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Women of the Land
Eight Rural Women and their Remarkable Everyday Lives
By Liz Harfull
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Liz Harfull
All rights reserved.
TENACITY IN SALT LAKE COUNTRY
For a thinly populated farming district on the edge of nowhere, the Tarin Rock Tennis Club is a remarkable facility. Five tennis courts, flood lit and covered with intense green artificial turf, an undercover playground packed with brightly coloured equipment, an expansive clubhouse and the locals' love of tennis make it the social hub for families from kilometres around. It is a place where they gather at weekends, not just for sport, but to share a meal and a drink or two and, for a few short hours, try to forget the drought which has kept the surrounding paddocks relatively barren for almost three years.
Drought wasn't an issue when friends and neighbours gathered at the club on 3 February 1980 for a relaxed Sunday evening of social tennis. The harvest was in and it would be weeks before the tractors had to start up again to sow the next season's cereal crops. On the other side of the continent, Australia looked like it was cruising to yet another easy victory over England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, batsmen falling regularly to the fiery bowling attack of Western Australia's favourite son, Dennis Lillee. In a country community reliant on farming for a living and sport for play, all must have seemed right with the world. But life was about to change irrevocably for Mary Naisbitt.
Mary's husband, Joe, was only 46 years old when he collapsed and died that day on the tennis court. Aside from a distraught wife, he left behind four children under the age of seven and a 1828- hectare farm freshly calved from the bush in the salt lake country of Western Australia's extensive eastern wheatbelt. Mary was 350 kilometres away from the support of her own family near Perth and had played no active part in running the farm. Most people expected her to put it on the market, pack her bags and head back to the city with her children. But Mary Naisbitt has never been one to take the easiest option.
* * *
Mary was born in the central wheatbelt town of Merredin, about 240 kilometres to the north of Tarin Rock, on 15 February 1943. Her parents, Bozo 'Bob' and Teresa Starcevich, were Croatian emigrants who had come to Australia independent of each other before the Second World War. The son of a woodcutter from a small village in what was then Yugoslavia, Bob had finished the national military service required of all young men in his country and couldn't wait to leave. He wanted a better life and thought Australia would offer far more opportunities. Arriving by ship in Perth, Bob made for the isolated mining community of Kalgoorlie, 600 kilometres further east, in search of work. When he couldn't find any, he headed back along the Great Eastern Highway, ending up at Merredin where he secured employment on a farm.
Although she also came to Australia from Yugoslavia, Teresa was born in the United States of America. She was the only daughter and middle child of emigrant parents, who also had two sons. Their mother died when Teresa was four and her baby brother was only two months old. Not able to cope with the children on his own her father returned to Yugoslavia, where he married again. However, tragedy continued to mar his life. His youngest son died, as did his second wife and the children he had with her. He married a third time, to his second wife's sister, and had another son, before immigrating again, this time to Australia. He took only his oldest son with him and they worked hard to save money so they could send for the rest of the family.
Father and son ended up at Merredin, where they met Bob. Drawn together by a common heritage, they became good friends, which brought Teresa into Bob's orbit soon after she arrived in Australia with her stepmother and half-brother. Bob and Teresa eventually married. They had two sons, John and Stan, before Mary came along. By then Bob was working part-time for the Public Works Department, carrying maintenance crews to the pipeline which supplied water to towns along the highway from Perth to the Kalgoorlie goldfields. They lived on a 2-hectare block on the outskirts of Merredin, where they had an extensive vegetable garden and fruit trees that supplied produce to the town. Mary can remember spending most of her time outside and playing at being a farmer, using she-oak nuts to create miniature herds of cows and sheep.
When she was about seven, the family moved closer to Perth in search of more reliable work. They settled at Midland, where Bob and Teresa remained for the rest of their lives. Even though he suffered from a bad back, Bob took on a range of physically demanding jobs to look after his family, wrapping his back tightly with a wide band of grey flannelette to keep it warm and support the muscles so he could keep going. At one stage the doctors told him he would never be able to do heavy physical work again, and he spent three months in hospital, leaving Teresa to cope with the children. Mary can remember the strong smell of eucalyptus oil — her father's cure-all for every ache and pain. He shovelled coal on trains, worked on maintenance crews for Perth's water and sewerage systems, and spent his final working years in the railway yards at Midland unloading freight, until regulations forced him to retire on his 65th birthday.
Now a suburb on the eastern edge of Perth's metropolitan sprawl, Midland was then a separate township with a large rail terminus at its heart. Mary remembers a vibrant community of many cultures, with significant numbers of refugees from Italy and eastern Europe. At home, she spoke Slav with her mother, who found it difficult to learn English. Her Australian friends joked that it sounded like 'Double Dutch'.
Mary completed her primary schooling at St Brigid's Catholic School, run by the Sisters of Mercy. Encouraged by her mother, who was an excellent needlewoman, she went on to learn dressmaking at the Midland Junction Technical School, across the road from where she lived. 'Mum was always adamant that no matter what, I was going to learn dressmaking, because she felt that she had missed out on a lot,' Mary says. 'In Croatia, the women used to sit outside on the verandahs and knit socks and jumpers or whatever. Mum always used to watch, and apparently the ladies used to say if you gave her wool she would know how to knit because she was so keen to look ... She was very much a housewife. She made all our clothes. I can remember my dresses were always made with a big hem that could be let down when I grew.'
While she was studying at technical school, Mary worked part-time in a local grocery store, weighing and packaging up grocery items that arrived in bulk. 'The biscuits used to come in tins and we used to have to pack them in cellophane bags ready for the customers; sugar too and things like icing sugar, dates, prunes and dried fruits. I used to quite enjoy it ... but I felt I needed to get something permanent rather than just working in a shop. I kept thinking I had missed out on something. I hadn't had a lot of schooling. At that stage getting married wasn't one of the things I thought I had to do and I kept thinking that if I'm going to be working all my life I've got to do something.'
At the age of about eighteen, Mary took herself back to the technical school and studied English and typing, with the idea of finding an office job. She studied part-time at nights, while earning money making shirts at a clothing manufacturing factory set up in Midland by G&R Wills & Co Limited. After graduating three years later, she and a girlfriend decided to head to New Zealand on a working holiday. Aside from adventure Mary thought it might offer a great opportunity to gain some experience in office work so that she could return home and find decent employment. 'It was fantastic,' she says. 'I stayed some of the time with friends my mother had grown up with in Croatia, and I think that helped, but I travelled the whole of New Zealand and worked at lots of different things. I was away for about eighteen months, much to Mum's horror.'
After brief stints in Melbourne and Brisbane, Mary finally returned home and applied for work in the Perth office of an insurance company she had worked for in Melbourne. Although the South British United Insurance Company initially had no vacancies, Mary was soon called back and offered a position handling reinsurances for larger clients whose policies represented too big a risk for the company to handle on its own. Much more responsibility than she had anticipated, Mary is not quite sure why she was offered it.
'It was a very interesting job and it was a job that was generally carried out by a man,' Mary says. 'I was the first woman in that company to do that job. Women were known as typists only, really. I have a feeling there must have been something in the reference they gave me in Melbourne, or maybe they couldn't get a bloke interested in doing it. Some people might think it would be boring, but I didn't.'
In her leisure hours Mary started going to a social club in Perth run by the Catholic church. Young people over the age of 21 would get together on a regular basis at each other's houses or organise social events such as cabarets. 'We used to have lots of fun,' she says. 'It was a fantastic time.' Mary doesn't recall exactly where or when, but she first met Joe at one of these events while he was visiting Perth to see one of his sisters, who was a member of the club. Ten years Mary's elder, it was Joe who followed up the initial encounter and asked her out. In between occasional dates when he was in the city, they wrote letters to each other and she gradually fell in love with the tall, fair-haired farmer.
Missing her company, Joe urged Mary to write longer letters. One day she decided to give him what he asked for, literally, and created an entire letter on a long paper streamer. She kept all their correspondence until just after he died, when the letters were burnt. 'I do regret it now, but at the time I just felt that they were really personal, and there were so many people around and I didn't want anyone going through them, as well-meaning as they were,' she says.
Mary tries to describe the man she remembers: 'Often people used to call him Old Joe, because his hair was thinning out. I do remember when I met him, I suppose because his hair was receding and it was light coloured, he may have looked older than he was ... A lot of people said he used to joke a lot, but I don't know. He was very happy and he had a good sense of humour. He was certainly a very genuine person, and always did the right thing by everybody. He was very well liked among his peers. Anyone who knew him always spoke well of him. He was always a very fair person, a good listener, and he was good with kids, actually. The kids really missed out because he was the one with all the patience.'
* * *
Joe Naisbitt was born in Perth's King Edward Memorial Hospital on 4 November 1933 and grew up on a farm at Tarin Rock, about 20 kilometres west of the town of Lake Grace. His father, Ted Naisbitt, had taken up a 400-hectare parcel of land in 1923, after emigrating from Durham in England with his mother and sister. It was a time when farming in Western Australia was developing rapidly and confidence in agriculture was booming, drawing many immigrants and returned servicemen to the Lake Grace area. Ted worked hard clearing the land for cropping and in 1929 married Win Stacey. Battling through the Depression years, the couple survived with Win milking cows to supplement the family income. They had nine children, with the oldest John and third-born Joe both returning home from boarding school to work on the property in the late 1940s after their father became ill. John and Joe also set up a contracting business to earn extra money, taking on welding and carting grain as well as purchasing half-shares in a bulldozer and ripping equipment to clear land.
Mary was not at all daunted by the idea of marrying a farmer, leaving her life in Perth and moving to the relative isolation of Lake Grace. 'I think I always had it in my bloodstream,' she says. 'I couldn't wait to get out of the city. I worked there because I had to, but I was always more of an outdoor farming person.' Her work colleagues weren't surprised either. They had been expecting for some time that Joe would 'pop the question' and they had a fair idea she intended to say yes. 'They had all expected me to get engaged on my birthday ... but when I got back there was nothing on my finger. I said nothing to anybody, but we had decided to wait until the long weekend. I remember walking into the office and sitting down, and then I happened to put my hand up to my ear with the phone. A couple of the girls noticed the engagement ring and there was one mighty scream and yelling. The bosses were not overly happy — I was 27 and I have a feeling they had thought I wouldn't be getting married.'
Mary and Joe wed at St Brigid's Catholic Church in Midland on 7 August 1971. Mary entered the church on the arm of her proud father. Joe's brother Michael, who had been ordained earlier that year, officiated at the ceremony with assistance from the local Franciscan priest. All of Joe's large family were there along with Mary's relatives and a few friends who later gathered in the local show society hall for the reception. The couple cut a three-tiered wedding cake made by Teresa and decorated by Mary, who had taken lessons from a lady down the road. Mary recalls that 'the day went without a hitch — a happy, great day. Everyone enjoyed themselves as far as I can remember.'
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon travelling with a caravan up the Western Australian coast as far as Carnarvon, about 900 kilometres north of Perth, before returning to Tarin Rock less than a fortnight after the wedding so Joe could get back to work. The caravan was parked alongside the Naisbitt farmhouse and became their home. With Joe's large family around them and limited personal space it was hard to find time alone, but seven months later they finally moved into their own house on a nearby farm which Joe purchased from Mike and Dot Treasure.
Set on a low-lying ridge about 15 kilometres from town, the property overlooks the expansive, crystalline salt pan of Lake Grace North, part of the massive Lake Grace wetland system. Almost 26 kilometres long and more than 7 kilometres across as its widest point, the lake rarely contains much water. The glistening white salt plain is a spectacular sight which fascinates travellers and provides a distinctive backdrop for the town of the same name, although locals rarely go there because it is so hard to access. Even the Naisbitts had rarely stepped on the crunchy salt-laden lake bed until recent years when their son Kevin started leasing land along its western shoreline.
The lake was not visible at all from Joe and Mary's first home, a prefabricated cottage set low down in a secluded spot at the northern-most edge of the farm. The small house is still there, relatively unchanged, with verandahs at the back and front and only three main rooms. The front door leads straight into the main living space, an open-plan room combining both the lounge area and kitchen. At the back are two small bedrooms which had raw asbestos walls when Mary first saw them; she insisted they were painted before moving in.
Drought has killed off the small square of lawn at the front of the house and most of the garden plants, but she loved the prospect from here, particularly in the evenings when she would watch kangaroos hop up to a nearby dam for water. Kevin enjoyed it too when he moved in with his wife Sarah just before they were married. 'I loved sitting here with a beer after work; it was really relaxing, I don't know why,' he says.
Excerpted from Women of the Land by Liz Harfull. Copyright © 2012 Liz Harfull. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Tenacity in salt lake country Mary Naisbitt, Tarin Rock, Western Australia,
Chapter 2 The apple packers' lullaby Lynette Rideout, Oakdale, New South Wales,
Chapter 3 Till the cows come home Jan Raleigh, Timboon, Victoria,
Chapter 4 A sheep like Alice Nan Bray, Oatlands, Tasmania,
Chapter 5 The irrepressible farmer Susie Chisholm, Adelong, New South Wales,
Chapter 6 A horse named Riffayal Cecily Cornish, Wando Bridge, Victoria,
Chapter 7 The fight for life Catherine Bird, Willalooka, South Australia,
Chapter 8 Keeper of country Keelen Mailman, Augathella, Queensland,