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When the Lights Came On

When I was a young minister freshly graduated and ordained, my first ministry in the 1960’s, after seven years of the slums of Newmarket, was in a small country church, in the small country town of Ararat, gateway to the Wimmera in Western Victoria. There I learnt the difficult art faced by all city bred ministers, of becoming a country parson.

When one ministered in a small country town, I found that it was expected I would visit other small communities around, especially those small farming communities that may not have had a church of its own. Such was the little railway siding up near Kaniva called Miram, or to give its correct name, Miram Piram. Miram was just a railway siding on the main interstate railway line 266 miles from Melbourne and 208 miles from Adelaide. It was in the centre of the some of the most inhospitable country of the little desert area of Western Victoria.

From the 1840’s this area was part of a huge station and gradually the government allowed large blocks, usually 1 square mile, to be selected at one pound per acre. The interest rate was 10% and repayments were over 20 years. Many a heartbreak was endured by farmers who were forced off the land unable to pay the banks for their original loan. The AMP Society foreclosed on many farms adding to their asset strength. Trace elements were later to make the farms very valuable.

But grit and determination allowed some of the farmers to slowly build up their cattle and sheep properties. In the whole district there was never more than about twenty families over the past 100 years.

The history of a hundred years of Miram could be told with one or two highlights. The first was the building of the railway. They built the small red gum shed on the side of the line and it became a focal point for gangers who worked up and down the long flat line between Melbourne and Adelaide. Everybody who ever lived in or around Miram has been dutifully recorded in the “Nhill Free Press”, and the “Kaniva Times” two local papers from nearby larger towns.

Miram Piram had a small school established in 1882 and there were rarely more than a dozen or so children at the school. They were served over the past hundred years by a faithful band of young teachers who gave their lives to the service of one teacher schools.

The second major occurrence at Miram was the building of the grain silo in 1938. It became a major centre where thousands of bags of wheat were brought in by lorry and horse drawn truck from the wheat farms nearby. Shortly after it was opened 16,000 bushels were received in one day. My memories are of huge stacks of bags neatly squared off holding thousands of individual bags of wheat in several long square stacks and of the three high concrete silos into which the grain was augured.

But the story of Miram with its half dozen buildings centres round the Pioneer Store established just 100 years ago. The store has been conducted throughout all of this time by basically one family who has passed the responsibility of running the general store from father to son.

In 1888 Mr. George Coles built a store beside the railway siding to provide general goods for people in the surrounding area. Mr. George Coles was to go on to bigger and better things and his name G.J. Coles & Co. were to become famous in Australian history and to be today the largest retailing company in the nation, known as Coles-Myer. The lesson is that from Miram Piram one could go anywhere!

The little wooden store at Miram helped George Coles get started. It wasn’t just a general store, it was also the post office and the telephone exchange.

In 1903 Mr. Philip Wheaton purchased the property and it has been run by Wheaton’s ever since. For some time it was known as Wheaton and Son. And then, during the First World War when Mr. W.A. Brown assisted Mr. Wheaton in expanding the business, it was Wheaton and Brown. I was to know both Mr. Wheaton and Mr. Brown when they were in their eighties. From just after the First World War Mr. Brown came to Melbourne and the store has been conducted ever since by a series of Wheaton’s. Mr. Brown and his daughter Lila, attended my church at Cheltenham, Victoria.

The general store had posted up across the wide wooden verandah:

Wheaton and Brown
General Merchants
Established 1903
The Pioneer Store – Miram.

That reputation it was to keep for all of this century as no other store has been built in Miram since. Right across the verandah it proclaims “You may purchase anything from a needle to a haystack”. At one time they employed nine staff, five of whom were married men, apart from the proprietors. And in wheat season additional helpers were employed.

The proprietors of the store were responsible for bringing electric light to the community where one street lamp and the light in the hall next door would illumine many a festivity, running from the noisy generator at the back of the store. When they turned the generator off at night Miram literally blacked out.

They were also responsible for bringing a never failing water supply from their wide roofs and in the dry area that water supply was a welcome source for many a dry farmer.

On the front of the store, in faded gold letters, was:

Good News.

Entering upon prosperity is easy if you only have the key. Here it is! Don’t waste your money. Appreciate its full value by trading locally where value plus quality, satisfaction and service count. Every requirement for the home and farm is embraced in our comprehensive and up to date stock: Groceries. Footwear. New seasons drapery. Millinery. Mens wear. Glassware. Hardware. Timber. Iron. Twine. Motor and Harvester Oils. Wireless Receivers. Cream Separators, etc. etc. Everyone expects a little more for their money these times and they aren’t disappointed at Wheaton’s General Store, Miram. Phone 22.

Out the back of the general store was a poultry farm which they boasted was “built on modern principles which are known in many places widely separated in this State”. Milk, cream and butter were supplied from a splendid pure bred Friesian herd. Even the town’s meat supply was handled at the shop.

When I came to know Mr. Harold Wheaton and his wife Joyce, he had been living on the premises and running the shop for sixty years. In 1960 his daughter Joyce became a partner and then Les and Judy gradually took over the business.

One of the great highlights in the history of the Miram General Store was the opening of a telephone office in one corner of the store. Back in 1911 Mr. Wheaton Senior had imported some telephone instruments and eleven tons of soft wire from Germany to begin erecting telephone lines. He connected up the telephone from the store to his father’s home at Broughton some 20 miles away. By 1912 the telephone directory indicates there were only six people on the telephone system. It was a party line and you answered the telephone according to the number of rings it gave. If there were six rings then Mr. Allen would pick up the ‘phone, five rings and Mr. Baker would answer, seven rings and Mr. Wheaton Senior would pick up the ‘phone, four rings and Mr. A. Williams would answer. It was a very simple private system in no way connected with the PMG or Telecom service. Later on the State PMG service arrived at Miram and then just connected to the system already established. However, there were never many lines and even to this day there may be up to twelve or so parties on each line. The original iron posts (to defeat the termites) still stand with their one insulator on the top with a long length of wire connected from insulator or insulator.

The Miram Exchange still operates in the corner of the General Store to this day. A full list of all those who ever operated the exchange is printed up on the wall and only occasionally a new name is added to it and most of them belong to the founding families of the area.

The General Store also became the official Miram Post Office and Commonwealth Savings Bank offering money orders.

The mail used to be brought in from Dimboola and Border Town every few days but the Wheaton’s wanted to make sure there was a better service to their little rural community and Mr. Wheaton became postmaster for the Miram area serving from 1911 to 1951 when his son took over and continues the task to this day. However, only eight people are served by the Post Office today.

Well with a railway, a small wooden school house, the Miram Town Hall built entirely by voluntary labour and the only public building in the area in which Mr. and Mrs. Wheaton have run a Sunday School for more than 50 years, a Post Office in one corner of the General Store, a Telephone Exchange in the other corner, everything that a country town could wish for was there. Good tanks of water, three cement silos, and a good community spirit.

Over the years Miram boasted many patriotic organisations. During the Wars they held fund raising programmes to raise money for the war efforts. And the Miram War Workers Auxiliary conducted Wednesday functions to raise funds to help Australians in the war effort. Even the school put on a patriotic play in 1942 entitled “Britain and Her Allies”. Children came from schools far and wide to watch the performance. Children arrived from Kaniva, Lillimur, Miram South, Lillimur South and Kaniva South. A crowded house packed the Miram Town Hall raising 40 pounds, four shillings.

I hold in my hands a programme of that day and read the cast: Britannia was placed by Lesley Schwark (a strange choice in having a daughter of the only German family in the area playing the role of Britannia). Scotland was played by Lorna Ridout; Ireland by Dawn Wigney, India by Maxine Hicks; Malaya by Margaret Schwark; Wales by Lorna Schwark; New Zealand by Nola Ridout; Africa by Joy Wheaton; Canada by Albert Wheaton. The Nurse was played by Valda Ridout; Australia was played by Joan Wheaton. Then comes a list of noble people who took the part of the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force. The Allies in the Low Countries were not forgotten and Holland was represented by Valda Hicks who sang “In An Old Dutch Garden”. A tap dance followed and I presume the girls were to represent America as that seemed to be the only member of the Allies omitted.

Then again, in the early days of 1942, the war certainly centred around Great Britain and not the Pacific. But the greatest highlight in the little country town of Miram occurred during our ministry at Ararat. It came with the switching on of the electricity.

Beverley and I had been invited by Mr. Harold Wheaton to call in at his store while we were in the district. The General Store was something incredible. They certainly had every conceivable kind of item required for home or family on the shelves all around. There were packets of toys unopened, bought for children twenty and thirty years ago which still sat there on the shelves covered in dust with their original prices, one shilling, one and sixpence, and the like. I looked at brand new Hornby trains still in their original boxes thirty years old and how many times since I wished I had lashed out and paid the ten shillings and purchased them. They would be worth a fortune today.

Mr. and Mrs. Wheaton did not believe in marking up the prices of any goods. If they had bought it at that price, then that was the price they sold it for. There were plenty of bargains to be had at Miram.

The night of the electricity switch on was probably the greatest night in Miram’s history. It was held on 13 January, 1964. The Miram Town Hall, as I said the only public building in the community, was filled to capacity. There was only one dim light flickering as it ran from the generator at the back of the Miram General Store. The inside of the hall was decorated with branches of gum trees freshly cut with streamers of coloured paper and hundreds of coloured lights which, of course, were extinguished. For eighty years the people in the area had used lamps and candles for their illumination and only in latter years had some purchased home generators.

At the end of the hall, which I can picture in my mind so clearly today, was a huge picture of our young Queen placed up high above the stage and underneath the crossed flags of Britain and Australia. Bunting decorated the stage.

The buildings were packed long before the function began and the flickering dull lamp was as bright as any illumination ever obtained for the Town Hall, apart from when they lit the kerosene lamps.

Mr. Harold Wheaton, naturally, presided over the ceremony welcoming official guests, visitors and citizens.

The Shire President, Mr. C.J. Grant, congratulated the residents of Miram and the surrounding district on “this, a red letter day in your lives. With Miram leading the way the march of electricity will soon go on to Kaniva to Serviceton and to the South Australian border. Electricity in the country is bringing to the people of our community an equal amenity with those who live in the city.” His enthusiastic proclamation brought rounds of applause. He was certainly fired up that night. He hoped that “there would be a minimum of blackouts but was quite sure that the Miram Electricity Committee had done their work well and would ensure that the power went on with minimum hindrance”.

Then the Minister for Power in the Bolte Government, the Hon. W.J. Mibus took to the platform. He declared “I am pleased to be present to join with you Miram folk on such a happy and important occasion. There is a tendency these days, on the part of the community to take many things for granted, but this was not so with the Miram people who show that you are prepared to help yourselves. The electricity age in Australia is only a hundred years old and yet you have made great strides in having it extended to this community. Victoria is second to no other State in Australia in developing power for the industry. Although it is hard to imagine, by 1970 it is hoped that excepting a few isolated homes, Victoria will be a fully electric State.” Mr. Mibus, carried away with the prospect of great development, also declared that he hoped that “in the not too distant future Miram would have the benefit of a reticulated water supply”. He announced to some cheers, that he was “sending a boring plant to the town and within the next few weeks hoped that a water supply scheme could be completed and in use before the start of summer.”

The whole evening worked to a great climax. Mr. Harold Wheaton invited his old father, Mr. C.M. Wheaton, up onto the platform. There was a hushed expectancy over all present when this old and venerable resident reached out with a pair of scissors to cut a ribbon that was stretched between two miniature electricity pylons. As he cut the ribbon the audience burst into applause and the hall burst into light …. which proved “Many hands make light work!”.

Well Miram is still much the same as it ever was. A few people have died, some have left the town and these days there fewer people than ever in its history. The school no longer meets. The children are bussed into Kaniva. The wheat still fills the silos and the trains still thunder through at 150 kilometres and hour. My mind, however, goes back to that grand night when the electricity was switched on. It had taken a lot of work to get the poles and the wires strung out to provide electricity to the 14 houses and three farms in the district. There were still 23 farms that had to wait to be connected. Some 463 trees had to be cut down to get the transmission lines through but Miram now had all the benefits of the big city.

One minor point I should mention. Harold Wheaton was never averse to raising a bit of money for some good community purpose so everybody in the community, and indeed people who travelled from up to 100 miles away to be present at the Switch On, didn’t get in to such a momentous occasion without paying for it. A small charge was made at the entry to the Miram Town Hall for the Switch On Ceremony. The amount of money taken at the door reached 20 pounds which was donated to the Miram Welfare Group that cared for people in need in their community, and as these never were numerous, the money eventually went to support some further equipment for the local school.

If you stand on the top of the wheat silo and aim your camera in an easterly direction you can easily photograph every house in Miram, the Miram Town Hall, the Miram Union Sunday School Hall, the old Miram School Hall now disused and, presiding over it all, the Miram General Store.

Miram is part of the history of Australia which is rapidly disappearing. The small integrated community of faithful people who uphold the traditions of God, the Empire and the values that made Australia great: thrift, hard work and commitment to the land.

Miram even had its own song, played and sung to the music of Waltzing Matilda, by Harold Wheaton:

“Once upon a time a town in West Victoria,
Started to open up all the land to be seen.
Then came the farmers to see what they could do with sweat,
And Miram made an impression on the scene.

Well done, Miram,
Well done, Miram,
Well done, Miram,
The best in the West.

And we’ll sing as we watch
As we see our Miram grow
Well done, Miram,
The best in the West.”

And so we drove back to the country manse at 90 High Street, opposite the Railway Station, having learnt another lesson in the difficult art of becoming a country parson.

GORDON MOYES
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