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NEKLA-HAULAND TO THE WIMMERA IN AUSTRALIA
2018-05-13 Michał Mendzelewski
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Mary Cooper

NEKLA-HAULAND TO THE WIMMERA IN AUSTRALIA

 

It is 15,427 kilometres from Nekla-Hauland, Poland to Horsham in rural Victoria, Australia and my Great-great grandfather, Johann Gottlieb Nuske, made that journey in 1872 in a round-about way which took him 25 years.  At the time when his horse-drawn wagon finally came to a halt near Horsham in north-west Victoria after a difficult four-week eastward journey from South Australia, Johann was no longer a young man.  He was married, the father of 9 children and was hoping to begin a new chapter in the life of his family in which they would become successful wheat farmers on their own land. 

Two months ago, I travelled 300 km westward from the city of Melbourne, to the large rural town of Horsham.  I wanted to visit the places where the Johann Nuske and his family had tried so hard achieve their dream of developing their own small wheat farms.

I was not alone!  I was with other members of a German Pioneers’ History Group who also wanted to learn more about their Lutheran wheat-farming forebears who had selected land in the Wimmera region in the 1870s.

Horsham, the ‘capital’ of the Wimmera, is a typical Australian country town, based on agriculture, particularly wheat.  Unlike Johann Nuske’s home in Nekla Hauland which was surrounded by forests, the countryside in the Wimmera is flat as a pancake as far as the eye can see and most of the trees have been cut down since Horsham was established in the 1840s.   Today the population of 17,000 live in neat homes with pretty gardens and the wide streets in the town centre are lined with shops, sporting ovals, schools and churches.  Because of the high number of German farmers who settled in the Wimmera from the 1870s, there have always been many Lutheran Churches in the area and our group came to know the Horsham Lutheran Church well.

Without doubt, Lutheran ladies are good cooks!   No wonder their husbands look so cheerful and well fed!  Our group joined the large friendly congregation of the Horsham Lutheran Church on Sunday morning and it was a pleasure to see so many families with young children singing and praying together.  Afterwards we were invited to the Church Hall to enjoy a cup of tea and the delicious home-baked kuchen.  

My ‘Airbnb’ accommodation in Horsham was extremely comfortable – a well equipped bungalow set in the quiet rear garden of the home of a pleasant family with three young children, a playful dog and three bantam hens with chickens!  I ate my breakfast sitting outside in the sunshine surrounded by the animals who were hoping for some tid-bits!  At the end of my quiet street was the Wimmera River lined with lawns and paths along which I walked, admiring the tranquil water views.  However the Wimmera River has a history of sometimes drying up into a series of pools during droughts but also of flooding after heavy rain.

An old wagon, similar to those used by German wheat farmers in the Wimmera

Johann Nuske and his family ended their long, weary, trek from South Australia at Green Lake, 22 kilometres beyond Horsham, an area where they knew other German farmers had selected land. Their journey had not been easy.  They travelled slowly along the rough tracks through the bushland with the children walking whilst their mother and baby Paul rode on the wagon. It was summertime and very hot, around 38 degrees Celsius.  They ran out of water and an older boy searched for several days before finding enough to revive the family and their horses.  Eventually they passed through Horsham and knew they were nearly at their journey’s end.  For two weeks the Nuske family camped under a big eucalyptus tree at Green Lake whilst Johann and his older sons searched for a good place to select land for their farm.  They found some beside an almost-dry creek.  After they had marked out the boundary of 320 acres with named wooden pegs, Johann went into Horsham to the Land Office to complete the official documents.  By the time the first fees were paid, the family was left with just a few coins.  Their first tasks were to cut down small trees to build a simple two-room house and a yard in which to keep their horses.  Johann and his three sons immediately began clearing the land so they could plough and sow their wheat seeds.  Their first crop was harvested late in 1872 and they heaped the grain on the dry banks of ‘Diggers Creek’.  Then disaster struck. Unexpectedly 3 inches of rain fell that night causing the creek to flood and all the loose grain of their harvest was washed away.  Johann sowed his block with wheat again in 1873 but it was a very poor harvest and he decided to abandon that land and move to the small town of Murtoa, 31 km from Horsham where his two elder sons had moved to select their own land.

 

In Murtoa they were to meet another Nuske from Nekla Hauland – Fredricka, elder daughter of Johann Nuske, an inn keeper.  She was 12 years younger than Johann whose father was Christian Nuske, the Nekla Hauland School Teacher.  Fredricka had married Wilhelm Noske from Neutomischiel, Posen before emigrating to Australia about 1854.  They lived in a number of places before deciding to begin farming in the Murtoa area.  By that time Fredricka had borne 13 children!    No wonder I kept meeting Nuskes where-ever I went on the tour.   As soon as I told them my maiden name had been ‘Nuske’, they warmly greeted me as a family member.

Murtoa is an aboriginal word meaning home of the lizard.   In the early 1870s, many of the first settlers in and around Murtoa were Germans who had been farming in South Australia but were drawn to the Wimmera because of the availability of cheap land to grow their wheat.  With their own hands, using mud bricks and rushes for thatching the roofs, they first built a church and a school and in both, German was the spoken language.  At first there was no railway at Murtoa and wheat had to be carted to a railway town, 62 kilometres away, a three-day trip for the German wagons loaded with 18 four-bushel bags of wheat.  Eventually, in the late 1870s, the railway was built across to Murtoa and at harvest-time the station would have been busy with long queues of horse-drawn wagons laden with bags of wheat waiting to be unloaded – a good time for farmers to chat with each other.  The day we visited Murtoa, the small town was very quiet and the lizards were all sleeping in the warm sunshine.

After the difficulties at Green Lake, Johann Nuske’s decision to move to the Murtoa area to be near his two elder sons who had selected their own land, was a very sad time.  His youngest son Paul who had been just a baby when the family journeyed from South Australia, died aged 3 years and was buried in the Murtoa Cemetery.   I didn’t find his grave the hot morning our group went to the cemetery but I did see those of Fredrika Nuske (died 1926) and her husband Wilhelm (died 1918) and one of her daughters, Augusta who, with her mother, had run a small hospital in Murtoa.  Fredricka had a warm, personality and had welcomed and provided assistance to her siblings when they emigrated in later years from Nekla Hauland, including her half-sister, Augusta Nuske, (born 1865) who arrived in Murtoa aged 16.  Augusta was to marry Johann’s son, Carl - a Nuske marrying a Nuske - and they were my Great-grandparents!

Nurse Augusta Noske's grave, Murtoa Cemetery

To have their own wheat farms was what Johann Nuske and his five sons strove for when they came to live in Victoria.  They worked from dawn to dusk through all kinds of weather, coping with droughts, floods, fires, plagues of mice and locusts, financial difficulties, sickness and crop diseases but they had courage and persevered.  In the 1870s there were wheat farms as far as the eye could see across the flat plains of the Wimmera and so it is today.

However so much has changed for wheat farmers in the 146 years since Johann Nuske and his family planted and harvested their first crop in 1872 at Green Lake.  The first primitive implements for ploughing, sowing and harvesting were replaced by improved machinery, new varieties of more disease-resistant wheat were developed and the invention of tractors and mechanized equipment saved much time and labour.

Carting wheat to the railway station

In the 1930s Wimmera wheat farmers agreed to a system of bulk-handling for their wheat harvests so that instead of filling hessian bags with the grain, loading them onto horse-drawn wagons and taken to the nearest railway station to be transferred to freight trains, by the 1930s it was carted from the farms in trucks to nearby towns to be emptied into 30 metres high reinforced concrete silos. These days the grain companies have found better ways to store the mountains of wheat and barley, leaving unused grain silos in the shrinking country towns.  The residents began moving to bigger places such as Horsham and soon in the small towns there were empty houses, closed shops and quiet streets.

However in 2015 an inspired artistic idea led to the development of the 200km long ‘Silo Art Trail’ which is bringing many tourists back to the Wimmera to marvel at the mammoth works of art depicting local characters, painted on the empty silos. 

It was a very hot day when our group boarded the bus which had been borrowed from the Lutheran Primary School.  We were on our way to some of the small Wimmera towns north of Horsham to see the painted wheat silos.  Much laughter as we squeezed into seats meant for young children.  Our volunteer driver was Lutheran Pastor, Colin Huf whose forebear Johann Huf, a farmer and his family emigrated from Nekla Hauland in 1846 to South Australia and then travelled overland in 1852 to Victoria.

The 30 metre high wheat silos stand like sentinels on the outskirts of the small Wimmera towns and, as far as the eye can see, the surrounding land is by flat with barely any trees. We were amazed by the huge murals which have been created by artists on the huge silos.  The paintings are incredibly detailed portraits of local people.  The paintings are resulting in visitors wanting to know more about the history of the people and the places.

Silo Art, Wimmera Region Victoria

Our journey across the Wimmera Plains came to a close and soon I was driving back to my suburban Melbourne home but Johann Nuske’s journey did not end in Murtoa for he was still searching for land on which he and his sons could settle and successfully grow wheat.  Eventually, in 1880, they did find what they wanted at Katyil, 54 km. from Horsham but that it another story!  I returned home, full of admiration for the courage, persistence and strength of Great-Grandfather Johann Nuske who came from Nekla Hauland to Australia on the other side of the world to begin a new life for himself, his family and his descendants.

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