Sunday, June 7, 2020

Mallee History: Manangatang at the crossroads

Manangatang in the Victorian Mallee region (pop. about 500) comes from 'manang', an Aboriginal word for 'land and 'kaatin', meaning 'water', possibly referring to a waterhole to the north of the present township. A Mr A.T. Creswick of the Bumbang Station had a hut built near the waterhole for his stockmen. The waterhole lies on the line of an old track, one of many used by wild animals, the Aborigines and perhaps the squatter's men, as these tracks are recorded on maps of the time.

Settlers first took up land in the Manangatang district around 1911. The 'bush' of mallee eucalypts was tamed with the 'mallee roller', a large round log or old boiler drawing by horse or bullock teams, which flattened everything in its path. The best time to roll the mallee was during the winter, in June or July, as the trees invariably grew back when rolled in the warmer months. Any scrub remaining after rolling was burned off before the first crops of wheat were planted.

Scrub rollers like these were used throughout the Victorian mallee around 100 years ago (State Library of VIC) 

Rolling started around 1908 in the Manangatang district in expectation of the settlers' arrival, and surveyed blocks were available by 1911. Town allotments were sold for between fif teen and thirty pounds sterling. The first wheat grown in Manangatang was delivered to Chillingollah Station after the 1911-12 harvest. The waggon drivers carried metal tanks on top of the wheat and brought back water on their return trip.

Former Langley's service station on the highway. 2016.

Many returned soldiers from the First World War took land north up of Manangatang under the Soldier Resettlement Scheme and, like the early pioneers, found the going tough, particularly in the dry years. But by the 1920s, Manangatang had changed from a canvas town to a busy commercial centre with general stores, bakers, butchers, greengrocers and an auctioneer.

Empty shop in the main street, Wattle Street. 2020.

A succession of bad seasons and falling world prices resulted in the establishment of the Farmers' Debt Adjustment Board in 1935. The board gave cash to creditors to the value of the farmers' assets. The farmer then had to pay over an extended period of time the amount funded by the board. Another cruel run of bad seasons, from 1938 to 1941, prompted many struggling farmers to leave the land for good, despite these assistance programs.

The butcher shop is a reminder of the former commercial activities on Wattle Street, Manangatang.
In the 1920s, soldier settlers were establishing small farms nearby and the township was expanding. Constructed in 1926 close to the station, this building was originally a haberdashery and dressmaker's shop run by the seamstress, Ethel Thompson (nee Wilkinson). After that, it was owned by Maher, a saddle repairer and bootmaker. Now it's a private residence. Known butchers: Gil Sutherland and family 1947 - 1967 Bill Carroll and family 1967 - 1981 Daryl Devereaux and family 1981 - 1991

About this time, the Victorian government contemplated declaring the district closed to agriculture, such were the difficulties encountered by farmers over the years in what was considered by many experts to be 'marginal' land. It was finally decided under the West Mallee Settlement Areas Act to lease land to farmers north of the Manangatang-Ouyen road, and wipe all other debts to the government. Today, Manangatang is still a wheat-growing area.

Built in 1924, the bakery is typical of commercial shops constructed between World War I and World War II. Bread was baked in a wood-fired oven, which occupied a large portion of the west wall. The rooms at the rear were used for bread preparation and flour storage. For a time, the shop to the left of the bakery was originally the National Bank, then a barbershop rented by Bill Anthony, Bertie Tom, Al Smith and Michael Picos. Known bakers: J. Andrews c1935-44 Charlie McInnes, Billy Rice and N James 1951-1959 D Hildebrandt 1959-1979

Today there is a self-guided heritage walk that visitors can undertake which highlights the remaining historic buildings and sites in the town.  

Text sources: Readers Digest 'Australian Places'
Photographs: Roderick Eime

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