Castle Hill - Connie Keith - Part 2


Interviewee: Connie Keith, born 1946

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 29 Nov, 2011

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Dec 2011

This interview represents the recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

Various commercial fertilisers, I’m sure that at some time there was blood and bone because of the smell that it made. I can’t remember what the other ones were, but crops like cauliflower and cabbage I seem to recall quite often would have handfuls of this placed at their base as they were growing.

Did they use pesticides on the farm as well?

Pesticides had to be used as you do get quite a few pests that affect the crops. Tomatoes in particular were very susceptible. Even things like cauliflowers and broccoli. Once broccoli became known and used by other people and the demand for them grew, we started growing broccoli for a crop for market as well. They seemed to be susceptible to the cabbage moth butterfly and get caterpillars in them. So fertilisers (pesticides) would have to be used quite regularly on them. My father was probably... through not understanding the effects of these pesticides and how dangerous they could be. A couple of times he almost managed to poison himself. I can remember at one stage he ended up in hospital because he had obviously inhaled a fair bit of the pesticide. The spraying of the tomatoes in particular was done with… You couldn’t get the tractor in between the tomatoes once the tomatoes were big so it was a little knapsack sprayer that had a container which you put on your back. It had a hose with a long spray nozzle that you could direct onto the tomatoes from top to bottom.

Tomato grading in Victoria Avenue Castle Hill Frank Porto right and Connie left late 1950s

Now tomatoes need grading of course before they are packed how did that go?

You grade tomatoes according to colour and according to size and according to quality. Tomatoes are generally picked just as they’re starting to change colour. As they ripen they get a bit soft. People don’t like to buy soft tomatoes. Generally the procedure was you’d go up and down the row with buckets and pick all the tomatoes that are ready. Now they’re not all going to be of the same colour because they don’t all behave and all ripen at the same time. So you’d just pick from the ones that are green just changing to yellow right through to the ones that are ripe. So at that point they have to be separated according to their size and their colour. And grade also… some tomatoes may sit up against the tomato stake and get marks in them they have to be separated too. Generally the separation... they would be taken to the big shed. Although they were carted in buckets to the ends of the rows they would be put onto a wheelbarrow that my father had made specially. That would take four or six boxes of tomatoes and wheeled to the shed. At one stage he had a contraption made for the back of the tractor so that he could cart the tomatoes. They’d be taken to the shed and then they would be graded. The grading would separate the green from the red. My brothers and my mother for some reason none of us could understand kept getting it wrong. My father would continually be at them because they couldn’t grade these tomatoes properly. They’d be always in trouble. It was only when I was a university and I was doing a psychology course and I’d learnt about red/green colour blindness and there were tests for it. I brought the tests home and tested my mother and brothers and found that they were all red/green colour blind. That explained the reasons for the problems with the tomatoes.

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

What was life like for your mother on the farm?

I think of all of us my mother had the hardest life. She had to not only work on the farm but she had children that she was trying to look after a house to run. Plus a myriad of other things that involved not necessarily running the house but involved our way of life. Quite often my father would hire other men, mostly other Italian men to come and help on the farm. Not only did my mother work on the farm with them but then she would have to feed them. So it was providing meals for either breakfast or lunch. Generally breakfast and lunch not dinner time by then they would have gone home. She was very particular about washing. Mum’s washing had to be pure white. She would also cook special things especially around festival times, Christmas and Easter. The bread that was available commercially wasn’t to their taste so she would generally make her own bread. I guess her mother having worked in a bakery certainly was the background that lead to that.

Gino on bike at Windsor Road Castle Hill farm early 1960s

Were there ever any accidents on the farm?

Yes, there were minor ones regularly and I can’t presume to remember them all. The one that stands out most in my mind because one of my brothers (Gino) suffered from it, one of the machines that was used on the farm was a small rotary hoe that had a motor in it. It wasn’t driven, you didn’t sit on it, and you just handled it again by handles that you guided it where you wanted it to go. Because it was very narrow it could be used for cultivating between rows. Some of the grass could be plowed in by taking it between rows. My uncle, my mother’s younger brother who lived with us for some time and was helping on the farm, at one stage he was ploughing along a row and my young brother was following behind him. Stupidly now we look back on it he didn’t have any shoes on and unfortunately slipped and his foot went under this rotary hoe and it actually cut off three of his toes.

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

What was your parents' social life like?

Social life was quite different to what most of us in this day and age would think of as a social life. Social life for Italians tended to be just visiting friends. It wasn’t really going out to venues. Although there were times when I know my father would go to the pictures. I don’t ever remember my mother going. Certainly in the times when we lived at Northmead I can vaguely remember a few times when he and these friends the LaFerla brothers took myself and probably my brothers as well to the old Castle Hill picture show. Mostly it was visiting friends. On some occasions in summer big groups of us would get together and we would go to the beach. It was generally Palm Beach and we would all load up on the back of trucks. I think in this day and age you would look at it and think “good heavens, how dangerous”. I guess there weren’t as many vehicles on the road then and laws were not what they are today. We would load up on the back of the trucks. The mothers would have all been cooking for two or three days to get food ready for it. We’d all gather at a park at Palm Beach and set up for the day and everyone would have a really good time.

Castle Hill Theatre 1950s

Looking now back at your childhood how would you describe it?

It was a childhood that because it was so different from everybody else’s I probably think I didn’t have a childhood. It wasn’t a time when I could look back and say we played a lot, we enjoyed ourselves a lot. No our days were filled with work of one sort or another and so I think my brothers and I didn’t have a childhood as such. You went from the moment that you could do anything you were working.

Now can you describe your neighbours along Victoria Avenue? Who were they and what was their living?

The neighbours right next door on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Windsor Road, the Davis family that I mentioned before. I’m not sure what their livelihood was. They did have a few fruit trees but I don’t recall them as making a living from the land. They only had about two and a half acres for a market garden to be able to make a living. On the other side of us on the Victoria Road end was a family called Guidice they were an Italian family or at least the husband was Italian. I’m not sure what his wife was. I think he was an electrician. They did have some land but they certainly didn’t farm it. What ended up happening was that my family leased that land from them and extended the area of farm that we used. Then across the road directly across the road from us in Victoria Avenue there was a family called Kuchel (?) they were from central Europe somewhere. They did farm the land a little I don’t think again that was his only livelihood. They did have part of their land that was used for market gardening as well. All along that side of the road opposite us there were more market gardens all the way down to Carrington Road. Next to the Kuchel’s (?) there was the Pennisi family they had five acres, they were an Italian family that were market gardeners. Next to them was the Messina land that I’ve mentioned previously. This was the twenty acre farm that was owned by the Messina family.

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

Further on Victoria Avenue along Carrington Avenue there was at least one Chinese family had some land there. There were also some plots of land there that were initially owned by the parents of Mrs Messina I don’t believe that they were farming it, but they were there initially. I think when one of the Messina children was married he went to live there. He farmed it to a certain extent. Further along there is Carrington Road. Now on the other side of Carrington Road in fact on both sides of Victoria Avenue further up from Carrington Road a lot of that land was owned by the Gangemi brothers. There were three brothers and I’m not absolutely certain who owned which lot but they owned a lot of the land in that area. On the eastern side of Victoria Avenue up past Carrington, a lot of those farm plots were leased by other Italian families. They were used for market gardening. Past Salisbury Road on the right hand side facing up towards Showground Road were all of these plots of land that were owned by one of the Gangemi brothers and leased by Italian families. One of them which is the one I’m most familiar with was right on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Showground Road on the eastern side of it which places it on the other side of the road where the current shops the Home Hub has been developed there. Now this particular lot of land which was five acres on that corner had a dam on it. The reason I’m more familiar with it is that my uncle who had lived with us for quite some time married the daughter of the family that lived on that farm a family by the name of Giglio.

Now the interesting thing about that farm, particularly about the dam was that and I have no idea how they got there. But it was discovered sometime later on, sometime in the sixties, not at the time when we initially went to live there but a good deal of time afterwards. They discovered freshwater crocodiles in the dam. Their son who had regularly swam in the dam and wasn’t aware of it and then they find these freshwater crocodiles. They’re fairly small and I believe that they’re not terribly dangerous but it certainly came as quite a shock to everybody. It really makes you wonder how they would have got there in the first place. On the side of Victoria Avenue where our farm was located after the Giudices (?) there were various families that I can’t really remember. I believe that along there, there were a couple of Anglo families. When I say Anglo I’m not sure if they were English families from overseas or families that had been born here. But there were some families there that were not Italian. There was adjoining our property and facing out onto Salisbury Road I know there was also a Maltese family farming that area. So there was a good mixture but mostly they were all Italians that either owned the land that they farmed or leased.

Work on the Victoria Avenue Castle Hill farm 1950s

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

How has that area changed, what is it like today?

It’s really, really very hard to identify anything along there anymore. Now it’s called the Castle Hill Trading Zone and there are many businesses, some of them small factory outlets. But many, many different businesses that have set up along that area. It was when that area was rezoned, because initially it had been part of the Green Belt and the properties mostly had to be five acre properties. I know that there were some that were slightly smaller but I’m not aware of why they were allowed. When it was rezoned and did become a commercial area. My parents were probably one of the first families to sell and move. I guess part of the reason for that was that it was the first opportunity to have any money to speak of. They’d had this huge mortgage for so long and it had been fairly crippling and this allowed them to get out of that debt and be able to live in slightly better circumstances.

So did your father retire at that stage?

No my father didn’t retire. The only thing that my father really understood by this stage was land. So he went and bought more land and started farming it as well. It was in Baulkham Hills but it was off Seven Hills Road in a street called Bingara Crescent. All that area now has also been subdivided and is all housing including the land that they were on. They did go and live there and it would have been in the very early seventies. So the time at Victoria Avenue farming the land there would have been from 1956 to about 1972/73. One of the things my parents did do at that time. This was the first opportunity that they had to go back to Italy after being here for many, many years. They were finally able to go back to Italy. They went back there and they stayed for a few months which was good because they were able to catch up with relatives that they hadn’t seen for so many years. Because they were about to build a house on this new land that they’d bought my father went overboard and bought everything for the house in Italy. That includes tiles, fittings, bath room fittings, light fittings, furniture a whole heap of things and had to then get a container and have it shipped over by container. When they did come back one of my uncles another brother of my mother’s who had not been here before he and his wife came here and lived with them. He built the house he had been a builder and a jack of all trades. He had a very large part to play in the building of their house. They did build a very large home and it was very comfortable. It was in a European style with tiled floors and in terms of their living accommodation it did improve tremendously. But the hard work still went on. They still continued to farm because the money had all gone into buying the land and building a house. They still had to live day by day. They didn’t accumulate superannuation or any of these things that are available to people who work in businesses. So they still had to live, they still had to farm and continued to do so even after all the children had left home.

Porto house construction at Bingara Crescent Baulkham Hills with tomato crop 1974

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

It’s a remarkable story really of Italian migrants that come and work extremely hard and part of Australia now, part of our heritage.

Yes definitely, I think that my parents accepted from a very early time that this was their life. Even as hard as their life was they could lead a much better life here. I guess it was the certainty of that at least being able to work and being able to bring some money in and eat. I don’t think that certainty existed in Sicily. I think that’s why the move was made in the first place. So it was very early in the piece that they became naturalized Australians. In those times naturalization meant totally revoking Italian citizenship. That’s not the case anymore you can have dual citizenship. In those times that was what you had to do so that was a very big step to take. That happened in the mid 1950’s.

Tell me about your career and how you got into that?

With education being compulsory in Australia of course I went on from primary school to Northmead High School. Throughout my time in the first three years there I became friendly with some of the teachers. In those days after the three years you could sit for the Intermediate Certificate so I did this. Once I had sat for that exam because my parents still needed that assistance on the farm I didn’t return to school. So what this particular teacher (Joan Fountain) and another one who lived in the area by the name of Judy Macinolty they used to go and buy their fruit and vegetables from a fruit shop in Castle Hill. This fruit shop in Castle Hill was run by friends of the family. Another family by the name of Zullo (?).They were three brothers. So once I had done the Intermediate Certificate exams and not returned to school…

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

… these teachers started speaking to these fruiterers and getting messages to my father asking that I be sent back to school, allowing me to be sent back to school. It was as a result of what they did that it actually happened. At the end of 1963 when I did the Leaving Certificate exams I was fortunate enough to win a Teacher’s College Scholarship which I wanted because I had become very interested in teaching. So I went on from there to Sydney University to study for a Bachelor’s degree and become a teacher.

View from Porto farm Bingara Crescent Baulkham Hills to Old Windsor Rd 1974

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

What sort of communal activities are you involved in within the Shire?

I’m involved in quite a lot and have been over the years. I guess as a result of being a teacher you do tend to see where there are things where you can help and become involved. Maybe I’m speaking too broadly and not all teachers feel like that. But I did and my husband did. So from a very early stage when my eldest son got into Scouts I was on the Social Committee, before that even when they were at preschool I ended up on the Social Committee and then the Management Committee of the preschool. Then it went onto the soccer club and getting involved sometimes coaching, sometimes managing and for a period of time also being on the Management Committee of the soccer club. In the period of time when I was teaching fulltime it became more difficult to be involved in those things. I went back to doing pottery in late 2006 and I’m doing pottery through a group that has a studio at Balcombe Heights Estate. At that time they needed somebody to represent the group at S355 committee meetings.

So I volunteered and went along to the S355 meeting. The S355 committee is actually a committee that is appointed by Council and so I applied and was appointed. I went along to the meeting and somehow or other managed to find myself chairing it ever since. There has been quite a bit of work involved with that. But very satisfying work in some regards. Balcombe Heights Estate is a fantastic Estate in the Hills Shire that’s got an incredible amount of history associated with it. It was formerly The William Thompson Masonic School and was run as that for many years. At one period of time during the Second World War it became a field hospital for the army. Since 1974 when it was acquired by Council for the Shire it’s now a community facility and houses an incredible number of really great service organisations ranging from a school for autistic children, to groups that provide courses such as our pottery group which is Macquarie Hills Potters, Learning in the Hills which has a whole lot of other things. It’s got a community radio station and the SES and a model railways and an incredible number of organisations on that estate. They provide really great services to the community.

View from Porto property Bingara Crescent Baulkham Hills to Old Windsor Rd c1982

So what other sort of fertilisers were used?

How do you now look back on the Victoria Avenue of the 1950’s and 60’s that you remember?

I look back on it and think it was an incredibly hard life. It’s not the sort of life I would want to go back to or to have my children do or wish on anyone to have to live like that. There is also a great degree of nostalgia certainly a great degree of pride for what my family and other families at that time were able to achieve. So while you wouldn’t want to repeat it nevertheless there is that sense of yes we did this, we got through it, we made something of ourselves and here we are today. We’re not that badly off for it. I won’t say it's ideal it has told on all of us physically. It has told on us mentally, some of our attitudes and perhaps some of the ways we do things as with everyone, we’re affected by our background and our experiences.