Willowie station started in 1844 when Colin Campbell took out an occupation licence. By the end of 1844 all the land around Mount Remarkable had been taken up on leasehold by pastoralists. The Campbell family became very prominent in the early days of settlement around the mountain and the plains.
Another early buyer was Alexander Campbell who had come to South Australia in 1839 with his 69 year old father Colin Campbell, 55 year old mother and three brothers. Having first taken up land in 1844 at Willowie he also bought several sections near Bangor and built 'Glen Orchy' and was for a number of years the local Pound keeper. In December 1866 John M. Campbell was appointed Auctioneer and Pound keeper at Bangor North.
Willowie station was managed for some time by John Ross before he was appointed to a similar position at Umberatana. He employed a large number of people, both male and female. Several of his employees married while working at Willowie station. In 1860 Charles Forrester and Kezia Webb, both of Willowie, were married by the Rev. D. Badger. Four years later it was Lawrence Cordt and Eliza Katherine Vice who were married by the Rev G. Green on 13 October 1864.
Uniting Church, built 1879.
Naturally, this also gave rise to several babies being born at the station. On 18 July 1867 Alice Baker was born to William and Harriet, nee Slade. William was employed as labourer. On 25 May 1868 Rebecca Berry was born to Thomas Michael and Nancy, nee Challenger. Thomas was one of several shepherds at Willowie. Sadly several deaths were also recorded. On 23 January 1867 Daniel, the son of George and Elizabeth Matheson died. He was only 1 year and 9 months old.
With settlement increasing over the years and a push for more farm land the government surveyed more Hundreds. In 1875 the Hundred of Willowie was declared. Among some of the early farmers who took up land in the new Hundred was Robert Bull. Born in England in 1841 he arrived in South Australia in 1856. For some time he worked as a miner at the Burra and Wallaroo mines. However by 1876 he had decided to buy land and started farming at Willowie.
A similar story was that of W. Martin. He was born in Cornwall on 25 December 1833. He arrived in South Australia in the Hooghly in April 1854. He too worked at the Burra mine but soon left for the goldfields of Victoria. After a not so successful stay there he returned to Burra but when land became available at Willowie he also settled there in 1876.
Another original settler was H.J. Aiken from Ireland where he was born at Omagh in 1847. He came to South Australia at the age of 5 and lived at Gawler and Saddleworth. He married Kate Wood and after having selected his land at Willowie in 1876 moved his family to start his adventure. After the death of his wife in 1917 he retired to Booleroo Centre. During his time at Willowie he was a member of the School Board of Advice for 23 years.
Among the new arrivals were also several German farmers. One of them was John Heinrich Schmidt who came to South Australia in 1853. He bought 1400 acres in 1876, a much larger block than most of the other farmers. In 1878 John married Selma Louisa Lienert and had 6 children. By 1881 as many as 135 selectors had taken up land in the Hundred of Willowie.
With the influx of new settlers it did not take long for some of them to organise some entertainment. As early as 15 October 1876 the first of the Willowie races was run. F.J. Whitby acted as judge to the satisfaction of all concerned. The first race, the Shearers’ Purse, worth £6, was won by G. Evan’s Tommy with J. Morgan’s Dolly coming in second. The second race, the Willowie Stakes, also worth £6, was open only to horses owned by men employed at Willowie station.
Finally a town was surveyed and proclaimed in 1878 with the first land sales held in Adelaide on 16 May. Among some of the buyers of blocks in Willowie, Aboriginal for Gum Tree Waterhole, were several speculators but also genuine settlers. M. Stuckey bought 4 blocks, W. Taylor 5, J. Blue 1, R. Blackwell 1, C.B. Young 12, A.E. Sawtell 1, E. Sawtell 2, G.D. Polglase 1, R. Burley 1, A. Kaupmann 1, F. Fells from Melrose 3 and J.W. Daw bought 1 block.
Now that land was allotted a hotel was speedily built by the Bill Brothers. It was completed by the end of 1878 with M. Bills as its first publican. It contained 12 rooms, a bathroom, pantry, rainwater tank of 4,000 gallons and large cellars. As early as March 1879, when R. McQuillan was in charge, it was offered for sale. The hotel was not just the usual watering hole, but provided room and opportunity for many meetings and other social activities.
On New Year’s Day 1880 the Bible Christians held a public tea in their neat and commodious chapel which was presided over by D. Greig. Services were held by Rev J.A. Burns, who was very popular, and many could only get standing room outside. At the end of the meeting the financial report was read by W. Polglase which showed that £175 was still owed on the building.
Willowie soon became a bustling community as wheat farmers slowly replaced the pastoralists. The town too was progressing favourably with a steady and substantial trade. Apart from the hotel there was also a general store, school, Bible Christian Chapel, butcher and saddler, but no blacksmith as yet. With an annual rainfall of about 300 mm, (nearby Melrose 580 mm) farmers had high hopes that ‘rain would follow the plough’ and they would reap bountiful harvests. They had already decided to have an annual show and elected Robert Barrie as Secretary.
Sample of wheat grown at Willowie in 1906
Public meetings became the order of the day. In March 1881 an election meeting was held at McQuillan’s Hotel with six candidates present but not Patrick Boyce Coglin, who was the local member. Very few electors turned up. On 14 June a public meeting was held, chaired by W. Polglase, to push for a railway extension. This time there were more people present. E. Emslie moved that Willowie would support the people of Gladstone, Yarcowie and other places, in urging the government to fulfil their long standing promise to construct a line from Gladstone to Hammond. It was seconded by R. Bull and passed.
With a large number of young families in town it was important to have a school as soon as possible. The first room was opened in 1880 with 23 students, including the Kean children, and Herbert V. Haynes as head teacher. From 1881 until 1891 it was James C. Richardson when there often were in excess of 45 students. Richard J. Campbell was appointed Provisional teacher on 26 September 1881 and was still there in 1886. Jemima Ann Dobney was appointed in January 1886 but resigned on 30 April. Campbell was appointed Head teacher on 1 October 1886 and served until the end of 1892 when he was transferred to Halbury.
In August 1883 a meeting was held at the hotel, presided by Robert Barrie, to push for a much bigger school room than had been originally planned for. Average attendance had been 34 during the last 12 months but the number on the roll was 54. D. Greig stated that the government had agreed to build a school and a teacher’s residence. Willowie may have been isolated but its education was comprehensive, up to date and well received; resulting in the school producing many excellent students. Several of them later served in the South Australian and Western Australian Parliaments.
Willowie School, October 1935
The year 1882 proved to be a difficult one for both farmers and town’s people. Very little rain had fallen since the end of 1881 and every men was now busy carting water to keep stock alive. Irrigation of crops was out of the question. Farmers also lost interest in associations which could possibly be of benefit to them. Early in 1882 the Willowie and Booleroo branch of the Farmers’ Association was wound up but the Willowie Agricultural Society and the Willowie Mutual Improvement Society survived the bad times.
In May 1882 a committee was formed to approach the Minister for a water supply for the town which had been promised, but as so often with government promises, had not eventuated. At a meeting, chaired by W.J. Polglase, it was pointed out that the government geologist had written a favourable report but that boring equipment was sent to Wilmington where it was not needed. While airing their frustrations they also mentioned the poor accommodation at the school where now 45 students were cramped in one room.