Ian and Blanche




3.2.3 Farm Routines

The busiest period on the farm was one to two weeks of the annual shearing. Ian did the work with the aid of one helper, or rouseabout.86  He used a belt-driven shearing stand powered by a stationary engine. The engine was temperamental; at the beginning of each season it usually refused to start up until it had been coaxed for an hour or two.

The next step was to herd the sheep a hundred or so at a time into pens by the ramshackle shearing shed near the house. The sheep dog played an indispensable role here, and one dog, Ben, had a way of simplifying the work greatly: when the lead sheep balked at a gate and the others bunched tightly behind, Ben went up over to the tightly-packed animals’ backs to give the leader a startling nip to the tail.

Gilella's wool clip. The carters are "Cheeky" Lockyer and Ron SquibbOnce the sheep were penned and the engine was chugging steadily, the main work began. Ian hauled the sheep one by one to the shearing floor to divest them, laboriously, of their year’s growth of wool.87    Laboriously, for Ian’s skill in the demanding art of shearing was no better than average. He shore about eighty sheep a day, whereas a skilled worker like Frank Gittins could do twice that many. As the wool came off the sheep—the "topknot" off the head, the "belly" and then the main fleece—the rousabout trimmed and sorted and stowed it in bales. In those days before the arrival of the mechanical wool press, the wool had to be tamped down by hand, or rather by foot, a job that usually fell to the children.

Blanche, meanwhile, was on hand with tea and railway cake at each work break.

While shearing was the biggest job, the sheep required a lot of care year-round: crutching (removal of wool from the breech area to forestall blowfly strike), feeding, setting out copper sulfate mixed with salt to prevent staggers, dipping, drenching and inoculating, lambing, castrating—the list goes on. Aside from tending the sheep there were plenty of other jobs on the farm, such as plowing, seeding, harvesting, making the haystack, cutting chaff, laying out poison for rabbits, sawing up dead whitegum ready to split for the stove, tending the garden or orchard, and building or repairing fences or sheds.

When he wasn’t busy with these tasks, Ian took it easy except for frequent tours of inspection for signs of poison plants such as deadly nightshade or signs of blowfly strike or anything else likely to endanger the sheep. He liked too pretend that his eyesight was better than it really was, for example claiming to see a fly on a sheep’s back at a distance of half a mile when in fact he only saw the sheep wiggling its tail to brush off that fly.

Ian and Blanche shared a concern for animals beyond any practical motive. When he came across a sick sheep, Ian brought it back to the homestead, dressed any open wound and let it rest in the shed. In most cases the sheep recovered. Blanche was always ready with a razor blade to relieve the distress of a chicken immobilized with an impacted crop. She would slit the crop, dig out its contents and sew it up again with cotton thread to send the suddenly revitalized bird on its way.

Blanche’s work routine was tied to the week rather than to the season.

Monday was washing day. Blanche boiled the dirty clothes in a copper vessel88  set in a cut-our 44-gallon drum, heated by a whitegum wood fire underneath. She used soap that she made herself with sheep kidney fat and caustic soda.

Tuesday was ironing day. She ironed on a pad set on the kitchen table, using irons heated on the top of the woodburning stove. (The kitchen table, made by George Iddles, was the one touch of elegance in the house. Its legs were decoratively turned and fixed with workmanlike rigidity, and its top consisted of two wide, perfectly-fitted slabs of gleaming jarrah.)

Wednesday was shopping day in Tambellup. After she learned to drive the Chrysler and passed the standard driving test (Policeman:89  Can you drive? Blanche: Yes. Policeman: Right-oh, here’s your license.) Blanche went into the town each week to pick up supplies such as kerosene (for lamps), methylated spirits (for the Primus cooker) stove polish, cloth and other sewing materials, tea, sugar, bread and the few other food items that were not provided by the farm (e.g. canned beef from Argentina, known as "tinned dog").

After Mabel Gittins moved to Tambellup to live, Blanche made it her Wednesday routine to drop in on her mother after shopping for tea and, inevitably, an hour or so of steady moaning. But Blanche was sympathetic; "After what she put up with, Mum has a right to moan," she said more than once.

Thursday and Friday were Blanche’s days for sewing and for cleaning the house. She sewed most of her own and the children’s clothes using a Singer treadle machine.

Cleaning was a big job. Dust was always blowing into the house, and the "inlaid" linoleum coverings on the floors of Gilella required vigorous scrubbing rather than a mere sweeping.

In addition to these tasks, Blanche milked the farm’s two cows, separated the skim milk from the cream using a hand-cranked centrifuge, made butter with a hand-cranked churn and shaped the product in one-pound blocks with a pair of wooden paddles. She fed the animals, including a dozen chickens and perhaps a pig or a pet lamb or two, and of course she did the cooking and looked after the children. Her favorite job was mixing skim milk and bran for the pig and chickens; bran mash did wonders for her hands, she said.

The cows gave far more milk and cream than the family needed. Blanche made a little pocket money by selling the surplus cream to the butter factory in Katanning. While she was accumulating each batch of cream she stored it in a Coolgardie safe, an enclosure with hessian90  sides that could be kept damp for cooling in summer. In 1938 the Coolgardie safe was replaced with a kerosene-burning refrigerator.

Continue reading: 3.2.4 Neighbors

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(click footnote number to go between footnote and text)

86. The rouseabout was usually "Titch" McCoy, a Tambellup identity and frequent occupant of Number 10.

87. About eight pounds of wool for a ewe or wether. Present-day fleeces are heavier.

88. Called simply a copper.

89. Stan Payne.

90. US burlap