1920: The Farmers' State
The year 1920 was one of splendid rains and bountiful harvests. The last crippling drought had been in 1914, and the next was not to occur until the onset of three successive dry seasons beginning in 1927. As South Australians turned to the problems of reconstruction after the First World War and the absorption of returned servicemen into the community, few would have disagreed with the views of Arthur Perkins, the State's Director of Agriculture, when he said, 'We are told on all sides that salvation lies in intensified production … and for us intensified production can have but one meaning, namely, the expansion of our agricultural and pastoral revenues'.
Politicians, public servants and the Press agreed that the farmer, as the backbone of the State's prosperity, should be supported by government through the allocation of Crown Land to settlers on generous terms; the completion of railways begun on Eyre Peninsula and in the Murray Mallee before the war; and a vigorous programme of water conservation works and irrigation developments.
South Australia's population in the 1921 census was just under 500,000, an increase of 21% since 1911, and forming 9% of the Australian total. The 5867 South Australians who died in the war overseas totalled 9.8% of the 60,000 Australians killed. A post-war influenza epidemic was less devastating than in the other States. Of the 12 400 who died of influenza in Australia in 1918 and 1919, only 563, or 4.5% of the victims were in South Australia.
Despite the wide rural basis of prosperity, the metropolitan population in 1921 reached 51% of the State's total, the largest for any Australian State and a disturbing figure for those who equated the generation of wealth with work performed on the land. Since the 1911 census, the metropolitan population had grown by almost 35%, compared with 10% for rural areas and country towns. When allowance is made for the higher rate of natural increase owing to the higher rural birth-rate, the non-metropolitan areas of South Australia suffered an effective exodus of 20,000 people or 7.6% in the decade. The basis for generating wealth was clearly changing; many activities formerly performed on the family farm and in the country towns were becoming centralised in Adelaide.
The expansion of alienated land on Eyre Peninsula and in the Murray Mallee (mainly in perpetual lease or other long-term lease tenures) began after 1900. It continued with renewed impetus in the early 1920s when seasons were benign and wheat prices high. Within the older settled lands, south of Goyder's Line, many larger properties had been repurchased for closer settlement under the Crown Lands Act of 1897. By 1921, about 320,000 hectares had been allocated in family-sized farms supporting some 5000 people, and carrying 181,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle.
An even bigger land relocation programme, and in the long run, a much less successful one, was under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Acts, 1917-1919, and was funded in part by the Commonwealth Government. Some 412,000 hectares, scattered throughout the agricultural areas and on the risky northern margins, had been repurchased or allocated by 1921, and 2250 discharged soldiers of an expected 5000 had been settled. (Only the large areas of land in this programme are shown on the map) Many ex-soldiers, while waiting for 'the blocks', were employed constructing irrigation works along the River Murray, often enduring appalling living conditions in the high hope that the predicted markets for dried fruits and citrus would be achieved.
The war and its aftermath left other marks on the South Australian landscape. In an excess of patriotism, many long-standing German place-names had been erased from the map by a Parliamentary Act in 1917 and replaced with the names of French battlefields (for example, Verdun for Grunthal) and allied military leaders (for example, Birdwood for Blumberg), or with Aboriginal names (for example, Hundred of Geegeela for Hundred of Pflaum).
Wartime demands stimulated activity at Port Pirie's lead smelters. In 1915, the first iron ore from Iron Knob, west of Hummock Hill (now Whyalla), was shipped to the Broken Hill Pty Co Ltd's new steelworks at Newcastle, New South Wales. High copper prices during the war gave a final boost to activity in the Moonta and Wallaroo mines. However, the post-war slump in prices extinguished the copper mining field which had produced copper for more than sixty years. With only low-grade ores remaining at deep levels, the great Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co Ltd wound up in 1923, and its employees dispersed. Some went to Broken Hill, some turned to farming in South Australia and Western Australia, but most swelled the migration to the big cities with their tariff-protected secondary industries.
The provision of improved water-supplies had long been a government preoccupation in South Australia. In the Public Works Report for 1920-21, the hydraulic engineer could claim that the water-supply systems to country towns and farms for domestic purposes and livestock were 'the largest distributing scheme in the world, and unique in the history of waterworks schemes'. Mains supply to country towns and farms comprised 5000 kilometres of wooden and metal pipes, which in the central area formed an almost continuous network from Port Augusta to Noarlunga.
Between 1880 and 1921, the Water Conservation Branch of the Department of Public Works had constructed about 460 tanks, reservoirs and rain sheds in rural areas, dug and maintained 375 wells and drilled 280 bores. The importance of these hundreds of State-maintained watering points to the pastoral and agricultural economy cannot be overestimated. Major works were also under way on the River Murray to improve navigation and irrigation, the first lock on the river being opened at Blanche Town in 1922. Millbrook, the largest reservoir built to date in South Australia, filled for the first time in August 1920. On Eyre Peninsula, construction had begun on the vital Tod River Reservoir in the Lincoln Uplands, from which water was piped by gravity to as far west as Ceduna.
In 1920, the motor car had made little impact outside Adelaide and the larger country towns. Rail and shipping dominated trade: the 1920s were the golden age of the little ships and little ports in South Australian waters. More than in any other State of Australia, coastal shipping played a vital part in linking outlying rural areas to Adelaide and to international trade. By 1920, the gulf and ocean coastlines were dotted with jetties and landing places, while the shipping lanes were well-marked with navigational aids. No fewer than sixty ports were listed in the South Australian Harbors Board annual returns of cargo from outports. Until the introduction of bulk grain handling, much of the wheat and barley crop was shipped to the main export ports by small sailing ketches and schooners. Usually run as small family enterprises, these little ships also carried gypsum, salt, wool, skins and firewood, and took as return cargo superphosphate, general stores, farm machinery and building materials.