Reflections on Iron Barron Primary School
Bruce Mills (1991)

It was 1939 and the little township of Iron Baron had just begun. There had been a MEN ONLY ranch operating for some time prior to the establishment of the township, but with the arrival of families the need for a school arose. And so one was built and it is still standing today. You may even be sitting in it or nearby it as this story is being read to you.

The families who came to work the mine, came, as you would expect from a number of different places; Port Pirie, Wanderah, Port Augusta, Iron Knob and Ash to name a few.

It was an exciting time for the first children: attending the new school, making new friends, having a new teacher. For three of the children from a nearby pastoral property, who had been doing correspondence lessons, attending a real school and having a stranger to teach them instead of being supervised by family at home was certainly a new and exciting experience; even if they did have to walk the four miles to get there.

Mr Doug Marsh was the first teacher at the new school and it must have been a challenging time for him also – supervising al grades, from 1 to 7, at a small school in the middle of a patch of scrub.

In 1939, at a guess, the adult population of the township would not have exceeded forty, with possibly a fewer number of single men boarding at the Ranch.

At that time the road to Iron Knob was just a single vehicle width bush track which wandered off in a north-east direction and came out on the Iron knob- Whyalla road about 15km east of Iron Knob at Wards Soak. The direct road to Whyalla followed the railway line down to Middleback Junction and then on to Whyalla. The good bitumen road you now have, at that time was also a little used track.

The townsfolk didn’t go shopping very often because it was war time and petrol was very hard to get. It was rationed and petrol coupons were needed to secure it. However, there was always the iron ore train which had a guards van at the end of the ore trucks. For passengers it had a section of padded seats which faced each other. The seats were quite comfortable but the van lurched and rattled and shuddered, and you didn’t wear good clothes because everything was covered with a coating of coal soot and iron ore dust. You see the train engines were those marvellous steam engines that made all those wonderful noises; huffing, and chuffing, and tooting and hissing, with clouds of coal smoke and jets of steam. Wouldn’t it be just out of this world to be able to go back in time and have another ride on that train?

Mr Marsh probably didn’t enjoy the train that much when he caught it to Whyalla on an occasional weekend, except of course to get away from those children, who terrorized him all week, probably made the journey quite relaxing by comparison.

What Mr Marsh thought of those children we don’t know but what we do know is that the children had a great liking and respect for him. They liked him because he showed them how to play many good games at recess and lunch time breaks and joined in as one of the children. He even played Cowboys and Indians in the thick scrub across the road. The children really liked that and everyone was out to get Mr Marsh.

They respected him, not only because of his school yard activities but in the class he ruled with fair discipline that the children were happy to work under. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head and his aim with a piece of chalk was fast and accurate!

Although the houses had electric lights the school didn’t and there certainly wasn’t any air-conditioning. Even with all the windows and doors open it was hot in summer. There was no refrigeration and after a succession of hot days the water in the rain tank, the only water supply, became quite warm. However, the water was cooled down somewhat by filling two large cylindrical canvas water bags and hanging them in the shade of the Myall tree near the shelter lean-to.

There was the story told about the prolonged heat wave at Iron Baron, sometime in the 1930’s. Eggs were obtained from farms packed in a box of chaff, several dozen to the box. One day the cook at the men’s ranch could hear chickens had hatched out in an unopened box of eggs! One summer during that time had a period of twelve days straight when the thermometer reached over a century or 38
o Celsius. With no air-conditioning or building insulation and the coal fired stoves and bake-oven going continually the cook-house was a very hot place indeed.

In winter the school was freezing cold, worse than the summer heat, especially at the back of the room. Up in the corner near the teacher’s desk and the blackboard was a small wood heater that the teacher sometimes lit. But it only took small chunky pieces of wood that there never seemed a good enough supply of. Anyway when it was going it only created draughts across the room as the warm air escaped up the flue and the cold air was sucked in through the window joints and vents.

Before going into school in the mornings Mr Marsh had all the children line-up and recite an allegiance to King and country and salute the flag which was flying at the top of the flag pole. Sometimes they sang the song of Australia and sometimes, if it was very cold, Mr Marsh put all the children through the routine of the family of bears climbing up and down the mountain. Everyone stamped up and down on the spot slowly at first smacking their hands to their knees, slowing down still further as the bears reached the top of the mountain then gradually increasing the speed as they descended down the other side until they all reached the imaginary bottom in a frenzy of stamping and smacking. It was a great way to warm up before facing the class-room.

In those days only men wore long trousers. Ladies and girls dressed only in frocks and skirts and boys wore short pants. So all the children’s legs were very, very cold sitting in the class and as many dared lined up at the teacher’s desk with false questions so as to be near the heater; if only for a couple of minutes.

During the year there were several events which broke the monotony of every day routine. Once a term the Inspector of Schools would arrive and check the standard of the pupils work. The children were rather apprehensive about the visit because they sensed a certain nervousness on the part of the teacher whose standard of teaching was also under scrutiny. However, after the pupils’ books and standard of behaviour had been assessed school was dismissed for the rest of the day – leaving the inspector and teacher free for discussion.

Arbor Day was another event to look forward to. Mainly because of the half holiday that went with it. Prior to the day a lesson would be given on the value of trees to the environment, then on the day someone of note would arrive at the school to address the children who paired off and shared one tree. It was the responsibility of those two children to water and care for the tree until it was established. The oldest of the trees standing in the school yard today were planted during the first six years of the school’s history and most likely there are people at this gathering today who could proudly identify their tree.

During the first year or so of the school’s life the yard was unfenced and the first trees planted, Tamarisks, suffered the ravages of rabbits, kangaroos and the Mills’ dairy cows – the cows being the most destructive.

Generally life at school followed the same uneventful routine, except for one day that comes to mind. The toilets were the old fashioned pit types that were becoming rather full. A couple of boys were detailed to disinfect them with Phenyl and throw the usual quantity of ashes down. However, having seen their parents set fire to the contents of the pit at home they felt sure that that was the path to follow. So lighting up some newspaper they threw it down the pit, shut the lid and went back to school. Sometime later a dreadful smell accompanied by some smoke started to waft into the class room. The teacher on investigating rushed back into school and quickly despatched a fleet-footed boy to summons some men off the hill. They eventually arrived and smothered the fire with sand. Apart from some scorching on the underside of the seat little damage was done, but the children enjoyed the event with glee; running about with handkerchiefs over noses and making many jokes and all the time hoping the old dunny would burn right down. NO DUNNY, NO SCHOOL.

Out of school hours there was always plenty for the children to do. Some of the things their parents knew about and some they didn’t. It must be remembered that there was absolutely no sporting facilities in Iron Baron in those first years. No tennis courts, no swimming pool, no school oval. There was a disused cleared area east of the old ranch with a cracked up cricket pitch but being war time most young men were in the army and young girls in war time support jobs or the land army, working on farms. The threat of the Japanese invading Australia was ever present and some of the families in Iron Baron dug their own air-raid shelters. These shelters later made good play houses for the children. In summer time, after the evening meal, the children gathered on the road between the houses and played rounders, red rover all over and brandy with a number of the parents joining in. Anytime was a good time for alleys (marbles) or bulleys and behind Pike’s house there was a huge black oak tree with a platform high up in the branches and hanging down was a rope with a stick tied on it for swinging on.

Iron Baron in those years was a naturalist’s paradise. In seasons there great flocks of pale green Shelleys (native Budgerigars) and all those beautiful little chats and finches in their brilliant colours, flitting about in the bushes. All sorts of parrots nested in the hollow Malley trees. The birdlife was severely ravaged when the Ranch closed down. Dozens of cats in a semi-wild state were left behind to fend for themselves and the birds which gathered at the tanks with dripping taps became easy prey. However, a good many of these cats were destroyed by some boys who left the doors of a few rooms open and returned every few days to dispatch the cats which had made the rooms their retreat to eat their captured birds.

Tracking lizards was also a good pastime. Sleepy Lizards and Bearded Dragons were to be found everywhere. Bicycle Billies and Goannas lived in the shrubs in the sandy country north of Iron Baron and were hard to catch. There was a colony of Spiney-Tailed Skinks which lived amongst the rocks on Little Baron BUT the place to be wary of was right near the town, halfway between the top street and the little cottage on the hill. This was Death Adder country. Even in later years when the township had expanded Death Adders were still found in the same patch.

Sometimes the teacher took the children on a bush excursion and the pupils delighted in showing the teacher where to find bird’s nests and lizard’s holes and kangaroo’s camps.

Picnics too were a great adventure. Mr Ireland had a nice Austin car and he would take family and friends over the saddle south of the Big Baron to a nice sandy area where the native pine trees grew. A lot of children would be invited and those who couldn’t fit in or on the car walked there and back!

Those were the things that the parents knew about. What they didn’t know was that boys and girls alike visited places that were declared out of bounds AND well they should have been; like going to the Prince Quarry on weekends when there were no men on duty and climb up the quarry face on long cotton ropes which hung down for the powder monkeys to secure themselves with when drilling and setting the explosive charges, or swinging on the ropes which opened the chutes that filled the train at the Baron Quarry, or climbing down into the underground tank on the inside ladder when the water was very low and paddling about and throwing mud at one another. BUT, the biggest lure were the tunnels, especially the one in the Prince, which went right through, about half way up the hill. What a challenge it was for the young hikers to stand at one end and look at the tiny window of light at the far end and dare one another to venture through. The thought of rock falls, Death Adders in the dark, boogie men leaping out of the darkness kept the children restricted to a couple of hundred metres at first, but, gradually after nothing going wrong, and with the aid of long sticks to feel their way they ventured into the darkness, until the windows of light both in front and behind them had appeared to be the same size and they knew that they were right in the middle of the hill. It was so scary that they only spoke in whispers and held hands. A couple of places in the side of the tunnel were absolutely pitch black and on feeling with their sticks they couldn’t touch anything. Groping around at this feet one boy picked up a stone and tossed it into the darkness. The stone went rattling down, down and then thumped at the bottom of a very deep shaft. What if one of them had fallen down that mine shaft? It was terrible to think about. Gee, their Dads and Mums sure knew what they were talking about.

After standing still for sometime the thoughts of what could have happened to them gradually wore off and noticing that the light at the end of the tunnel, to which they were headed, seemed larger that from where they had come they decided to go on. As they neared the far end and the light grew stronger the children began to speak louder and laugh and joke about their adventure. How exciting it had been, they all felt very brave and proud of their achievement and soon forgot how lucky they were to have come out alive. The walk back over the hill went unnoticed, with the excitement of the adventure still rushing through their minds.

Another time a group of children ventured into the tunnel at the base of the Baron hill but were soon stopped by a strange coughing noise coming from further in. What could it be? A tunnel dragon perhaps? They decided to make a hasty retreat. Boys yelled, girls screamed and their hair really did stand on end. Such was the terror they felt. But, before they reached the entrance a huge Euro brushed past them and fled off up the hill. Once outside the children looked at one another, their faces pale and eyes staring wide. Then one of them said that he know that it was a roo all the time and didn’t know what all the panic was about. But it was funny how he was furthest in and first out.

There were many other things to do such as chasing goats over the hills, riding the work horses down from the quarry to the stables on Saturday afternoon, having a sing song around a piano at night and of course the end of year concerts held in the school. Where else? Boredom wasn’t a problem with the children of that era. Just ask those who lived here as youngsters about fifty years ago.

The teachers to succeed Mr March were Mr McMahon, Miss Swan, Miss Gardner, then Miss Swan returned as Mrs. Jacobs.

Those teachers like all country teachers of that era, are to be commended for their efforts not only during school hours but within the small community in which they found themselves thrust.

It is to be hoped that the children who attend this school when it finally closes cherish the memories of their school days in Iron Baron and can in another fifty years look back with pride and say, “I was one of the last pupils to attend”, just as those who were the first are now proudly looking back.