Coopers Island was one of a number of primary places Aboriginal families worked in the seasonal farm industry. The first oral account takes us back to the 1930s; the latest is around the 1950s. Horse Island is of significance due to the presence of ceremonial burial trees and archaeological evidence indicating the area was used to consume shellfish. The area offers a variety of ecological zones supporting an abundance of natural resources from swans to shellfish.
In the late 1930s Valerie Andy’s grandmother took her to Coopers Island when her sister Harriett Walker was only small. They stayed on the farm in a house with their Pop, Arthur Thomas, whilst they picked peas and beans. They collected swan eggs from around Coopers Island; ‘…two swans eggs each was plenty; they were big eggs…’ [Valerie Andy 20.12.2005].
Coopers Island was named after Ernie and Arthur Cooper who owned a farm there. Alan Mongta lived with his mother, father, brothers and sisters at Coopers Island during the beanpicking season during the 1940s. Later in life Alan would walk the 10 miles from Bodalla to Coopers Island with his sleeper tools, in search of timber to make and sell 8-foot sleepers. He would get 10 pounds for each sleeper [or 14 pounds if they were stringy bark]. They cut the sleepers with a broad axe, sledgehammer, and wedges and cross cut saw. Gunpowder was also used to split the logs. At aged 17 Alan was injured, an axe to his right leg which was stitched up by Dr Bannon. The sleepers would be left where they were found and collected later by a horse drawn chain [Alan Mongta 25.11.2005].
During the 1940s, Mary Duroux lived on Coopers Island with family. They were all picking beans whilst Mary also looked after the younger kids from time to time, as was common practise. There were lots of families there then. ‘…..we would go to the pictures in Moruya on a Saturday night…’ [Mary Duroux 6.2.2006].
During the 1940s Carol Larritt’s parents, Violet May Carriage and Arthur Stewart picked peas and beans at Coopers Island and Bodalla. One year Carol spent 6 months schooling in Nowra and 6 months schooling in Bodalla, whilst living on Coopers Island with her parents [Carol Larritt 23.1.2006].
Vivienne recalls visiting Coopers Island as a child in a black motorcar with her sister Jacqueline and her paternal grandmother, Nan Ella [Vivienne Mason 5.1.2006].
‘…In the early 1950s I came to Coopers Island with my parents. They picked beans and peas for ‘old coopy’, and I went to Bodalla School. We lived in the cow bails. The Jerrinja mob from Nowra, the Campbell and Carpenter, and the Connell families lived there too. About 100 koori people were staying in cow bails, family groups in each bail. The workers, got paid wages and bought their own staple foods. We were there for two years….. At one stage there were 100s of Italian workers who lived in tents at Coopers Island. They work daylight to dark and getting virtually no money, they would eat bread and water, pouring the water on the bread. They were all single blokes, and couldn’t speak English. ……It was good to spear bream at Coopers Island. I teach my grandchildren how to make and use spears, and tell them how to survive, where to catch and cook abalones, how to share food and prepare medicines. The boys are taught how to fish, and the girls are taught how to make a good and safe fire…..’ [Ronnie Mason 5.1.2006].
Ursula Rose Connell, Trisha’s grandmother, worked on Coopers Island doing seasonal work. Trisha stayed with her on Coopers Island when her younger sister Kerry was being born [Trisha Ellis 4.2.2006].
Harriett remembers walking to Coopers Island from Wallaga Lake, with her sisters Valerie Andy, Pam Flanders and her mother and father, to work picking peas and beans. Arthur Thomas use to catch prawns in the Tuross River, when they were living on Coopers Island. Arthur always got the job of sewing the seeds he was never a picker [Harriett Walker 11.4.2006].
Albert Solomon remembers camping inside an empty silo at Coopers Island. The Solomon family camped in one, and Alan Mongta and his family camped in the other. The Tungai’s also camped in the silo’s [Albert Solomon 11.4.2006].
‘…..There are old Aboriginal carvings and marked trees on Horse Island, we were told not to touch them. There is an airstrip and houses on Horse Island now. ….good fishing too…..’ [Alan Mongta 25.11.2005].
There is a marked tree near a grave on Horse Island. It has four lines engraved in it to show the number of people buried in the nearby grave [John Mumbler 24.5.2006].
Regular trips to Horse Island are made by the Stewart / Ella / Mason families when camped at Mummuga Lake. ‘…It is a good place to catch flat head, and is safe and sheltered for the kids…..the kids hang off the bridge, they love it… went there last year….’ [Vivienne Mason 5.1.2006].
‘….Horse Island Bridge was where I had my first fishing experience, I dropped my line in…..’ [Vanessa Mason 5.1.2006].
There is a shell midden line about one metre down from the top of the bank. Aboriginal people have been using the Horse Island area for thousands of years [Trisha Ellis 1.6.2006].
Excerpt from "Stories About the Eurobodalla by Aboriginal People", 2006. Story Contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.