The rural survey by the Methodist and Presbyterian churches is an incredibly rich snapshot of the Swan River Valley just prior to the First World War. Besides charts full of means and averages, it also includes snippets of local history that give some context to the statistics.
I find out that two years after the Gillespie’s arrive in the valley, the harvest was much larger than anticipated and the railway did not make enough cars available for hauling it away. Prices were affected as farmers became desperate to get their grain shipped.
After this debacle, homesteaders realised they couldn’t depend on railway companies and grain buyers and began forming cooperatives. Eighty families joined together to start up a Grain Growers’ Association in the area where the Gillespie’s settled. They built their own grain storage elevator; they bulk-bought baling twine, fencing wire and domestic goods, and organized social events. Although I can’t find a list of association members, as one of the earliest families to settle in the area, the Gillespie’s would surely have seen the advantages.
The survey lists what crops were being grown — wheat, oats, barley, timothy. It records that farmers were experimenting in growing clover and alfalfa, but were not interested in breeding livestock like farms in the far West. When I print off the 1906 Census, I can see my own family’s condition fits that statement. There is a column on the census showing the number of livestock owned by each household – Harold’s family had five horses and three cows.
Equally interesting is what I can’t find on the 1906 census, at first. The two younger brothers, Percy and Ray are missing from the family’s list, but scanning further along I find them listed as ‘sons’ under the Rolls family who have three of their own children the same age. It makes me smile to think there is an official record of the little boys playing at the neighbours’ place.
The Methodist survey documented social and domestic aspects of life as well. In 1910, most families still lived in log houses, didn’t have running water and relied on wood stoves for heating. Church socials, sports, picnics and agricultural fairs were favourite family pastimes. Phone lines were being erected and welcomed due to the isolation in winter. Travel was still difficult; the roads are described as ‘corduroy’. When I look that up later, I learn it means they were built with logs laid side-by-side to stabilise their foundations.
The survey says that most households had at least one family instrument. When I tell my sister this, she reminds me of the creepy old pump organ in our basement, she even finds the guarantee slip for it. She reminds me about the old beetle-back mandolin passed on to my other sister, and then I remember the story of an Irish harp being lost in a fire. After grandfather died, the farm was sold up. The ‘old house’ on the property was being used for storage and it was set alight by an impatient new owner before Mum was able to move everything out.
On their own, surveys and census documents can seem a little dry, but when I started viewing and considering them along-side our family stories and photographs, the pieces click together. A far clearer picture is emerging of this family for me — strong, independent and determined to make a go of it.