Written by Merrill O’Donnell and Stephen Brooks from the Colac & District Family History Group
Despite rugged and inhospitable terrain, unpredictable weather and often terrible isolation, David and Caroline Ballagh carved out successful lives as pioneers of Barongarook. In 1865, while living in Carngham near Ballarat, David’s application to lease 65 acres of land at Barongarook, at a rent of three pounds and six shillings, was granted, payable to Mr Dore, Receiver of Revenue, Colac.
Seeking a farm to call his own, and having learned that land was being opened up at the foothills of the Otways, David, Caroline and their three children travelled to Barongarook in 1866 to take up their selection. The early settlers built bark huts to live in, which were later replaced with timber homesteads.
The Land Act 1962 required that the land had to be cleared and fenced and have a dwelling within three years or it could be forfeited or sold. It was also a condition that the land must be occupied.
David worked tirelessly as a splitter, carter, farmer and digger to support his growing family, as nine more children arrived in the next eighteen years. He cleared the land of the thick undergrowth, grew hay for his horses and potatoes for his family and built a home for Caroline and their twelve children. Over time, the forest landscape of Barongarook began to change with the destruction of the trees and clearing of ferns, replaced by families and homesteads with fences and gardens.
With an increasing population, the need for a school to accommodate the growing number of children in the district became apparent and in 1876, after much lobbying, a school was finally opened. Two years later, the head teacher, James Mills, requested a more central site and with the support of the District Inspector, the school was moved in 1880 to a two acre site on David Ballagh’s paddock. The school was also allocated as a local “Preaching Place”.
In 1879, the Ballaghs and other residents of the bush, wanting their children to grow up with the necessary religious instruction, had established a Sunday school at Barongarook. For several years afterwards, grand Sunday School Anniversary celebrations were held, attracting hundreds of people to join in the festivities.
David and Caroline were always involved in the organisation and running of these celebrations, helping to transport the guests up treacherous Simons Hill, organising activities and participating in the entertainment.
The resilient pioneering families regularly endured rabbit and grasshopper plagues and challenging extremes of weather. Orchards and vegetable gardens were planted and then replanted after devastation through droughts or damaging storms.
There were difficult winters where incessant rain caused the roads to be impassable. The swollen Barongarook Creek sometimes became hazardous. In 1883, one of David’s children was fortunate to escape drowning when, trying to cross the creek, he fell in and was swept downstream by the rushing water.
Summers presented the constant danger of bushfires, lack of water and damage from storms. In 1894, there was a violent electric storm which brought lightening, wind and torrential rain. Hail was reported to have been the size of pigeon’s eggs and totally destroyed David’s vegetable garden. Branches and bark were torn from trees.
David and Caroline were fortunate to raise all of their twelve children to adulthood without the tragedy of the death through sickness or disease which befell so many families. When David died in 1902, the farm had expanded to 155 acres which he lovingly bequeathed to his ‘dear wife Caroline’. Caroline continued to live on the farm with her son Henry until her death six years later. David and Caroline are buried together in the Colac cemetery.
Photos used by kind permission of the Colac & District Family History Group