The early 1890s were hard times for most South Australians. Severe droughts, low prices for most of what they produced, a high rate of unemployment and the start of the depression made life very difficult for many families. For some families conditions were so difficult that they decided to leave South Australia and settle in Victoria, Western Australia or even in Paraquay, South America, where William Lane tried to establish his Community settlement of New Australia in 1893 which included some thirty South Australians.
Social unrest produced more than a passing interest in Uthopian schemes and socialistic ideas were popular. One attempt by the South Australian government to keep men of capital, energy and talent from deserting South Australia, and at the same time provide some sort of relief for people hit hard by the depression, resulted in the establishment of the Village Settlement Scheme, mainly along the River Murray to utilise 'waste lands for irrigation'.
Government legislation, initiated by the Kingston Ministry and passed in 1893, provided for associations of twenty or more settlers to be formed to hold and work land as a community. Land was set aside where soils were supposed to be fertile and timber, water and food, like rabbits and fish, would be readily available.
It was hoped that the Village Settlement Scheme would support the unemployed, remove them from the city and at the same time open up new areas along the Murray and other places in South Australia. Each settler over the age of eighteen years could have 65ha if he could contribute $100 towards the association. The government waved the first year's rent on the leases and guaranteed a grant of $100 to the assiciation for each settler once he was established. Later, as a result of the deepening depression, men without any capital and many of the Adelaide unemployed were also settled in the villages.
The Holder Village Association was formed in March 1894 and that same month a group of settlers arrived at Holder in the middle of the night. They had travelled by train from Adelaide to Morgan and from there on the paddle steamer Ellen to their new settlement. Most spent their first night around a huge bonfire which had been lit to keep warm. Next morning it was time to build shelters and most of them were to live in pug and pine huts or tents for some time. The next important job was to clear the land and sow a crop. Within two weeks the men managed to clear about ten acres. Almost immediately a small town was planned and numbers drawn out of a hat for each allotment. When finished, the town had nineteen stone cottages and five built of wood and iron, a post office, store, bakery, school, and blacksmith.
The town of Holder, named after Sir Frederic Holder, MP was officially proclamed on 26 July 1894. Rent to be paid to the government was set at two pennies an acre and the title deads made out to P.J. Conway, Charles Anderson, John Price, Frederis Slater and Walter Parker.
The next job was to select a site for the pumping station which was done by J.W. Jones. Wood was cut for use at the settlement and the surplus for sale to passing steamers. Most families lived on rations of fish and rabbits until vegetable gardens had been established, although some stores were bought from trading vessels on the Murray.
Within one week of arrival the first baby was born. On 20 March 1890 Mrs Brennan gave birth to a son, Martin Holder, without the help of a doctor, nurse or midwife. A few weeks later 18 year old Albert Joseph Emrose died and became the first to be buried in the new cemetery. As there was no church person it was Samuel Dyke who read the service. The first child christened at the Waikerie Station woolshed, used as a church, was Richard Holder Anspach. His mother Dorothy Ann died six years later on 6 June 1900 and is also buried at the Holder cemetery.
Two couples were married before August 1894 when Rev W.J. Russell arrived on the mission boat Etona to conduct the double wedding of Miss H. Emrose to J. Maddocks and Miss M. Emrose to F. Slater. All were from the original group of settlers.
After the first few months there were still several villagers who lived in tents or other primitive accomodation. Slowly but surely progress was made and before winter vegetables had been planted, a bakehouse and boat completed and two limekilns built. Religious services were held, a Dramatic Club formed and a school opened by Joseph McKinlay to teach as many as forty children. In 1895 he was replaced by J. Odgers who remained at Holder for seven years.
Odgers soon became a community leader and was much respected for his efforts to improve life at the village. He became involved in the establishment of a library, debating society and arranged many concerts. He became secretary of the Holder branch of the Agricultural Bureau which was formed in 1897. At its first meeting on 12 February 1897, F.A. Grant was elected Chairman and Odgers Secretary.
Among the first settlers were Elijah Crocker and his family. Crocker had been elected to the Board of Trustees, to prepare the move, and remained in that position until the scheme was finally abandoned, after which he moved to Ramco. Another was Samuel Dyke who was elected Manager of the village. Within a month Dyke had bought two steam engines and pumps to start the irrigation and cultivation work. This was made easier with the gift of seed wheat in June from the Village Aid Society. Until the installation of the pumps water had to be carried from the river in tins, buckets or anything else available, a job done mainly by the women and children. During the first months several children lost their way but luckily all were found safe and sound.
Thirty-seven year old H. Williams, his wife and seven children were also among the original settlers as was F.G. Rogers, his wife and four children. They stayed at Holder until it was closed and then moved to Ramco, another village settlement.
By July 1894 nearly 250 acres had been cleared, irrigation channels dug and all was ready for a visit by members of the South Australian government to start the irrigation machinery. In 1896 Holder was visited by the recently government appointed Village Settlement Advisor Samuel McIntosh. McIntosh gave advice on many aspect of agriculture, horticulture, bookkeeping and the general running of the settlements. He kept the government informed about the progress of its scheme and was at times asked to settle disputes between villagers.
As in the other village settlements, life was extremely hard and some villagers left in the first month. Some new settlers were admitted, others left later for one reason or another and by October 1895 only 49 remained from the original 260 who had left Adelaide. In 1899 only eighteen adult males were left at Holder. Even so, the town seemed to be doing a little better than Ramco, Murtho or Waikerie and had good crops growing on the river flats.
In 1902 the Holder residents were advised to concentrate on planting orchards or vineyards and land most suitable for this purpose was subdivided into twenty 10 acre blocks.
In March 1903 Board members W.R. Terrell and E.H. Moritz resigned and the Commissioner of Crown Lands was told that the town would not last for another twelve months. On 21 August Holder's assets were auctioned and raised $1500 for the government. The settlement was officially abandoned on 27 August 1903 and the land leased to F.C. Howard.