bloodlines – and I could see the eyes of one of my interviewers misting over. There is a great camaraderie, and a willingness to help-out their own, amongst families who have worked the land.

I was a farm boy who had video production and communication skills, and I got the job.

Forget that I thought agriculture in general had lost its way, that I was vegetarian, and an animal liberationist who had little interest in farm machinery. I needed a good income, and an opportunity. Farming Press offered me that, and I took it, wondering when my secrets would be discovered.

BURGE'S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (photo: Barry Hughes www.geograph.org.uk/photo/41986).
BURGE’S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (Photo: Barry Hughes).

So I packed-up my room in a shared flat in London’s leafy Lewisham Park, and rented another in a tiny row of cottages in the charming little hamlet of Burgh, up a hill past a windmill from the even more charming village of Grundisburgh, just north of Ipswich, Suffolk’s historic county town.

With barely three days to prepare myself, I had to pack for a flight to Detroit, Michigan, to document the traditional skills of farming people across three states.

In the rush I didn’t get much of a chance to meet my new colleagues or my housemate, or settle into the Farming Press offices on the edge of Ipswich, a typical English company with some friendly faces, wanting to know this Australian who was going to work in the video department downstairs.

My first week’s pay was more than I would have earned in a month of cinema shifts. The Suffolk countryside was blossoming into a gorgeous spring. I got a touch of hay fever. I became lost on country lanes trying to find my way home. I was cornered by inquisitive cows. I bought my first ever car and was able to traverse the country without the crippling cost of train travel.

England had opened itself to me a little… and then I had to leave her in a rush of camera equipment and travelling instructions. America’s rural heartland was waiting.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.