Castle Hill - Connie Keith


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

Tell me where and when you were born?

I was born in Lentini Sicily it was the 30th April 1946, I believe I can’t remember.

What about your parents tell me something about them?

My father’s name was Francesco, Frank in English. Porto was the family name. My mother her name was Addolorata which is more easily translated to Dolores.

So how did Australia come onto the horizon for your family?

As far as I know it was because there were distant relatives that had already made the move here. How or why they got here I have absolutely no idea. My mother had a couple of distant cousins, third cousins or something that lived here with their father. They had already emigrated sometime before my parents came. I suppose that they discussed the opportunities that were available here and it was these cousins that paid for my father to come out. My parents didn’t have any money at all. I believe that when they got married they didn’t even have enough money for a wedding ring. These cousins paid for my father to come out here and live with them. So his life in Australia started in that way.

Frank Porto (right) on the Messina farm Victoria Avenue Castle Hill 1950s

What was their family name those people?

Their surname was LaFerla it’s a bit of a name to get your tongue around. The two brothers were Frank and Sam LaFerla they had a father here but I’m not aware of what his name was. They were living on a farm in Victoria Ave, in a cottage on that farm. When my father arrived I believe he went there to live with them. From my understanding what they did as a livelihood, they got jobs in factories. One particular factory which manufactured fibro was one place that they all worked at. It’s a wonder that we haven’t had problems in relation to that. Weekends and possibly after work they would work on the farm helping the person who owned the farm. It was Mr. Messina the particular farm that they were living on a big 20 acre property in Victoria Road in Castle Hill.

What were they farming the Messina’s that lived on the property?

The farms tended to grow lettuce a lot obviously that’s a summer crop. In the winter it would probably be crops like cabbage, cauliflower. Also crops such as carrots and beetroot would have been crops that they grew. Again because I was fairly young at the time I don’t have a complete recollection of everything that they grew. They were fairly typical of the type of things that they would grow. There is a photograph of my father with the three LaFerla’s the two sons and the father where the father is holding a lettuce in his hand. So that’s pretty good evidence, that that was one of the crops.

Were they also growing tomatoes?

I’m not aware of the Messina’s growing tomatoes very much because of the type of work that is involved. They had a fairly big property, 20 acres used for vegetables is a fairly big area. It is very labour intensive work and so it could be that simply because of the amount of labour that would have been needed they didn’t grow them.

Now your father was the first one to come out. He must have liked it because you and your mother came out? Tell me when that was and what happened?

Yes my father arrived in 1951 and I know this because it must have been February 1951 because he landed in Sydney on the day that one of my brothers was born. There were three of us who were born in Italy. I’m the eldest and I have a brother who’s about three years younger than me and then this third one who was about sixteen months younger than him. So when my father left my mother obviously had to care for two very young children plus she was quite heavily pregnant. He arrived in February in 1951. It was probably about eighteen months to two years later when he had probably put enough money together in order for the rest of us to come out. We arrived in October 1952 so there was nearly two years between the two arrivals.

You were about six when you came?

I was six. We didn’t go to live at Castle Hill. The Messina family owned quite a bit of property and one of the things they owned was a five acre property in Northmead. On that property there was very small weatherboard cottage. Now my father had leased this property from them and so that’s where we went to live. My father and mother started farming that as a market garden. I’m not sure whether my father had already started to do that before we arrived. But certainly that’s where we went to live and lived for the next few years.

Sam LaFuncle Mat Vaccaro Uncle Sam with Sam Joe and Connie c1954

What sort of vegetables were you growing there?

Quite a lot again I don’t think that was the area where we grew tomatoes. I don’t recall us growing tomatoes. But certainly the lettuce and potatoes and peas and beans, carrots, beetroot, spinach they would have all been crops that were grown.

You also grew some rather exotic vegetables that Australian’s hadn’t had much experience with?

Yes certainly they would have been grown. Capsicum, eggplants, broccoli which sounds strange to call them exotic vegetables but they were part of the Italian diet. My recollections are probably much better of the period when we moved to Castle Hill to Victoria Avenue than in those days when we were at Northmead. We left Northmead when I was in fourth class which would have made me about ten. So again those memories of those days are not quite as clear as the latter period in Victoria Avenue.

So let’s talk a bit about your education. What sort of schools did you attend and how did you go?

As soon as we arrived here we were enrolled in the local school which was Baulkham Hills Public School. It was only up the road, quite close, close enough for us to walk. I spent the first couple of months until school ended in kindergarten. I didn’t have a word of English; none of us could speak English when we arrived. So we joined the school and somehow or other had to understand what was being said. I continued there up until fourth class. I was fortunate that I found education… how can I express it without sounding a bit… I did quite well at school; I always did very well at school.

Messina farm Victoria Avenue Castle Hill 1950s

Where did you do your high school education?

I went to Northmead High School I was in the inaugural year of Northmead High School. Prior to Northmead High School being built the only other local schools were Macarthur Girls High and Parramatta High. When they built Northmead High School even though it is quite local to North Rocks at the time we were living up in Victoria Avenue so we had to get a bus to go into school but we weren’t the only ones. Northmead High School in those days took students from as far away as Dural and Glenorie as well as all the local schools.

Your family grew with the addition of more children. Tell me about that?

My parents after a long break eventually had two more children, another girl and another boy. My sister was born in 1958 so she’s twelve years younger than me. Then my youngest brother was born in 1960 so he was fourteen years younger than me. A lot of their care fell on my shoulders. By that stage I was at an age I was able to do a lot more. I had a lot of duties in the house, with washing and cooking and so on for everyone also looking after my younger brother and sister.

In 1956 you and your family purchased a property at 29 Victoria Avenue Castle Hill. Can you describe that property and the house?

The main address for the property was on Windsor Road because the property stretched between Windsor Road and Victoria Avenue. I’ve been wracking my brain because of the numbers… I didn’t think I’d ever forget it but I think it was RMB 29 something like that. The address was on Windsor Road but the property stretched between Windsor Road and Victoria Avenue. We had frontages on both and both were used frequently depending on which part of the property was being worked on at the time. The seven acres were the second property along from the corner of the Windsor Road and Victoria Avenue intersection. There was a property of two or two and a half acres that was right on the corner it was owned by an Anglo family Mr. and Mrs. Davis whom we became quite good friends with. Then there was the property that my parents bought.

What sort of house was it?

The house was a weatherboard house considerably bigger than the one that we lived in Northmead. From the look of it, it was a house that had been added on in stages. It probably started off as a four room house with a kitchen and a laundry at the back. It seemed as if there had been a big verandah added on around two sides of the house. Given that there were now five of us in the family. There weren’t five at the beginning but there were shortly afterwards because we were living in that property when my younger brother and sister were born. The two bedrooms at the front my parents had one and I had the other and eventually my sister moved in with me. Behind that there were two rooms that would have been a dining room and a lounge room. One of those rooms my father closed off so it became a bedroom for my brothers, so all three brothers were in there. Behind those two rooms originally there was the kitchen, laundry and bathroom, but because my uncle came to live with us at one period of time, my mother’s younger brother. He came to live with us and was helping us on the farm and we needed room for the family to be able to sit at a dining room table or to sit at a table to eat.

 Porto house Windsor Road Castle Hill with artichokes planted c1960

My father did quite a few alterations and one of the alterations was that the bathroom was removed and there was a family room built in its place. Next to the bathroom there had been another small room so the bathroom and this small room were opened up and together they formed a big family room were we would sit. Eventually when we were able to purchase a TV that was where the family would sit and watch TV. It was adjacent to the kitchen area where we ate. Having moved the bathroom out from the house it went into a small corrugated shed which was next to the outdoor toilet. Although mind you the outdoor toilet was pretty plush because it was actually a septic toilet that flushed rather than the one that we’d had in Northmead which was one of the ones that the night soil man used to come and collect each week. This bathroom at Victoria Avenue was pretty primitive. It was just corrugated iron with a bath and a shower and you froze in winter and boiled in summer. It was very primitive. Interestingly behind the house there was a well. We never used the well it was always covered over for safety but obviously at some time previously the owners must have put this well in for some reason or other.

What was used for irrigation of the crops? What water?

On our farm we used town water. We didn’t really have a sight for a dam and dams were very, very costly to put in. Many of the other farmers in the area had dams. The Messina’s property that I mentioned before for instance, their twenty acre property they had two big dams on it, so all of their irrigation of their crops was from these dams. We used town water. The system of watering the crops was pretty consistent with all the farms. They used a system called Skinners which I wasn’t sure if this was a word that’s been made up. There were quite a few words I can identify that are a mixture of Italian and English or Italianised English if I can put it that way. Apparently these Skinners are named after some American chap who invented them or produced them. Basically they were a system of pipes that were sat on poles and they had little nipples along the length of the pipe through which water came out. At the end of the rows they were attached to the mains water and could be turned on and off from there. While they sat on the poles they had some sort of handle attached where you could move them so that they would water on both sides. They could virtually water over an angle of one hundred and eighty degrees say. So they were set up, depending on the length of the spout of water that you got from them. They would be set up at various distances and that was what was used for watering. In some instances they could be moved. When the land had to be ploughed generally they were. They were just moved aside so the land could be ploughed and then set up again.

 Porto and LaFerla families with sprinkler system in background 1950s

Was it a profitable business for your family to grow vegetables there?

I don’t think it was profitable not from the way we lived. While they had a mortgage we were still quite poor. We had to really watch every penny that was spent. I can remember going through high school wearing one summer uniform, summer and winter and having a pair of shoes that lasted me for several years. I mustn’t have been growing by then fortunately. No life was very hard. There certainly wasn’t any spare money. We grew a lot of the vegetables and fruit that we used ourselves. We had a small orchard on one part of the farm and grew a lot of our own fruit. A lot of our own vegetables when I say our own vegetables these were the vegetables that were still not available in the markets because they weren’t recognised such as I mentioned before the broccoli and the eggplant and capsicum. Also a lot of herbaceous type vegetables akin to the Asian vegetables that we now use. Not identical to them but along those lines. There were a lot of these other herbs which were a regular part of the diet that were grown on the farm. To provide some meat I know that we always kept chickens.

The farm that we went to live on had originally been a chicken farm. It had on it quite a few sheds where the chickens were kept. Although my parents didn’t keep all of them because they had to make way for the vegetables some of them were kept. In one we kept a pig and the pig was fattened each year and generally in July the pig was slaughtered. There were sausages made and salamis made. There were festivities around that time because a lot of the friends would come to help in preparing the meat. It couldn’t be refrigerated so it had to be prepared over a short period of time so that the meat wouldn’t go off. We also kept chickens. I can remember at various times having ducks, rabbits those were used for meat. I think probably not just for us, either given to friends or perhaps even sold I’m not sure. The pig was a constant every year and the chickens. The other things varied.

Sheds on Victoria Avenue farm Castle Hill 1950s

There were some former poultry sheds on the property, what happened to them?

Some were kept and housed a lot of the farm equipment. One of them was converted into a great big shed my father added some height to it my making the walls higher and putting a roof at a much higher position so that the truck could be driven straight into it. Some of the farm activities such as sorting tomatoes you needed to do under shelter so that was generally where that was done. But apart from that there was one great big shed which I believe was probably formerly used for feed for the poultry because it had a cement floor. So it was built in a much sturdier fashion than some of the other sheds. That particular shed my father converted into a residence with a couple of bedrooms and a kitchen and small living area. In that residence a lot of friends that came out from Italy lived in that residence. Before the residence was built some of them lived with us in the house. So various cousins who emigrated would live with us for a while and then when they got a job and got on their feet and were able to find accommodation of their own they’d move on. Eventually this residence was built and that was rented out to various families that came to Australia and needed accommodation. Same sort of scenario they’d live there for a while until they managed to get themselves established and would then move on.

Now what memories do you have of working on the farm as a child?

Very harsh ones, vegetables are grown summer and winter. So summer and winter the work continued it didn’t matter what the weather was like. The general day would start almost at dawn not much after. You would go out and do some work, maybe couple of hours work come inside and have breakfast and be out again. Obviously it depended on which time of year and what crops there were as to exactly what was done. That was generally the pattern and it would go throughout the whole day until dusk very long hours. We did grow a lot of tomatoes and we grew lettuce along with all those other crops. Probably the summer crops lettuce and tomatoes were the main crops that would have been grown. Lettuce when it matures, when it forms a heart it tends to do so all in one go. Within a matter of a few days the whole crop is ready. At that time especially in summer in Sydney where we have these very hot humid summers. If those crops at that time get wet, if it rains on them, then you get a day of harsh sun on them they just all rot. When the lettuce is ready you have to get it in. Generally what would happen most Thursdays in summer in particular, I’m not sure if it was as much in winter but certainly in summer, virtually every Thursday my brothers and I didn’t go to school.

Friday was market day so Thursdays we would spend working on the farm getting the crops in, putting them on the truck so they could be taken to market the next day. I can even remember instances of lettuce crops being ready and my father having to go to market more than once a week. Generally the pattern would be that the market day was Friday but there would be instances when he’d have to go two or three times a week. At that time there were a few instances where we would be up cutting and packing lettuces by the light of the moon. We’d have gotten up at two thirty, three o’clock in the morning and cut the lettuce, pack it and put in on the truck so that he could get away by about five o’clock. In those days the market was down in Haymarket. The current Paddy’s Market down there now was where the vegetable market was.

Frank Porto on truck with Frank LaFerla loading lettuces for market on Windsor Road Castle Hill farm 1960s

What degree of mechanisation was there on the farm?

In the days at Northmead it was a horse and plough. I can remember the big horse. I suspect that it was possibly a Clydesdale I’m not sure. I can remember the big horse pulling the plough and my father having to hold the plough by hand behind him and that’s the way the land was tilled. I believe that perhaps before we even left Northmead probably toward the end of that period my father bought his first tractor. The only reason that I remember that, well I don’t actually remember it as such, but in speaking to one of my brothers he reminded me that it was at that period of time that he was ploughing some land for some neighbours and got attacked by a swarm of bees and ended up in hospital. So I would say it was probably close to about 1956. I don’t imagine that it would have been earlier than that. It would have been just before we moved that he would have got that first tractor. Mostly all the work was done by hand. We had chipping hoes that you would use to go along and dig out weeds. A lot of back breaking work, picking of beans or peas or potatoes or carrots or whatever. You were bending over and having to do those sorts of things.

How were the crops sown?

The crops that had seeds that were very small were generally sown with a seeding machine, I called it a seeding machine, I’m not sure if that’s its correct name. This was basically a machine that had a large wheel at the front and a smaller one at the back and in between a hopper with a little plough underneath. As you pushed the machine along it had handles at the back and you pushed it along via the two handles. The seeds went into the hopper and as you pushed it along the little plough would make a furrow and the seeds would drop into it. So you’d just move along these fields which we also used to called Skinners come to think of it. The Skinners were the pipes but because the pipes watered these large beds we used to call the beds Skinners as well. That was probably a made up word for the beds where the crops were sown. So anything with very small seeds that would fit through the hole in the hopper we would use the seeding machine. They would usually be planted in rows along these beds which I’m not sure how long each of these beds, these Skinners I suspect that could be anything up to twenty, thirty, forty metres long. I can’t visualize it. That made the seeding of those things a little bit easier. However when you seed them like that in each furrow you get quite a lot of seeds dropped.

Once all of them germinate the plants are just too close together to allow them to be able to grow properly. So there would be the back breaking work of getting down on hands and knees with a little tool that had a metal end on it shaped in the form of a little triangle. You would then have to go between all of these plants and thin them out so as to leave one plant every so often to give them room to grow. That didn’t matter if it was lettuce or even carrots because if it the carrots are too close together they tend to wind around each other under the soil. So you wouldn’t get a nice straight carrot you’d get a spiral one. They had to be separated as well into singles. Whatever was seeded with that machine that work followed to thin them out.

What did you use as fertiliser?

Before any seeds were planted in the soil generally the fertiliser that was used was chook poo. There was lots of poultry farms still around in the area where we lived and one of them in particular which was located on Windsor Road near Victoria Avenue and currently that whole area has a Kennard’s Hire place on it. That used to be a great big poultry farm owned by the Leach family who I believe had poultry farms and even to this day one of their sons who I went to school with is either involved in poultry farming or the egg industry in some way or other. Generally the men would do it although I know once I was made to do it and absolutely loathed and detested it and wouldn’t forgive my father for making me do it. You would go along to the chicken sheds with bags and shovels. They would fill up these hessian bags full of the chook manure. It would be brought back to the farm where it would be just dumped in heaps and then distributed by hand with shovels, then probably ploughed in with the tractor. That was generally done for most areas before the crops were planted. Then sometimes depending on the crop there might be commercial fertilisers used. They would be taken along and distributed by hand at the base of various plants. My memory tells me that used to happen a lot with things like cauliflowers and cabbage. I’m not sure if they needed some extra fertiliser during their growth period.

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