April 21, 2013

A bit of history

The Coolemon Run: A remote Pastoral Run in the Alps

Dr Iain STUART
Clichéd historical views of pastoralism as occurring in the remote and far outback of Australia, typified by the stories of Henry Lawson and Drysdale’s pictures and paintings, are belied by consideration of what “remote” really is. It is not necessarily the environment of the pastoral holding or run but the distance as expressed in travelling time from the holding to the “nonremote” areas.
Pastoralism in the Australian Alps and, to take another example which the author has also studied, pastoralism in Bass Strait, is remote because of the time and effort taken to travel to the principal markets and for goods and supplies to travel from their place of origin (which may not necessarily be the principal market) to the pastoral holding. Thus it is instructive to show an example of remote pastoralism in a less extreme environment than Western New South Wales.
The Coolemon plains formed a cultural landscape known as the Coolemon Run or Pastoral Holding No506 of the Eastern Division of New South Wales. The run was described as “bounded on the north by lofty mountains; on the south, lofty mountains; on the east by lofty mountains; on the west lofty mountains” Leopold de Salis’ purchased the Coolemon lease in January 1872 from O’Rourke for £275 and held it until the 1890’s.
The ranges to the south of Canberra are characterised by areas containing flat marshy ground called flats. The flats were originally frost hollows and this was sufficient to keep them open grassland although Aboriginal fire sticks would have also helped promote the open areas as sources of plant food and encouragement for Kangaroos and Wallabies to graze the flats. The flats provide a well watered grassy area suitable for grazing. Around the flats on the hillsides open forest vegetation grew giving the impression of a distinct “bath ring” of vegetation this was generally considered second class grazing land. On the tops of the highest hills were the snowy plains.
Travel to Coolemon by horse took a route through Orroral and up the Cotter River from the crossing of the Murrumbidgee River at Tharwa. This was the direct route either through Orroral or Gudgenby and it took about a day. The sheep and drays however went through Gudegnby and round to the Yaouk Plains and then followed the Murrumbidgee River along Long Plain and onto Coolemon. It took about six days to get the sheep up to Coolemon drays would have been slightly quicker. But people could quickly move on the shorter route so communication was quicker than getting supplies up.
Coolemon was notable for being the location where some cattle grazed by Dr Gibson were killed by the harsh winter of 1834. The story leads to another factor in understanding remote pastoralism; the perception of the environment by the settlers. The settlers had not the comprehensive environmental data available today nor the comprehensive models behind predictions of yearly and decade long climatic oscillations so they were reliant on their own understanding of the environment.
The de Salis’s at least had the services of Thomas Fishlock who had been on the Plains as an employee of several licences and so would have at least been able to regale them with tales of climatic extremes.
Leopold’s son George de Salis made his initial trip to Coolemon in September 1874. He went with Thomas Fishlock an old employee and dummy selector of the de Salis’s. He had lived on Coolemon plains in the early 1830’s when he was assigned to Palmer and was looking after his cattle. Later he was on the plain with “Mr Murray”. Fishlock knew the geography and environment of the Coolemon. The party of men set fire to the plains as they crossed them.
The de Salis’s took their first flock of 10670 sheep up in the spring of 1875. The flock was split into three mobs each with two shepherds. Eventually huts and sheep yards were erected at each location. There were no internal fences but in 1876 the deSalis’s began fencing the boundaries of the run. This required negotiation with adjoining squatters particularly McDonald of the Peppercorn run. Typically there was disagreement about some aspects of where the fence would run but as gentleman they resolved the dispute by giving a little and no doubt each party felt how generous they had been.
Typically sheep were brought up to Coolemon after shearing in December and stayed on the plain until winter began, typically sometime in May. From 1878 the de Salis’s also kept a mob of cattle up on Coolemon which seems to have been looked after by Tom Oldfield another trusted employee and dummy selector.
There was an “old Coolemon” homestead on the run but in early 1876 the de Salis’s constructed a “new homestead’ nearby (this is not the Coolamine Homestead now in the area). The house was made from bush timber with a thatched roof. It had a post and rail fence about it. George de Salis taking up a selection of 320acres on Coolemon on the 16th November 1876 safeguarded this investment. An additional conditional purchase was taken on the 6th September 1877 making the total area selected 640 acres – the maximum allowable. These were portions 1 & 2 in the Parish of Murray.
But life at Coolemon was not all sheep and cattle, well at least not for the owners and others of equivalent status. George de Salis records shooting and playing various sports with the men. The Coolemon Caves were a frequent visiting spot where fossils could be found and limestone formations admired. In March 1878 George lead a party of visitors including his sister Nina and Emily and Mary Smith daughters of the Rev Pierce Gulliard Smith the C of E vicar of Canberra. They visited Murray’s Cave and a day later the Blue Waterholes Caves, in both caves they wrote their names. They also visited “the Falls’ there George proposed to Mary Smith. This seems to have comes as something of a surprise to Mary who waited five days until she agreed.
As a remote pastoral station in the Alps Coolemon must have been more Banjo Patterson than Henry Lawson in spirit although we actually know little of the men such as Thomas Fishlock and Tom Oldfield who worked for the deSalis’s. Their life would have been isolated and limited on the supplies brought in from Cuppacumbalong. Perhaps archaeological work might elaborate their histories in a remote corner of the Kosciusko National Park.
      

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