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Published January 12th 2018
A town with a history to be proud of
A Monument to the Heroes of Ucolta Next to the Ruins of Ucolta Memorial Hall
There are some who say that a town should be judged on the qualities of its people. That a populace is the sum of its achievements. This may be particularly true for small country towns, which live or die on the labours of the men and women who dwell there.
Ucolta in mid-north South Australia was created out of adversity. The nearby town of Lancelot was founded around 1877 and attracted enough farmer settlers to build a school, church and hotel. But only five years later drought devastated wheat yields, and the hard times continued through the 1890's when drought returned.
A new South Australian Railways line from the (now ghost) town of Terowie to Broken Hill bypassed Lancelot completely, and a small settlement developed alongside the railway station and tracks at Ucolta in 1894. The general store from Lancelot moved to Ucolta, and Lancelot continued its slow decline into a ghost town.
Unloading Wool at Ucolta Railway Station (Image: Murray Billett Collection mb-b16-098 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Innovation from Necessity Meanwhile, an enterprising and ingenious inventor in Ucolta was at work on his farm, and realised the importance of doing more with less. In 1893 Robert Perkins was granted the patent rights for his idea - the Perkins bag lifter, and received sole manufacturing rights to his invention for 14 years. The bag lifter was a simple but extremely effective way to save labour when loading a cart. With the help of local men, Perkins made more than 17,000 bag lifters at the blacksmith's shop on his Ucolta farm. An affordable selling price saw the Perkins bag lifter sold throughout South Australia and interstate for many years.
After Robert Perkin's death in 1930 it was saida memorial to the late Mr. Perkins should be taken up enthusiastically by every farmer and every farmer's man, not only in South Australia but throughout the Commonwealth.
Extremes of Weather and Hardship at Ucolta With a railway siding and up to 20 trains daily to take wheat to market, you might think that the farmers of Ucolta would be happy. But life above the Goyder Line was hard, and rain was rare. When it did come, it arrived in copious quantities causing floods and creating a massive lagoon two miles wide. It must have been a pretty sight, with a blaze of colourful flowers in bloom, and wild ducks, flamingo and other birds delighting in the natural wonder.
Settlers asked for a goods shed to be built at Ucolta to prevent their produce being damaged by heat and rain. They also complained that not enough railway trucks were available to transport their harvest away to market. A number of railway workers were based in Ucolta and in 1911 the South Australian Railways Commissioner authorised cottages to be constructed for workers. With almost 100 tons of firewood sent from Ucolta railway station in a week, there would be plenty of work for the railway workers.
Hutton's Lagoon at Ucolta (Image: Murray Billett Collection mb-b16-086 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
For Ucolta residents the world view seems to have been largely restricted to the nearby Flinders Ranges settlements of Lancelot, Oodla Wirra, Dawson and Nackara. It was perhaps not surprising: with poor roads and few motor cars, people travelled by horse or walked. When Gladys Ward penned the history of the area in 1978 she recorded laconically "1914 began with drought. The rabbits remained a pest, and then came war. Young men ... answered the call, and farmers were left without help".
In 1914 Ucolta had only 91 residents, mostly farmers. Despite this fourteen brave young men from Ucolta went to a war on the other side of the world. Only seven of these heroic men returned to their families at the end of World War 1 - believed to be a tragic Australian war record.
The McNeil family lost three sons, Arthur Clapp lost a son, and farmer/inventor Robert Perkins lost his only son. Life on a farm relied heavily on help from children, and each family must have suffered terribly after their loss.
After the war life in Ucolta continued much as it always had. Regular sporting competitions against Peterborough were frequent, with cricket, football and tennis being played often. The annual railwaymen's picnic at The Park was the highlight of the year, when special trains brought more than 1,000 people to Ucolta every year. In 1929 more than 100 motor vehicles came too.
The Mayor of Peterborough opened the Ucolta Memorial Hall in 1922 to a large crowd. "He asked those present to look at the Hall, not in a spirit of mourning, but with rejoicing for the glorious achievements of the dead.
A Water Tank Waits for the Next Steam Train to Ucolta
World War 2
Ucolta's contribution during World War 2 got scant mention in the newspapers of the time. Although eight local men enlisted, only one died. Eric Sambell survived - with a piece of shrapnel still in his head sixty years later.
Driver Sylvia Sambell of Ucolta was one of the two last AWAS to be discharged at Keswick in 1947. She estimated that since she had joined the army, she had driven staff cars and ambulances at least 100,000 miles.
Ucolta Becomes a Ghost Town
At the end of World War 2 Ucolta began a slow slide into obscurity. In the 1940's newspapers reported Baptist church activities, but by the 1950's there was rarely a reference to Ucolta. Conversion of the railway line to standard gauge in 1969 saw even the railway workers relocated.
Was Ucolta ever a town? From a newspaper in 1912: Ucolta has not a large population, and, on account of not possessing a blacksmith shop and a pub, cannot claim to be a township, yet the famous blue weed, Salvation Jane, was first seen here and has spread from here over most of the North, yet nowhere does it do better than Ucolta.
Ucolta only comes to life now when the Indian Pacific thunders through. The Ucolta Memorial Hall crumbled years ago, replaced by a monument containing the rolls of honour. The abandoned railway station and cottages are derelict like many others near the Flinders Ranges.
Dust to dust.
Pekina is another small town in the Flinders Ranges with a rich history dating back to the early days of South Australia. Read about Pekina here.
Very interesting, Dave. Again, these pioneering lives & struggles put things in a different perspective for me. Not sure if they would want the claim that their town was the “birthplace” of Salvation Jane, beautiful though I thought once upon a time!