The History of Moruya: Agriculture and Timber

Early cropping at Moruya produced potatoes, wheat, maize and other grains. Stock raising was concerned mainly with beef cattle, sheep and pigs. Sheep and wheat were being fazed out in the 1860’s and 70’s. Maize and beef continued but in the 80’s attention was turning to dairying and cheese as Mort’s establishment pointed the way to best practices. That, in turn, drew pig farming back into prominence for pigs and dairies tend to go hand in hand.

When dairying and cheese became the main agricultural activity there were not less than 18 cheese factories in the Eurobodalla region – at Nelligen(2), Buckenbowra(2), Mogo, Rosedale, Moruya(2), Mogendoura, Deua River, Bergalia, Bingie, Kyla Park, Bodalla, Eurobodalla, Corunna, Central Tilba and Tilba Tilba. In 2006 there are still a lot of people in Moruya who recall many of those factories and remember well the excellent cheese they made.

Yet dairying has never been easy. In 1887 the government abolished import duties on dairy products and Moruya was hard hit. In order to compete with the imports and other increasingly active dairy regions, co-operatives began to form. The Moruya Co-operative cheese factory was formed in 1892. It was followed by Bergalia, Kiora and others. Notwithstanding, dairying and cheese were starting to slip in the 20th century.

In part, this was due to the fact that Moruya itself was slipping. There was not much good land left in the area. Young farmers were moving north and other young people were drifting to Sydney.

At Bergalia, cheese was at its height between 1910 and 1917. It was on the down after that and the factory was finally closed in 1942. Between 1919 and 1930 27 farms around Moruya were abandoned or taken over by larger ones. In the 1970’s, when Britain joined the EEC, the main dairy export market for Australia was taken out of play. Again Moruya was caught up in a contraction of the numbers of dairy farmers and the numbers of dairy cattle. In 1972 the Bega Cheese Factory took over the ABC Cheese Society at Tilba. In 1987 the Bodalla Co-op closed its doors and the remaining 13 dairy farms sent their milk to Bega. The other cheese factories have all gone. Dairy cattle were removed from the lists at the Moruya Show in 1972 and, in 2006, there is only one dairyman left in Moruya. However, the industry has held up well in Bodalla. In 2006 there are still 14 dairies – one with a herd of 500, one with 400 and two with 300 – providing a combined output of 25,000,000 litres per annum.

Timber too had its ups and downs. In the 1880’s there were eleven mills in the district including at Gundary, Mogo and Buckenbowra. The old port of Tomaga, just inside the mouth of the Tomaga River, catered for five timber mills in the immediate area, including the Pioneer at Tomakin, Cook’s on the Mossy Point side and Jennings further upstream. Small trading boats were able to enter the river and there was enough room to load and turn them about. There was some boat building at Tomakin.

In 2006, there are four timber mills left in the Eurobodalla Shire, at Nelligen, Batemans Bay, Bodalla and Narooma and two of those are part-time operations. Between them they employ about 50 people. Spotted gum is still their main line, as has been the case for years, and they process some iron bark and stringy bark. Much of their market is the local building trade, and some of the throughput of timber for industrial pallets, fencing and walkways goes interstate – all of it by road.

An abiding problem for Moruya has been the transportation of goods to and from its markets. The delight of the farmers on the Moruya River when the bar at the mouth was washed out in 1841, permitting coastal shipping to use the river, was short lived. It closed over again. For 70 years after they abandoned Broulee Bay as their port the debate raged as to whether they should reopen it or not. A number of alternatives were tried. From time to time coastal shipping did enter the Moruya River and load for the Sydney or interstate markets, but boats were lost on the bar and delays in bad weather were a problem. Smaller boats were tried, to move goods from the river to Batemans Bay or Nelligen to be re-loaded onto the Illawarra Steamship Company’s larger boats travelling regularly to Sydney, but there was the double handling and even for small boats the Moruya bar was dangerous and sometimes impossible. At times goods were hauled to the Clyde over rough tracks and steep hills.

Narooma was tried as a port and in 1884 they ran a tramway (it can still be found) from Bodalla to the Wagonga inlet, but it didn’t work well. Believe it or not, in the 1850’s they tried Tuross Lake as a port. One steamer made it through the entrance but was trapped in the Lake for seven weeks when the bar closed over behind it. The ‘entrance’ to the Lake was there only at times, and it could shift its position dramatically from one tide to the next.

A permanent solution to Moruya’s problem was not found till road transport became available.

Contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School published in 2015.