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Local kids riding bikes outside the Moree Memorial Hall in the main street. (Photo: Brian Cassey)

Moree: Australia's richest rural shire

  • BY Paul Mann |
  • September 20, 2010

There's more to Moree than you know. We go back 25 years to look at this rural town and its local characters.

Editor's note: This story is from the first issue of Australian Geographic, back in 1986 - we republish it here as part of our 100th issue celebrations. Read all about Moree in 2010 in the 100th issue of Australian Geographic.

IN THE COOL, SEPIA light of dawn Moree is a town full of ghosts. They slink out of gratings, gutters and chinks in the pavement, dance a brief, mischievous dance of freedom then vanish, leaving only a signature of their passing, a few chlorine-scented curlicues of steam.

These are the spirits of the Great Artesian Basin and they have danced their ghostly ritual in the streets of Moree every morning since 1895. That was the year government engineers sank the Moree bore and tapped the hot artesian waters 851 m below. Today tens of thousands of visitors come to Moree annually to visit the spa baths and 'take the waters', said to relieve everything from arthritis to gout, and to rejuvenate the circulatory system.

More than 13 million litres of bore water, heavy in sodium, chlorides and iron and running at a constant 41 ºC, are pumped through the baths daily then piped beneath the town to an outfall in the Mehi River which winds through the heart of Moree. On this final journey to the river, steam from the hot water seeps upward to the streets, forming an endless chain of ghosts queuing to escape their subterranean jail. The spectres perform only for early risers before the sun climbs over the distant Masterman Ranges, raising the air temperature and rendering the steam invisible to the naked eye.

The management estimates that 80 per cent of visitors to the spa are from out of town and of east European origin. With the locals, they form a sleepy, dishevelled procession padding softly through the streets on the south side of town in bare feet or slippers, to catch the 6.30 a.m. opening session. Some of the men wear track suits; many of the women wear homely, floral dressing gowns over their bathing suits for the short walk from nearby motel units or caravans.

A similar early morning ritual has been enacted here virtually every day this century and passers-by do not give it a second glance. Perhaps this is because visitors to the baths are not the only people in Moree who must be about their business by the dawn's early light. Moree is country and country people are used to getting up with the sun. The town is only the hub of a shire encompassing 17,795 sq. km; that's roughly one sq. km for every resident, although 10,500 of those live in town.

Many of these people will have risen before the sun on this fresh country morning as it creeps over the mountains and chases shadows across the Moree Plains. Like beefy Robert Stein, a 30-year-old heavy equipment contractor who will have been at work since four, churning his 325-horsepower Steiger Panther 1000 tractor and earth-mover through harvested cotton fields, readying the land for a new crop.

Janelle Jones, a rosy-cheeked mother of four children, will already be at the wheel of her school bus en route to the wheat depot of Crooble, 80 km east of Moree, where she must pickup her first two passengers before making the long sweep back into town, ultimately delivering to their classrooms 61 children from outlying districts.

One hundred and twenty km north-west of Moree, John Kirkpatrick won't even have had breakfast before he is seated in his office at 'Cleveland', deciding which problems most urgently need attending to on his 30,375-ha property on  which he runs sheep and cattle and has begun growing cotton, the glamour crop of the '80s.

Out at the 729-ha pecan nut plantation near the village of Pallamallawa, 31 km east of Moree, 36-year-old Tony Martin will be revving up the Shock Wave Shaker, a Star Wars beast which seizes tree trunks with great steel claws and shakes them giddy until they have yielded all their fruit.

Back in Moree, plant operator Lance Duncan will have clocked in at Consolidated Grain where he attends the machines that crush oilseeds. And 46-year-old Don Devney, a former bikie from Newcastle, will defy the crisp morning air with his first cigarette of the day, then join his younger brother Des, 36, working in their backyard garage on a promising invention - a machine designed to service cotton fields more efficiently than any other in Australia.

These are just some of the faces of Moree. To understand the town you must first understand that Moree is diversity. Moree is cattle. Moree is sheep. Moree is cotton. Moree is wheat. Moree is soybeans. Moree is sorghum. Moree is sunflowers. Moree is money.

Wherever you go in this place you will hear the same advice from dozens of different sources, sometimes given cheerfully, sometimes with a smug, knowing smile: "If you haven't got a quid in Moree you must be mad."

Money sprouts from the ground. Flood plains cover the shire, bringing broken-down basalt and volcanic black soil from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range. It ranges from 1.5 m deep in some places to 10 m deep in others. It appears capable of growing anything. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Moree generated $249.5 million worth of agricultural products in 1983-84, making it the richest agricultural shire in Australia. Moree produced 642,000 tonnes of wheat, 144,000 tonnes of cotton and $4.3 million of oilseeds.

As 70-year-old retired farmer Russell Wells says: "You could put a match in the ground overnight and get a walking stick in the morning."


The local Moree Artesian Pools complex. (Photo: Brian Cassey)



Rich history

The first white man to leave his footprints in the fertile black soil of the Moree Plains was probably escaped convict George 'The Barber' Clarke. Clarke fled across the Great Dividing Range into the country of the Kamilaroi, one of the most numerous Aboriginal tribes in Australia at the time.

The Kamilaroi ranged across a vast territory stretching from what is today's NSW-Queensland border, down almost to the site of present-day Newcastle. Moree, believed to be Kamilaroi dialect for 'rising sun', was a favourite campsite because the Aborigines could fish the two major rivers known today as the Mehi and the Gwydir.

Then the first squatters came, bringing with them small herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to exploit the rich pastures reported by escapees like Clarke and confirmed by explorer Charles Sturt.

Clarke took advantage of the new situation by introducing the Indigenous people to an old English custom - cattle stealing. It was only the beginning of friction between Aborigines and the settlers, which led to atrocities by both sides and culminated in some of the most appalling massacres of Aborigines in the history of European settlement. Aborigines who were not murdered in the many 'clearances' were either driven out or forced onto reserves. Those who remained endured poverty and piecemeal assimilation.

Today not one Kamilaroi full-blood remains in the Moree area. Virtually all Aborigines living in and around Moree today are mixed descent, of many castes and hues, reflecting European and Asian influences.  White settlement forged ahead through the 1840sand '50s. Cobb and Co., the bullockies, the horse teams, the consolidation of the squattocracy had turned Moree into a recognisable town and rural centre by 1860.

However, architecturally and aesthetically, it seems Moree has always been a bit of a disappointment. In 1881 one observer wrote: "Moree appears an ill-eared-for village although its resources are undeniable. The buildings are not a class that one might expect to see where the settlers are wealthy; they are scattered and do not seem as though they were built with a view to permanency. Notwithstanding this fact the residents are quite alive to their own interests and being bright and intelligent they are striving to keep in the march of progress."
 
A similar observation could be made today. Apart from the charm of the restored Lands Office, Dr Martin Magill's old home which now houses the Moree Club and the National Bank building - all on Frome Street - the architecture is functional and undistinguished. Were it not for the rivers, the wide streets, playing fields and bucolic beauty of its environs, Moree would be an ugly town.

But Moree is not about aesthetics. Because Moree is set on a flood plain, when the floods come they are usually widespread and devastating, capriciously bringing ruin to some and nurturing silt to others. Most buildings, residential and commercial, are designed to serve the economic necessities of the land and to survive its frequent vengeful retaliations. They reflect a hunker mentality. Of necessity in Moree, function has triumphed over form.

Risk and reward

A career on the land is the greatest gamble Australia can offer. Capital investment is huge and so are the risks but then again, so are the rewards. In its richness Moree offers people the opportunity either to set themselves up for life or to ruin themselves for life. Every year a couple of property owners go bust. They may have over-capitalised, misguessed market prices, or simply been caught by the weather. The result is the same: bankruptcy court or debts which pursue them to the grave. And for every one who goes under, there is another ready to take their place, eager for their throw of the dice.

Bob Stein is 30. A few years ago he worked on the land as an employee tractor driver, grading fields for irrigation. Today he is an owner-operator with $1.25 million tied up in heavy equipment. His speciality is laser planing, a system whereby a laser transmitter is set up in the middle of a field where it emits a 360º beam of light. The light forms a disc which covers the field at a precise angle of tilt. A laser receiver mounted on a giant earthmover then grades the soil to the specified tilt. This enables the property owner to pump in water at the top comer and the trickle-down effect waters the whole field. In country where water is sacred, it's a method that enables landowners to get 30 per cent more use from their water entitlement.

A boisterous and bulky man notorious for his sense of humour, Bob gets out of bed at 4 a.m. each morning whenever the land is available for planing. He works until five or six at night, stopping only for the occasional cuppa and call of nature. His size comes from the big dinners he puts away to compensate for the enforced fasts in the air-conditioned cabin of his Steiger Panther 1000.

Grossing 85 cents a metre, he will make $60,000 planing 160 ha in two weeks. He bought a new house for around $150,000 and a racing car to pursue his hobby of bush league motor racing. On the other hand, he has to make leasing payments of between $20,000 and $30,000 a month. His fuel bill falls between $8000 and $10,000 a month, the giant tyres on his tractors and graders cost $5000 each and wear out at a cost of $10 an hour. Also, there are about 30 other contractors like him within a 150 km radius of Moree.

When he isn't working, Stein still has to make those huge payments, but for the moment he isn't worried. He is working steadily and, despite the unemployment situation, his biggest difficulty is finding drivers. With wages of $14 an hour, 12 hours a day, seven days a week when work is available, drivers can make well in excess of $1000 a week. Yet he recently fired a driver after training him for six months because, he says, the driver wasn't satisfied.

Ray Booth, 33, the dealer who sold Robert his laser planing apparatus, added: "My wife and I moved from Sydney in 1979. I came here as a manager for the company but we saw the opportunities and two years ago we bought out the existing owner. In some ways we'd like to be back in our unit overlooking the beach at Manly, but we choose to stay here because of the opportunity to get ahead much faster!"

So far Booth has sold around 140 laser plane units to contractors and farmers in the region. Each unit costs $30,000, including installation. Then there is servicing and leasing.  "Yeah," he says almost shyly, "I'm another one. I'd like to make my million in Moree, that's really why I'm here," he says.

While it may walk across the ground on cloven hoofs, or sprout from the soil in fluffy white balls, there are still basically two kinds of money in Moree: new money and old money. And where you have such differences, you have differences in class. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the socio-equestrian circuit which includes such events as the Mungindi Show and the real highlight of the Moree social calendar, the annual Picnic Races and Ball, held each May.

A visit to the Mungindi Show in the satellite community of Mungindi, 125 km north-west of Moree - a show that features dressage and rodeo - revealed class lines so sharply defined they could have been drawn with a ruler. On one side of the showground were the stained and weathered cowboy hats, the garish shirts and Levis; 00 the other were the Akubras, ties and tweeds.


A matter of class

At the picnic races in Moree there was hardly a cowboy hat in sight. But most telling of all was the spectacle of the members' enclosure ... with absolutely no-one on the outside. Not a soul! Apart from members, catering staff, riders and horses there was no one else at the Moree Racecourse. The picnic races are not intended to be exclusive. They just are. Anyone can come but anyone doesn't. More than any other sporting or social event, the picnic races appear to be reserved, by the invisible but widely understood protocols of class, for the enjoyment of the squattocracy and their children.

And oh what wonderful complexions these racegoers have! What glorious hues of pinks and burgundies reflecting life on the land. They range from the rosiest rubicunds of the elderly to the merely florid of the middle-aged to the breathtaking bone, china beauty of the young whose Dresden cheeks are just turning the palest shade of rose.

Defenders of the races claim they are neither as toffy nor as exclusive as they at first might appear, that they simply reflect a certain style and energy in the shire, that the races are relaxed and convivial, an enjoyable tradition and a pleasant excuse for people to dress up and socialise in the sunshine.

Despite the robust appearance of the squattocracy the races may be in decline. Local property owners put up the horses but, in keeping with the shifting economic emphasis of the shire from grazing country to agricultural country, interest appears to be waning.

''Their future would appear to be in jeopardy because people are losing interest in horses," opined Murray Cole, Moree solicitor, property owner and easy-going secretary of the Moree Picnic Race Club. "It costs as much to keep and race a horse in Moree as it does in Sydney, and there just doesn't seem to be the enthusiasm there once was. There's plenty of money in Moree but they don't want to spend it on horses. Perhaps it's because they're too busy doing other things. Perhaps 20 years from now there will be no picnic races ... we will be having a cotton day instead."

Cleveland principal John Kirkpatrick's interest in cotton reflects the growing dominance of the cotton dollar in the shire. Auscott, a corporate arm of the Boswell group, has by far the biggest stake in cotton with 5670 ha under cultivation in Moree Shire. John Kirkpatrick first grew cotton in 1983. In 1985 he turned 101 ha over to cotton and in 1986 it will be 243, with room for expansion beyond that should cotton prices hold up.

Traditionally Cleveland has been a sheep property and still runs 30,000 head. However John and his sister, Margaret, who are joint owners of the property, also run 1200 Shorthorn cattle and, for the past six years, they have sown wheat only to see it fail for three of those years. Most property owners grow a variety of crops or mix crops with stock so that if one fails they will have insurance in the other. More often than not in recent years, that insurance in Moree has taken the form of cotton. So much so that cotton has become the region's number one irrigated crop, an enormous impact since cotton was first introduced into the shire in 1960.

"Quite simply," says Kirkpatrick, "we saw what was happening and decided we had better get into it."


At the Auscott cotton gin, Harvey Gaynor inspects harvested cotton in bales. (Photo: Brian Cassey)





Enterprising

Don and Des Devney are banking all their hopes for prosperity on a machine they have developed to streamline the process of clearing and preparing cotton fields for sowing. The machine has a wonderful title: The Devney Cotton Plucker and Shredder.

The Devneys work in a suburban yard on the south side of Moree in a shed clogged with tools, welding gear and all the mystic components of invention. It is an unlikely source for an agricultural revolution hut every clay the Devneys are interrupted by landowners who call by to ask: "How long before we see a demo?"

The Devneys hope their machine will be demonstrated, refined and in production in time for the '86 season. Until they started work on the plucker and shredder three years and $150,000 ago, Don and Des worked throughout the shire as general mechanics.

Don lights a cigarette with cupped hands dyed grey from oil and crusted with the scar tissue that follows a lifetime working on big machines. He says: "Every machine that comes out can be improved. Most of the stuff we see is American and designed for American conditions. When it comes out here, well ... it's still good but not actually designed for heavy Australian soils. I've been mucking around in the cotton industry for a while and my brother and I have always said we'd design something. But everything we've designed has gone to the bloke we've been working for. So, we decided that if we ever got a real good idea we'd have a go on our own."

While similar machines have been developed in America and Israel, the Devneys hope their machine will improve on those designs and be better suited to Australian conditions. Development has not been without its headaches. They have been through six production models and the bank account has been empty many times.

"But," says younger brother Des, "we've battled on. We're typical Aussies I suppose. We've stuck to our guns because we know the machine is a winner."

If the Devney Cotton Plucker and Shredder goes into production each unit is expected to sell at between $40,000 and $50,000. And potential buyers are already hanging around the garden gate.

Compared to the Devneys, Deane Stahmann has had a smooth entry into the local economy. Smooth but not cheap. Stahmann is the lean, be spectacled American who introduced Australians to the subtle taste of the pecan nut, a sweeter cousin to the walnut. So far it has cost him $20 million to develop his 729-ha plantation near Moree. Last year, he says, he turned a small profit for the first time since he started the plantation in 1968. He insists he is not made of money.

"I've got my brother back in the States," he says in an easy New Mexican drawl. "He's farming the home farm and he keeps making money and sending it out here for me to spend. He keeps making it -I keep spending it."  Stahmann came to Australia in 1963 hoping to set up a plantation that would eventually ship pecan nuts to the United States during the American off-season. While he has exported pecans to the States, he has been backed further and further into an economic corner by rising shipping costs which have forced him to create a market for pecans in Australia. Stahmann has been so successful that a national ice-cream company plans to market the pecan log roll.

Pecans are considered a gourmet crop and, at the time of writing, sold for $6.50 a kilogram, shelled. Last year the plantation produced 2600 tonnes, most of which were eaten in Australia.

"We had to work pretty hard to educate Australians about pecans," says Stahmann. "But I understand that cashew nuts were unknown in this country until after World War II and now per capita Australians are the second largest consumers of cashew nuts in the world. So, I figured if they could learn to eat cashew nuts they could learn to eat pecans."

The Pallamallawa plantation employs 45 full-time workers and 80 casuals during the May-June picking season. The figures would have been higher if Stahmann had succeeded in talking the NSW Government into assistance in setting up a shelling plant locally. But NSW didn't oblige and the Queensland Government did, so the shelling plant went to Toowoomba.


Misunderstood

Moree is a town stigmatised by media reports of racial violence, most of which can be traced to the killing of a 19-year-old Aboriginal man in 1983, the events that surrounded that killing and the subsequent trial of two Moree caucasian locals. Ronald 'Cheeky' McIntosh was shot dead early on the morning of 5 November 1982 following a race-related pub brawl. On 24 November 1983, Warren John Ledingham, 27 at the time, and Steven Gregory Delamothe, 22 at the time, were each jailed for 14 years, having been found guilty of manslaughter in Sydney's Central Criminal Court.

It was a shameful incident, but according to the evidence of locals of both races, it did not indicate an underlying racial tension in Moree. For the big-city media, however, the issue was clear cut: white had killed black in Moree.

That the subsequent reports have hurt Moree would seem beyond question. Moree suffers from a serious shortage of teachers, bank staff, legal workers, government employees and other badly needed professionals who have been frightened off by reports of racial violence. But the town's social problems are minor compared to the greater problem created by the cumulative effect of sensational and misleading reports in the press and electronic media, according to shire president Lyle Houlahan.

"There is a widespread feeling in the community that we have had a bad deal from the press," he says, "and there is little doubt that it has hurt us. Mention the name Moree in the rest of Australia and people think of trouble. We have racial difficulties, we have problems, but no worse than any other country town of comparable size."

School Inspector David Hilder, who moved to Moree last January, confirmed that it has proved very difficult to attract sufficient teachers to Moree schools, "because of the stigma about Moree [and] because of the way they imagine life to be in Moree through the presentation of racial difficulties in the media."

He adds: "There are more than 50 unemployed science teachers in New South Wales. They have all been offered positions here in Moree and they have all refused. We found the same with PE teachers - they would rather forgo a job than work in Moree. We ask them why and they say that all they have heard about Moree has led them to believe that Moree is a difficult and unpleasant place to live in. Yet when teachers do come here they find they are happy in the schools and they end up staying a long time."

Ironically the bad press appears to have united people in Moree in their contempt for the Sydney media. Stories abound of press photographers fabricating pictures to create an impression of racial conflict, of reporters inventing incidents, of TV crews provoking youngsters to acts of violence and buying them alcohol to get pictures of alcohol abuse.

Martha Duncan, an Aboriginal mother of five children and a counsellor at the drug and alcohol unit of the Moree hospital, says: "The day after the shooting there was a television crew in the street around lunchtime. They had given a group of young Aboriginal kids a carton of beer to carry up the street. Then a few of the kids, 15- and 16-year-olds, drank some of the beer and dropped the bottles on the footpath and the TV crew filmed it. I was in the street when that happened. I watched the TV people do that! It wasn't very subtle but it never is ... that's the way they carry on when they come up here."

Her husband, Lance, a plant operator at Consolidated Grain and Moree's 1983 citizen of the year, adds: "I was coming home from work that same weekend and I came past the sports oval and there was a reporter bloke with beer in the back of his station wagon and he was feeding it to the kids and egging them on to have a bit of a blue.

"Then, when they got stuck into one another, he was there with his camera. That's got to be wrong."

Adds Martha: "You see, you've got to understand . . . what happened three years ago wasn't a race riot... it was a pub riot."

The Duncans represent Moree's small but expanding Aboriginal middle class. They own their own home in a quiet southside suburb, have a couple of cars and enjoy the luxuries that years of hard work have brought them. The Duncans have enjoyed so much success they are dispised from other Aboriginal people who cannot, Martha suggests, "break out of the poverty circle". The Duncans choose not to let insults bother them. Martha especially, who was a roadhouse cook for five years to help supplement Lance's income when he was shearing, has worked hard to give her family security. When her children were old enough she went to college as an adult student on an Aboriginal grant and earned the qualifications that won her the counselling job she has now.

"There's another myth about Aborigines," she says. "That we're all one big happy family. We're not. We have clans and classes and factions just like any other society. There's jealousy and there are stirrers among Aboriginal people. I don't react to criticism that we're 'uptown niggers' or Uncle 'Toms or whatever else you want to call it - I'm proud to be an Aboriginal and I'm proud of everything I've done for my family.

"We have our black activists out there demonstrating about land rights and that's okay, let them demonstrate. But for every activist demonstrating there are 10 others working quietly for real improvements and they are the ones who will bring the real changes. Activists will probably claim all the credit but who cares as long as Aboriginal people benefit in the end?"

And there are indications that the overall lot of Aborigines in Moree is improving. While 20 per cent of the shire population is indigenous, Aboriginal people account for 30 per cent of the unemployed. But, according to CES manager Terry Williams, this percentage - right on the national average for Aborigines - is decreasing.

Williams is Aboriginal and traces his ancestry back through childhood in Narrabri, 90 km south of Moree, to the Aboriginal settlement at Boomi, which is 90 km north of Moree. He knows he has mixed blood in his veins but believes his background to be Kamilaroi and is proud to be Aboriginal. A black rights activist in the late 1960s and early '70s, Williams acknowledges that he has mellowed with time but believes he accomplish more by working with the system and setting an example for other indigenous people.

"First off, I to do the right thing by everybody who comes through that door," he says, nodding at the CES shopfront looking Out onto Heber Street. "I believe there is a need to have Aborigines working throughout the community so people can see we are capable of working hard, that we are human, that we do have feelings and we do have needs. I think people who have their roots here should stay and if we can continue to break into new areas of employment all the time that would be great. We have one of the busiest offices in New South Wales here; there are vacancies coming through all the time. Moree is a very affluent area and if the Aboriginal people could share in that then I think it would be a big boost to them in many, many ways. It will come," he smiles. "It will come."

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 1 (Jan - Mar, 1986).

Editor's note: This story is from the first issue of Australian Geographic, back in 1986 - we republish it here as part of our celebrations for our 100th issue. Read all about Moree in 2010 in the 100th issue of Australian Geographic.

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