The History of Irrigation
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Rod Druitt

Born to a farming family, in the Deniliquin district in 1932, Rod Druitt became an experienced plant operator and found work the on construction of the irrigation system and Lawson Syphons in the 1950s. He went on to run his own landforming business, leading the introduction of laser grading and improved irrigation layouts in the district.


Key topics: water allocation, early irrigation techniques, the Depression, food vouchers, Lawson Syphons, construction equipment, new Australians, landforming, laser grading

The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Mr Rod Druitt in February 2005. 

We live in a relatively arid region, farming practices, you know, well, especially on dry areas, harvests were down to two and three bags to the acre, back in the old scale.
There were quite a number of farmers, World War I veterans in the district, and when the first lot of water came through, they didn't want a bar of irrigation, but it was sort of forced on them to a degree. So to appease the government, they'd take a small percentage of water. Well, of course, it wasn't very long and they realised the huge potential that could be gained from irrigation, and not only that, but they were able to then buy bigger and better tractors and lay-out country.
When the Mulwala irrigation scheme first started, it was all designed around a 1 in 10 allocation. In other words if you owned 100 acres, you'd water 10 per cent. Well, now I think the irrigation demand is one in 2.4 or thereabouts, pretty close to it.

Early irrigation

The area that our family had was a dry area farm out on the Wakool Road. I think we had 30 acres on irrigation, that's all, and we used to pump out of the Wakool River with a steam engine and a belt-driven pump, and we would water 30 acres. But it was only in a half-hearted fashion because we couldn't afford to get contractors in. Well, there were not contractors about that could level the undulations of the various depressions that went across the paddock, so we wore out three shovel handles every watering trying to guide the water around the high beds. It was not an efficient way of watering, although it kept stock alive during the war years. The entire length of the war, World War II, was in drought, it was dreadful. Not in all areas, but around west of Deniliquin was terrible.
By the end of the war, Mokanger was into irrigation, and in the Berriquin area. But each farmer only had a small area because it was a completely new thing and you couldn't buy the right structures; you had a bank of dirt across a channel and you dug it out with a shovel to let the water go, and then, of course, you'd have to block it with a sheet of tin. And no such thing as rubber slides and all the modern gear. The farmer today has got no idea of what the old time farmer went through to do the watering. As the saying is that it made old men out of young and it killed old men.
Instantly the irrigation started to come through, it generated more work. People didn't make a big deal of it but it certainly changed the face of Deniliquin and changed it forever.
You see, back in the thirties in the depression years, you couldn't buy a job. In 1937, when the sewerage was installed in the town, if you got a job on the sewage on the pick and shovel, and if you put the shovel down or the pick down and straightened up your back and said, “Oh, gee, this is hard work” or something, there'd be three fellows standing behind you to take your job.
And Sergeant Hyde down here at the police station, he used to hand out the food vouchers, and if you put your food voucher over the counter and asked for groceries, and if you had a packet of cigarettes, regardless of the size, and cigarettes came in 10s and 20s in those days, or if you had a two ounce packet of tobacco in your food voucher, the sergeant of police would be looking over your shoulder, and if he spotted it, you didn't get another food voucher for a month.
So, needless to say, it was pretty rugged going. Immediately after the war the syphons re-started up again, the amount of employment was enormous and people were guaranteed a job. As pre-war people felt terribly degraded when they walked down the street some of them only had the upper of their boot with no sole in it. They were walking on bare feet because they couldn't afford a pair of boots.

Working at the Lawson Syphons

The last job I had with the WC&IC was out at the syphon. I'd started some years before that driving a small bulldozer out near a place called the Willows, which was north-west of Finley, and the Water Commission were doing a fairly sizeable job up there, channel extensions, and then went from there out to Broughshane, and then from Broughshane they walked the draglines all the way back here to Prowses out on the Moulamein Road.
I had good credentials, good references, and I was the first one to walk in off the street and step straight on a bulldozer. In those days, back in the early fifties, you had to start off on a pick and shovel and then a paint brush to do painting work, fencing, and then walk behind a crawler tractor and a single furrow plough, steering the plough, marking out all the various banks and the depth of cut and so forth, and then you graduated from there to driving the little crawler, pulling the plough, and then you might get on a small bulldozer, if somebody got sick, or somebody might leave and you might end up then driving a bigger bulldozer.”
I considered myself privileged, having stepped straight in off the street, straight onto a bulldozer, and because of my previous experience, which began clearing for the Department of Public Works in Western Australia, out towards Esperance from Albany.
I was only out at the syphon for, let's see, I think about eight months - eight or nine months, something like that, at the end of the construction period. A chap by the name of George Huntington, he was the foreman over the earthmoving machinery, and we had Tournapulls - the one that I had, it was powered with a Cummins engine and a couple of the others were powered by GM engines - two-stroke engines. And you had five levers in between your legs and you drove on the throttle because you had no brakes whatsoever - none. You could come hurtling along the top of the channel bank and you only had to make one slip and you were a goner. And I'm amazed, with the number of staff that worked out there and the conditions that they worked under, I'm amazed that so few were killed.

Sounds of construction

The Tournapull, for instance, had no roll-over bars, no air-conditioned cabin. You sat in a bucket seat out in the open, the same as you did with the bulldozer. You had no roll-over bars whatsoever, and, well, all the machinery was all the same, and you had no ear-muffs and you'd come home at night time and it'd take two or three hours for your ears to stop ringing. And my wife seems to wonder why I'm so deaf today, but it's the repercussions of driving all the different machines.”
But the sounds [at the worksite] dispersed into the bush, and the only time that there was any real noise was when they were driving piles out there. You could hear the pile driver going for up to two miles away in the morning - early in the morning or late in the evening, but other than that, the sound seemed to just be absorbed by the trees and the bush.
The WC&IC, they used to run an old London bus - well, it wasn't a double-decker, it was only a single deck bus, but it'd go fully loaded and if you were getting on the bus at the last few stops of a morning, you'd have to stand all the way. The bus was always full, and in those days it was a bit different to today, that if Christmas day and Boxing Day fell on a weekend, well, then you went back to work on the Monday. There was no extra holidays like you get today. The only holiday that you had was Good Friday.
By and large they were a pretty good bunch of guys but it was very difficult, if you requested, say, a tree guard to fit over a bulldozer to save the paintwork of the bulldozer if you were clearing, they'd have to get in touch with head office, and then the purchasing officer would want to know the serial number of the machine and one thing and another, and, well, I've seen it take four months to get a tree guard over the top of the bulldozer, whereas today, you know, if you couldn't get it in two days, well, there'd be something radically wrong. But by the time you went through all the red tape and the bureaucracy, you spoke to your foreman, the foreman then spoke to the mechanical engineer, the mechanical engineer put in a request if he thought fit, if he didn't think fit, you had to do without.

Snake charmer at work

There was a lot of comical instances out there; in amongst all the men there was always a couple of larrikins, and one seemed to be a bit of a snake charmer, it'd be nothing for him to bring a black snake and he'd put it under the seat of a truck. I've seen it on two occasions where the truck driver is driving along and he felt something down between his legs and he looked down and here's a black snake curled around his leg, and he just opened the door and jumped out because, you know, the old trucks would only do 20 mile an hour. If you were not careful, you'd open your lunch bag at lunch time and there'd be a snake curled up in it and that type of thing. And that sort of kept you on your toes pretty well. You only got caught once.

Recreation for new Australians

There were accommodation huts [at the syphon] and one hut used to be a recreation hut and they used to hold dances there. A chap by the name of Norm Arnup, he was the recreational officer, he awarded himself the job, and he used to run dances there every fortnight on a Friday night. I can't remember how many fellows used to live in the huts there. I suppose there would have been between 15 and 30 or thereabouts. They would mix all right. We used to call them new Australians, that came out there, and they were living in the huts.
I was always a bit keen on anything mechanical, and I developed a name for repairing a lot of motorbikes, and in those days, in the early fifties, you know, if you had a motorbike, well, you were on top of the world, especially if it was a reasonably good one. And I know one particular day these new Australians, I can't remember their nationality, they came from Europe somewhere, Czechoslovaks or they might have come from Latvia. Anyway, they came, and said, “We have trouble with our bike”, so I said, “Oh, well, I'll have a look at it for you”. So I fixed up their bike, and that was on the Friday night after work, and they were going for a ride on the Sunday night out towards the Pine [Pretty Pine], and there was a car coming the opposite way and they had a head-on collision and they were both killed. They were very nice fellows.

New technology, better irrigation

Once the water started coming through, of course, there was no further need for us, and I went out contracting for myself until 1997.The method of layout in those days left an awful lot to be desired, and, really, irrigation, to my mind, didn't come into its own until the advent of the laser beam - you could then survey it properly. You could choose the right grades, and the irrigation farming took on a complete new era from the late 1970s onwards. I had a tractor custom built for me, and that took 13 weeks to build, and by the time I had that built, I think I had five months work in front of me. The word spread, and it took off.
“At one stage I went to the Water Commission and said, “I feel that there are better ways to develop irrigation with less salinity and far better drainage mechanisms”. And the engineering department thought, “Well, you know, this young fellow, he hasn't got any letters after his name - engineering letters, he's unqualified, so we won't take a lot of notice of him”.
So I thought “Well, I'll go and buy my own farm and I'll show you”, which I did. And in 1987 the farm won the irrigated farm competition, there are other farm irrigated competition winners, but not for an entire layout. It included the recycle system. The Department of Agriculture used to come and at one stage we had four bus loads a week coming to have a look at the latest in irrigated farm technology.

Rod Druitt


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