Karoonda in the Murray Mallee is about 145 km east of Adelaide and 65 km from Murray Bridge. The Mallee lands were first settled by pastoralists from as early as 1859. Their experience with the soil, vegetation and climate did not induce many to invest heavily in developments or to stay for any length of time. By the 1880s most had left the area as a result of the often recurring dry years or droughts.
By the turn of the century they were replaced by farmers. Many of them were the sons of farmers whose family’s farm could not support them. They looked for fresh land to make their future and fortune. With most of the productive lands around Adelaide and the mid north already taken up they had no choice left but the almost virgin Mallee lands.
They moved in well before any surveying had been carried out by the government. Several of them took up land near the government bore which had been sunk in 1910 for a proposed railway. Their first task was the clearing of the dense scrub to plant a crop. This was a heavy and time consuming job and by the 1930s only half the arable land had been cleared. The town of Karoonda, in the Hundreds of Marmon-Jabuk and Hooper was surveyed around, and named after, the railway siding which in turn was an Aboriginal word meaning ‘winter camp’.
Cutting the Mallee, 1911.
As early as 1909 The Murray Lands Railway Commission was appointed to investigate and report on the proposed line from Tailem Bend to Brown's Well. At first the town developed primarily as a railway town. The railway was to play an important part in the initial establishment and later development of the town. In a 1911 petition farmers had claimed that 'Unless we are provided with a means of getting our produce to market at a reasonable cost, it will be impossible for us to develop the country and make farming a paying concern'. Early in 1912 the line had reached the Karoonda siding and the first goods and passengers arrived in June. Hugh Hart let no time to open a refreshment room at the siding in April 1913.
New rooms were completed the next year and were operated by F.W. Blundell for a few months when he transferred it to Jane Wright of Quorn who ran it until 1919. Mrs J.V. McAskill then took over. Complete new rooms were built in 1928 but were operated by railway staff. They closed in January 1963.
Living conditions, 1911.
The railway siding was upgraded in 1916 and became a junction station for three lines, the Peebinga, Paringa and the Waikerie lines. However, long before that Thomas H. Wiggins had also opened a store near the railway bore in October 1911 and eventually became the post master and agent for the Bank of Adelaide. Being a busy site Allen McLaren from Broken Hill started a blacksmith shop in 1912 and Herbert S. Coombe a cash store in 1913.
In 1912 farmers formed a Progress Association and urged the government for a town to be surveyed so shop keepers could build and for the establishment of a school. In 1913 a maintenance depot was established at Karoonda for the government bores and windmills in the area including a workshop and horse yard. More buildings were erected during the 1920s.
When the town was finally surveyed into 103 allotments in October 1913 it was officially proclaimed on 11 December 1913. Among the original buyers were Richard Bennett, a solicitor of Adelaide, Allen Bruce McLaren, a blacksmith of Bow Hill, George Henry Gill, greengrocer of Karoonda, Thomas Henry Tamblyn, engine driver of Kapunda, Ferdinand Edwin Hecker of Rhine Villa, Cornelius B. Crowley of Murray Bridge and Michael Bernard Woods of Hookina.
Water carting, 1911.
The Karoonda Institute Hall was opened in September 1914 and later that year the remainder of the town was surveyed, including the bores and railway siding areas. By 1915 the town had most of its essential services, including parklands, tennis court, a dining room operated by Jane Sherriff three stores, three fruiterers, two boarding houses, a temperance hall, blacksmith, hotel, butcher shop opened by Robert Rigby Rust, school opened in the Institute with Joseph P. O’Loughlin as first teacher and an enrolment of 13 students, police station with residence and an office of the Bank of Adelaide with Cyril Norman Wilson as first manager.
The only thing lacking was medical facilities. The nearest doctor at that time was in Murray Bridge or Tailem Bend. It was not until February 1925 that Dr P.S. Listch-Hussey commenced practice in Karoonda. A year later a cottage hospital was opened and finally in 1973 a brand new 14 bed hospital.
By 1915 most of the businesses at the Karoonda more were relocated to the newly surveyed town. In October 1916 the town got its Telephone Exchange and five private phones were connected in 1917. In January 1917 a contract was signed for a new school building and separate teacher residence and was officially opened on 18 December. It served the local students for nearly ten years after which it was extended by another room in 1928. It was opened on 11 May by the Hon M. McIntosh, the Minister for Education, who granted a special half holiday for the students.
The school remained like that until 1940 when enrolments had increased to 78. A School Band was started in August 1922, Wood work classes in 1924, a Welfare Club was formed in 1929 and an Old Scholars’ Association in 1933. Schooldays consisted of saluting the flag, inspection of hands, singing God save the King, assemblies, dipping girls’ pigtails in inkwells and ……the cane.
A big first for the Karoonda School occurred in 1940 when it became the Karoonda Area School, the first in South Australia with 112 students and Keith Polkinghorn as first principal. Ten years later there were 230 students on the roll. It reached its highest number in 1968 with 377 students.
The first Karoonda Show was held on 28 October 1920. The 1920s were prosperous years for the town and many new stone houses were built. It had now become a major railway town as well. In 1922 the District Council was formed and three years later Dudley Shepherd opened the first garage and ran a bus service to Adelaide until 1936 when he married and moved to Kangaroo Island. A Post Office was built and opened in June 1925. A Masonic Lodge was formed in 1925, through the efforts of J.A. Skinner and a Temple built in 1930. The RSL opened a branch in 1930 and a branch of the CWA in 1946.
With more and more people buying cars there was even the need for a second garage which was started by Francesco Bassani in 1928. Another first for Karoonda occurred on 25 November 1930. On that day it was shaken by the impact of a meteorite, weighing more than 41 kg. leaving a crater 46 cm deep and over two metres wide. It shattered on impact but even then the largest piece weighed 3.2 kg.
Like so many country town the 1930s were particularly hard times for the people of Karoonda. Wheat prices dropped to half or even less on top of a three year drought leaving very little for farmers to spend. Many businesses suffered as a result and had to cut back on staff. Some also lost payments for outstanding accounts as creditors disappeared from town. Few new buildings went up during these years.
However they did gain the services of Clarrie Newson, a chemist, who remained until 1950. When he left for Aldgate the town had to do without a chemist for ten years. One new development which was started was a power station operated by Francesco Bassani. He provided the town with electricity until 1953 after which he sold it to the Karoonda District Council.