From horse to tractor and still on Strath land

In 2014, the International Year of Family Farming, the Bendigo Advertiser begins a series on local farm families. DOUG SOMERVILLE turns 90 on February 14 and still farms at Strathfieldsaye. Here he shares some memories of farming over the years...

THE Somerville family association at Strathfieldsaye began in 1854 when William Somerville and his wife Ellen settled in the town after arriving from Ireland with their young family.

Ellen died 11 days after the arrival of their sixth child, leaving William with six young children ranging in age from nine to a young baby. 

William married his house keeper Mary Watson three months later to have a mother for his young family.

The first Somerville home was on the site of the now Strathfieldsaye Club in Club Court.

My grandfather was William Junior whose wife was Kate. William and Kate lived in the original Somerville homestead with their family of eight children - six sons and two daughters.

My grandparents then built the home opposite the old Shire Offices (which is still standing).

Each of their six sons as they married had 40 acres in the district to farm grapevines  on (40 acres in these days supported a family). 
Over the years the grapevines got a disease, and all vines were grubbed out and replaced with orchards. 

The fruit was taken to Bendigo to put on the trains for Melbourne for exporting overseas. 

As the families grew up the Somerville brothers bought neighbouring properties and expanded their farming into tomato growing, poultry and dairying.

My grandparents used to drive their cattle to Bendigo for sales. 
I recall the story of the bull going through the Reservoir Pub while the barmaid was scrubbing the floor.

This was the only time my grandfather ever visited a pub when he had to retrieve the bull.

My father was James, fifth son of William and Kate, who married Ivy Fraser in 1923. My parents also lived in the original Somerville homestead in Club Court. 

I was their first child born in 1924 and followed by siblings Hilda (Bowles), Stan and Marj who all still live on Somerville land in the district.

I can remember all the open land between Strath into the current Strath Haven site, dotted with small farms with cows. 
As these farms gradually sold out, people on this side of town used to come out to our farm to purchase milk.

I can remember chasing cows on my bike to Bendigo to the market.

The baker, greengrocer, Rawleigh's man and Indian hawker used to visit our family home on a regular basis.

All homes in the district had underground cellars and water wells as there was no refrigeration in those days.

My sister Hilda and I used to go out trapping rabbits. We would carry them home tied by their legs on a long stick between us.

We sold our catch to the Ice Works in Bendigo for pocket money which we used to put into bonds in the bank.

I can remember Bradman hitting a century before lunch time. Coming home from the MCG, Big Hill was so steep we used to be flat out getting the car up and over the hill. You could walk quicker.

Saturday night dances in the local Strath hall were very popular. I can recall as a kid the prank that some youths used to play of taking the horse out ofthe buggy. putting the shafts through the fence and putting the horse back again. 

They use to also change the wheels around. At midnight there was always a dilemma when the owners wanted to go home. 

For those who liked a drink at the dances, they used to put their beer bottles in the water channel near the hall to keep them cool.

I attended the Strathfieldsaye State School and left at the age of 14 years to commence a lifetime of farming in partnership with my father James and brother, Stan until the 1960s.

We ran a successful dairy farm and an orchard in Sullivan's Road and grew tomatoes. We sold our milk to Sandhurst Dairies in later years and my mother used to sell some fruit to our loyal customers from the backyard.

Strathfieldsaye has been my home my entire life living in four different homes.
The Bowling Club is where our cows used to to camp at night. I am still an active member and play several times a week in summer.

I have had a life-long association with the church, firstly the Methodist and later the Uniting Church.

A new red brick church was dedicated on Saturday 8th May 1954. Inside the church the rear windows from the old church were incorporated into the new and dedicated to William and Mary Somerville as donors of the land.

The church also is significant for me, as this is the place where I met Elva when the Eeles family moved into the district and Elva and her mother came to worship at the church. 

Following our marriage in 1958, Elva and I built debt-free the cream brick house on the corner of Strath main road and Club Court. 

In 1965 we bought land (the current site of St Francis' Primary School) and we built a dairy, haysheds and renovated the old farm house for our own farm.
Here we ran a successful dairy farm with poultry and raised our two daughters Sheryl and Lynette. 

Our farming was a combined family effort with Elva working the poultry and selling eggs to Crystal Egg in Bendigo. She and girls fed and raised our calves for the dairy. 

In 1986 Elva and I purchased a farm at Sutton Grange and began grazing as I wound down the dairy after 50 years of active dairy farming. 

I still have this property and run beef cattle there.

Farming has changed throughout my 90 years.

Johnny Gladman was the local blacksmith on the site where the supermarket is now. He used to weld bits and pieces for our farms, horses and carts on his furnace. We used a crosscut saw which had a man on each end of it. There were no chainsaws then. 

Our hay was in sheaves and stacked with a pitchfork. We built our haystacks to look like a boat so the water would drain off it after rain.

Chaff was cut up by a steam-chaff cutter by men who came around the district each year with their horses before the days of tractors.

I have seen many changes in Strath over the years: the rough gravel road to Bendigo being bitumenised, electricity and phone connected, the water coming through the pipeline from Eppalock.

Despite all the recent housing development three original Somerville homes still stand in the district:  'Somerset Park' in Somerset Park Road, 'Clydebank' behind Braidie's Tavern, and 'Maryville' opposite the old shire offices on the main road.

I still own 50 acres in the district with only a barb wire fence separating my cows and the developments. 

When I finish farming the Somerville farming association with Strathfieldsaye of 160 years will come to an end.

Do you have a great story for this series?

The Bendigo Advertiser invites farming families in our readership area to submit their family farming stories. Or do  you know of a farming family with an interesting story? Email cos@bendigoadvertiser.com.au or phone  5434 4432.

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