t sat in a farm yard rusting, and now a dedicated group are bringing Victor Harbor’s historic train back to life.
With large rubber tyres, it resembles more a retired armoured vehicle than the train it was supposed to be, but a purpose was served; the daily express to Granite Island.
For 30 years from 1956 this unique-looking truck or van powered by a Land Rover diesel engine towed carriages packed with tourists, and became a unique part of Victor Harbor’s history until it was replaced by those magnificent Clydesdales in all their splendour.
And for almost the next 30 years it sat lonely in a paddock in Inman Valley engulfed by weeds until its owner Rudi van der Brook contacted the blokes at the Southern Fleurieu Historical Museum at the Port Elliot Showgrounds and asked whether they would like the challenge of restoring this rusting treasure.
A daunting task indeed, especially when the volunteers didn’t have a workshop at the time and were in the midst of shifting the museum to the other side of the showgrounds. Finally, this truck that thinks it’s a train (and we’ll call it that) found its new home four months ago .
The team has won a race against time, beautifully restoring the original carriages so they will be operational again during the 139th Port Elliot Show on October 10-11, only this time pulled by a TE20 Ferguson tractor, which hasn’t been used since 1983. And with financial support, and especially a lot of luck, the train will be ready next year. The Alexandrina Council has already contributed $3000, which is magnificent considering the history relates to Victor Harbor.
For the blokes in the workshop behind the Port Elliot School, their reward for tediously restoring the carriages will be watching the smiles on the kids’ faces as they get on board the ride to-and-from the museum.
Have fun they will, and no one will be more proud than Deane Perry, whose contribution to the development and running of the show for almost 50 years, and cranking up the museum in 2004 and coordinating this train project, is amazing.
The energetic Southern Agricultural Society committee, which presents the Port Elliot Show, was planning to again have Clancy the Train providing rides for the kids, but when Museum committee member Colin Ekers, whose contribution has also been extraordinary, suggested to restore the carriages it was ‘move over Clancy’ and full steam ahead in the workshop.
Great work, and the old carriages will add something special to the show, which already has been decked in success since 1889 – after 20 years at Middleton – and is widely regarded as the best rural agricultural show in the state.
Of course, there will be many other features of this annual family favourite outing, including the dog show, cattle show, horses in action, beef cattle and sheep parades, and prizes keenly judged and awarded to the best cake decorators, needleworkers, cooks, craftspeople, woodworkers and… the list goes on. It’s what great shows are all about – embracing what it has to offer.
One hopes that the many thousands who attend this one also take time to have a good look at the museum and appreciate the work behind every intricate detail of each piece.
They will see things like Joe Barton’s sulky made in Port Elliot by the Barton brothers including Joe’s grandfather. At 98 years-old, Joe came here to unveil the restoration craftsmanship last April. There’s also Des and Margaret’s horse-drawn milk cart they used to deliver milk around the town, and now they’re here working for the museum.
“We have cabinet makers, builders, engineer and electricians here,” Deane says. “We’re lucky that we cover such a wider variety and all the blokes have got their own little interests. They put a lot of love, work and care into restoration. We have blokes who just love doing up buggies and wagons.
“There was a hay bailer that took two years to restore, mainly because when we took it apart and had the parts neatly set out to make it easier to put back together, the fellas were in such big a hurry to shift things to the new shed they just packed it all up and dumped it in a heap. It is ready to be used again in season, cutting a few acres and bailing hay.”
Deane said he was never an enthusiastic collector of old wares or a visitor of museums in his younger years. “The problem I had with them was that a lot of their gear wasn’t being restored or looked after,” he said. “I could see that in another 40 years all that stuff was going to be useless because it had been sitting outside and not protected.”
Deane hesitated at first, but said if there were a special item in this museum it was the old piano, and it was easy to understand why. “My grandfather wasn’t a resident of the Fleurieu… he had a farm with his brother and family at Yongala in the mid north where my mother was born,” he said.
“He used to always play the piano when they shifted to a property at Mulaquana south of Whyalla… undeveloped country and they lived in horrendous conditions.
“In 1926 my grandfather had an accident with a shotgun and blew his left arm off. I can still remember my mother telling me about the incident, and it seems he rode his horse back home holding his arm that was just hanging by a couple of sinews.
“They then had to take him by buggy to Port Augusta 70 miles away and he pulled through. He became stone deaf from the incident as well, and he lost his arm. But he still played the piano with his right hand.
“As kids, we’d go up to Whyalla and listen to him playing his little ditties. I have got those memories, so the piano is dear to my heart. It travelled around when my grandfather shifted and my mother ended up with the piano. And no, I cannot play a thing.”
Bus loads of tourists from the city will be visiting the museum every day through September, but normally it’s only open 10am-3pm Thursday and Sunday. It’s just $5 per adult and $2 is you’re under 14.
The kids love all the old stuff; the displays, but the blokes who volunteer here treasure most the visits by the kids from the special needs class at the adjacent primary school.
Some people don’t like museums because they prefer to live the day, but Deane and Colin explained that these special needs kids add a whole new meaning.
“It is very hard to pass on how things worked if you don’t have them to show, and a good example is the program that we have with the Port Elliot Primary School,” Deane said. “Some of the kids that have learning difficulties come over here one day a week and we try to get them interested in an item to do up.
“This day the fellas had just worked on some old machinery, and the kids were looking at it so we showed them how it worked.
“When we actually pointed out how all the pieces of steel work had been handmade on a forge, you could see them thinking and asking things like, how could you start to make something like that? We explained it wasn’t just the making of it, but knowing how to make it and how it worked.
“Most kids today would not think about that. You could argue whether that is important or not, but it concerns me a little that the knowledge kids get today is all off a computer, and they don’t understand how difficult things from the old days were to make. I think it is important.”
Colin said how the students helped to make a horseshoe on a forge. “The kids were pumping the coals as hard as they could,” he said. “It was about learning and enjoying.”
When the museum started there were four or five people involved, and now there are more than 40. They have a great time, achieve a lot, and right now their passion for this truck that thinks it’s a train has never been greater. The train doesn’t have a name. Maybe we should call it James Deane, an actor of its era… he too was a rebel without a causeway.