History of Donald
Geologically, the district is part of the Murray basin, which in volcanic times was an inland sea, and still retains beneath the surface the salt which has become a real problem.
In the sea were islands of hard stone, which now appear as small hills, of which Donald’s Mt. Jeffcott is an example.
The indigenous people who inhabited the land near the river must have found the living very good, as there were patches of forest with Murray pine, also buloke, interspersed with open country with big black box and yellow gum trees and native grasses, with magnificent river red gums beside the river and lakes.
Major Thomas Mitchell did not come right to the area that is now the town, but he passed a little to the south, and it was he who named the river after his botanical collector, Matthew Richardson, who took with good humour a fall from his horse in the cold waters of the stream in July of 1836.
First to come to the area were the Scottish pastoralists, earliest of whom was William Donald, who, with his brothers John Stirling and James, and William Bogle Hamilton, applied in 1844 for a lease of 80,000 acres on the east side of the Richardson, and 100,000 acres of Corack land adjacent to Lake Buloke on the north. William Donald remained to live in the area, and in 1850 he married a daughter of A. R. McLachlan who had settled at Rich Avon. In 1853 he built a homestead, Banyenong East, in a bend of the river, which became the social centre for the other pastoralists who settled nearby. The first horse races in the district were run there.
During the 1860s Victoria’s gold bonanza began to fail, as mines were flooded with water, and the gold became too deep for the individual miners with their picks and shovels. These men were looking for another source of income, and the cry of “Unlock the lands!” began. The Government of the colony surveyed the Wimmera and the Grant Land Act of 1869 threw open the land for selection. No settler was allowed to select more than 320 acres.
In 1863 an enterprising businessman named Johann August Meyer saw an opportunity to set up a store and liquor shanty by a bridge that had been built over the Richardson upstream from the Banyenong homestead. It was a crossing and camping place for teamsters, travellers, drovers and herdsmen. The shanty met strong objections from William Donald and other pastoralists, as shepherds were being enticed from their lonely vigil, minding sheep in the unfenced land. When a road from St. Arnaud to Morton Plains was surveyed in 1864, the bridge was re-located, and Johann Meyer built a weatherboard store and hotel near the site of the present Mt. Jeffcott Hotel. Edward Miller followed him, building his Royal Hotel, and this was the nucleus of the town that was called Richardson Bridge until the name “Donald” appeared on a survey map in 1866.
The influx of selectors to the surveyed farms in the early 1870s was a stimulus to the town, as storekeepers, blacksmiths, bakers, flour millers and doctors arrived to meet the demand.
The ten parishes s of Banyenong, Carron, Corack, Corack East, Donald, Jeffcott, Laen, Rich Avon East, Rich Avon west and Watchem, which later became the Shire of Donald, were at first under the jurisdiction of the huge Shire of St. Arnaud, formed in 1864. In 1897 the Donald Shire was formed, and remained until amalgamation of shires in 1995 made it part of the Buloke Shire.
The railway reached Cope Cope and Donald in 1882 and gave the town a great fillip. For many years it was a mainstay of the local shopkeepers, as the regular wages of the railway workers kept them solvent while waiting for the “after harvest” payments of the struggling selectors. The town regretted the end of rail passenger traffic in 1993, but freight trains still operate through the area.
Agriculture has remained the basis of livelihood in the district. The fist selectors faced great difficulties, with limited capital, water shortage, primitive living conditions and no amenities such as hospitals or schools at first. Their crops, produced by sheer hard work using horses or bullocks, were ravaged by drought, by the introduced rabbits and insects, and by exhaustion of the soil nutriments.
Sheep were taken first by dingoes, then by the introduced foxes that followed the rabbits. Many anguished letters were written to the Department of Lands, begging for time to pay the required rents.
Some selectors gave up and surrendered their blocks, but many stayed, and gradually acquired more land, or extra blocks in the Mallee when it was opened for selection. Families grew, and the Education Department was badgered for schools, which opened wherever the need was greatest, and moved to meet the changing numbers of children in various areas. Many weathered the Depression of the 1890s, severe droughts of 1902 and 1914 and later the Depression and drought of the 1930s, and it seems that adversity has bred in district inhabitants a courage and determination to face and overcome difficulty.
The early industries were those which serviced the small farmers — blacksmiths, implement makers, coachbuilders, and farriers — and food production such as dairies, flour millers, butchers and bakers. General merchants such as W. J. Waddell helped the farmers to remain on the land by allowing them time to pay for the necessities of life.
A post office, a public hall, hotels and “temperance” boarding houses, solicitors and auctioneers came along, as did doctors and midwives, and small private hospitals. Churches were built — Presbyterian, Wesleyan (later Methodist), Anglican and Roman Catholic. Public halls, particularly the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall, and sporting arenas, have catered for entertainment over the years.
Water was provided by a channel system from reservoirs in the Grampians, and Donald Water Trust members were far-seeing enough to supply the town with large dams that proved their worth in drought years. Currently a plan is in train to eliminate the channels and bring the water to the Wimmera in pipes. Sewerage was provided for the town in 1969.
Lighting in the streets was by oil-filled lamps, until in 1905 W. A. Morgan, who had installed an acetylene gas plant to light his hotel, called a public meeting to discuss electric lighting of the town through a power plant. A company was formed, and the power was turned on in October, 1907. The plant had to be improved constantly to cope with the increase in electrical appliances, until finally in 1961; the State Electricity Commission took over the task of lighting the town.
After the Bill in 1872 which ordered “free, secular and compulsory” education, small schools were petitioned for and established wherever in the countryside a sufficient number of children were gathered. Donald itself gained a State School, which was later made into a Higher Elementary School, also providing education after Merit Certificate for children from rural schools, as well as locals. In 1963 the present Donald High School opened, and the Higher Elementary reverted to a Primary School. Both have maintained excellent quality. A Kindergarten and Play Group provide physical and mental stimulation and social interaction for the little ones. Roman Catholic children were catered for by a wooden school opened in 1886, and in 1923 a convent was built for Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, who provided education until they withdrew in 1962. In 1929 a new brick school was opened and St. Mary’s Primary School still provides excellent education in Donald.