Named by Thomas Freebain Monteith, who had arrived in Adelaide in 1839. After being elected Alderman in 1855 and Mayor of Glenelg twice he settled near present day Monteith Lagoon. During the 1880s the Surveyor General W. Strawbridge suggested that some of the swamp areas along the River Murray should be reclaimed to support settlement.
Some twenty years later the Government bought 1,361 acres at £2.12.4 an acre to be reclaimed in the area known today as Monteith. Blocks would be narrow but long to give each farmer a river front and higher ground to build their house and farm buildings. Originally the land was cut up into 10 acre blocks but this was soon found to be far too small to make a living.
On 15 September 1907 Donald and Helen Gunn of Port Adelaide took up a lease of nearly 60 acres and built a shelter of galvanised iron and canvas to house their family of 11 children. Donald Gunn, and other farmers soon found out that the swamp land in its natural state was utterly useless but after draining could support lush pastures. Instead of dairying he started keeping sheep.
The government gained increased support for reclaiming and opening up swamp land along the Murray River from the results obtained by the farmers at Monteith. At a cost of £8 per acre they had made nearly 1,000 acres ready for occupation. By the end of 1909 they added more land in the higher areas making a total of 1,927 acres cut up into 37 blocks ranging from 40 to 90 acres. Interest in the blocks was high and more than 1,000 applications were received from 334 farmers.
In September 1909 a special reporter of the Advertiser wrote that the progress made on the Monteith settlement 'had been phenomenal' and promised to be at no distant future 'a magnificent agricultural and dairying centre'. He found that there was now 'an estate crossed by wired and netted fences, houses of various designs, implements of all kinds, while the voices of scores of happy children are to be heard on every side'.
There were now some 40 settlers occupying the surveyed blocks. The crops were looking healthy and providing the banks kept secure and the river would not rise too high, a good harvest of lucerne, rye and barley sown would be forthcoming. As much as 80 lbs. of butter was being produced by one enterprising settler each week.
Vegetables were growing in great profusion on some blocks and fruit trees of many varieties were being planted. A pumping plant to deal with the surplus water had also been ordered and later paid for by the government. Altogether the Monteith community, the reporter said, was to be congratulated on the progress made, especially as difficulties had presented themselves in many ways, owing to abnormal circumstances which promised to give more than ordinary trouble at the outset.
He closed his lengthy article by saying that 'with the embankments strengthened beyond the possibility of river encroachment, drainage properly and effectively carried out, easy transport ensued, fencing finished and the children at school, it is not too much to say that this latest experiment in land settlement will prove a model community and a profitable object lesson to the whole of Australia'.
At year’s end most of the blocks had been taken up, after extensive advertising by the government for its use as dairy farming, and many of the early settlers had erected temporary buildings and were cutting posts for fencing. Most of the early houses, which were built on the higher ground, were made of galvanised iron and wood but some families lived in bog huts or even tents until more substantial housing became available. An added problem for most was that the higher ground was thickly covered with trees and scrubs and had to be cleared first.
Transport to and from their blocks was a problem though as the road from Murray Bridge was in a terrible state. At a meeting of the farmers the government was urged to provide a railway siding to solve this problem and also provide a school and post office. A good news item was that the Meningie District Council had made a grant of £100 available for the construction of a road from Tailem Bend.
A few months later another, and even larger meeting was held at T.R. Smith’s house where a committee was formed and chaired by A. St. C. Martin. The meeting was informed that a siding had been granted but that a lot more was needed yet. Among those present were; A. McDonald, E.S. Bradford, W.H. Carter, C. Hewell, G. Cleggett, C. Rowell, H. S. Heithersay and G. Fraser.
During March 1910, and after some heavy rains, farmers were happily ploughing and sowing. However there was also a well-founded feeling that the government was squeezing the farmers too much. The rent was high and with taxes included and compulsory payments of all kinds the amount demanded was in many cases over 30 shilling per acre. It was thought that the rents should be reduced as the government had left many things undone which it might reasonably have been supposed to do.
By August 1910 many of the necessities needed were still lacking. There was still no school building although a tent was used for that purpose. A report from the Education Department of 1909 had stated that 'Directly the Land Board had allotted the land at Monteith, the settlers began to arrive with their families, and in a short time there were between 30 and 40 families on the settlement. Naturally anxious that their children should lose no school time, the parents at once petitioned for a school. As it was impossible to provide a permanent building at once, an order was given for a tent, and within a few weeks the tent was in position on the school reserve and the school in full swing.
The tent is 24 feet square, and is supplied with a fly 30 feet square, three windows, two doors, and a firm wooden floor. As a temporary expedient, the structure has been found to serve the purpose fairly well. Owing to the difficulty of obtaining suitable lodgings, the young teachers are obliged to live in tents supplied by the Department'. Similar arrangements had been made at Murray Bridge and Tarcoola.
This was considered highly unsuitable. It was also decided that a hall would have to be erected as well. This proved to be a problem as trustees were hard to get. Eventually L. Bell, A. Martin, T.R. Smith, E. Eldridge and D.J. Murphy were appointed and it was agreed to build a wood and iron Hall at a cost of £150.
When the Hall was officially opened on 30 September 1910 by the Hon. J. Cowan and attended by some 50 people from Murray Bridge, Chairman A. Martin lost neither time nor the opportunity to point out the needs of the young town. Top of the list was the need for a proper school building, a daily mail service, telephone facilities, adequate drainage and last but not least a polling place as there were some 100 people on the electoral roll. Although the railway siding had been completed it was too far from the centre of the town, making for long walks and adding to the transport costs of all goods loaded or unloaded there.
During these early times, Donald McDonald who occupied the end block in Monteith had been his own architect. He had put up a house, several sheds, stables and yards that would be a credit to many outstations in the best pastoral country. The outside walls, made of round pine and good lime mortar, were the hallmark of expert bushcraft and gave little idea of the amount of comfort, neatness and elegance inside.
McDonald was an old hand. He had taken up land near Mannum in 1874 but later went to manage a dairy farm for James Cowan at Murray Bridge and subsequently for Peter Bell. After that experience he started farming on halves for Allen Bell, who held the lease of Monteith station at that time. After some ten years of dairying he successfully applied for his present block but found that sheep farming was more of his liking.
Meanwhile several farmers had discovered that farming on swamp land was a lot harder than expected and some of them were trying to sell their land, including G. Cleggett and A. McDonald. Transport was still a major problem and the need for a jetty and a wharf was sorely felt. Goods were often dumped on the wet sand and people found it hard to get out of boats without getting wet and muddy.
But regardless of the many problems most farmers kept at it. In June 1910 G. Fraser installed a 20,000 gallon tank and windmill for irrigation and planted a large number of fruit trees. J.T. Blake, formerly of Strathalbyn, built a large shed for milking and shelter of his cows and Frank Hannaford built a number of fowl-breeding pens as he planned to go in for poultry raising on a large scale.
During 1911 school was still conducted in the tent were children from the Gunn, Martin, Scott and Ackland families had to put up with summer heat, rain and icy cold winds in winter. During most of the early years of settlement at Monteith progress was hampered by drought but despite that problem Monteith was looking well. However in April 1912 large parts of the reclaimed lands were flooded and could not be worked.
By 1913 Monteith had a population of 55, Thomas Richard Smith was the Postmaster, F.J. Bradford the teacher and E.H.V. Nanncarow the teacher. Among the dairy farmers listed that year were Arth Ash, W. Carter, Alfred Clark, James Connell, Harold Crawford, Edward Eldridge, James Ferriss, Frederick Gardener, Price Gregory, Donald Gum, A.St.C. Martin, J. McCullock, Jeremiah Murphy, E.J. Redding, J. Rowan, P. Scott, Arth Wells and August Wythen.
On 11 June 1918 Donald Gunn, one of the early settlers, died and was buried at Murray Bridge. He was born in 1853 in Scotland and arrived in South Australia on the Loch Tyne in 1878. Four years later he married Helen Baikie at Port Adelaide. The Gunn family was very involved in the progress of the town and its community affairs. After the death of her husband Helen Gunn took over the management of the local store and post office in 1923, previously run by T. R. Smith.
She was assisted by three of her daughters. When Ann Gunn, who was 5 years old when her parents moved to Monteith, married Audrey F.E. Martin at Murray Bridge in 1925, they built their home near the Institute and operated the store and post office until 1944 when they transferred it to Ann D.J. Martin. Helen Gunn died on 1 July 1944, aged 85, and was also buried at the Murray Bridge Cemetery. Streets in Birkenhead and Monteith have been named after Donald Gunn.
Audrey and Ann Martin had three children, Gavin Douglas, Ronald Angas and Robert Edwin, all three attended the Monteith Primary School before completing their education at Murray Bridge. With the outbreak of WWII, Audrey joined the Army in 1940 and his wife became the Postmistress.
Long-time resident Mrs Harriet Ann Sexton, nee Toms, died on 6 July 1928 at Monteith. Born in Cornwall on 16 November 1860 she arrived in Australia with her parents in 1865 and settled at Moonta. In 1880 she had married Alfred Hatch Sexton, the postmaster and first station master at Callington. After 11 years Sexton was transferred to Goolwa where he died in 1904. Harriet was appointed Postmistress at Prospect and Lyndoch before moving to Monteith.
In October 1922 the new Institute building was opened after the original iron building was destroyed during a freak storm. It was used for meetings, dances, parties and church services. The foundation stone for the Presbyterian Church was laid on 25 July 1931 by Helen Gun and officially opened, free of debt, on 17 October by Rev J.A. Forest of Victoria, the father of Rev J. Fairly Forest of Murray Bridge, after A. Martin handed him the key.
To celebrate Arbor Day in 1935 Mr and Mrs A.F.E. Martin offered to promote and conduct a children's frolic in aid of school funds. This turned out to be highly successful and Mr G.G. Chamberlain, chairman of the School Committee, thanked the Murray Bridge judges for their generous services. A.F.C. Martin was MC for the night and ably assisted by his mother who played the piano. Among the many children winning prizes were Margaret Stewart, James Sinclair, Billie Schultz, Jack Muir, Barbara Schammer, Brian Wilks and Ronald Martin.
In March 1936 a new school committee was elected. They would have a hard task living up to the work done by the outgoing committee which had achieved among other thing, repairs to the school windmill and tank stand, an upgrade of the playground and the complete renovation of the school and teacher's residence. They had also raised £30 by organizing several socials such as card evenings and dances. Most of that money was used buying 66 new library books. It was also placed on record the excellent results achieved by teacher Colin Sinclair and his 26 students.
Another Arbor Day was held in 1936 combined with an athletics carnival. The weather was ideal and a large crowd attended. Many of the previous years' winners again scored high and won prizes, except Ronald Martin who only managed a consolation prize in the three-legged race. However it were not just the students who worked hard to be successful. Their dairy farming fathers too did their best. This became abundantly clear when they won many prizes at the Adelaide Royal Show with their Friesian cows and later scooped the pool at the Tailem Bend Show.