Merv Bennett is a Shoalhaven legend.
The three-time equestrian Olympian and his horse Regal Reign from the South Coast of NSW, are rightfully in the Shoalhaven Hall of Sporting Fame.
Not only has he taken part and witnessed sporting events around the world, closer to home he has also seen immense changes in the way we live and also the way we farm.
As part of National Agricultural Day, Mr Bennett, 76, along with his son John, the current ringmaster at the Sydney Royal, took Nowra Show Society members and guests on a fascinating journey from growing up on the Shoalhaven floodplain at Brundee and the evolution of farming he has witnessed.
From working the land with horses through to the introduction of tractors, the "wonderful invention" of milking machines through to the modern day machinery worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was a fascinating journey.
"Dad has seen enormous changes in agriculture in particular in his lifetime - it's bewildering for me to think in 1945 Dad, as a boy, was ploughing behind a horse on the farm at Brundee," John said.
"A few weeks ago we had the Henry family's massive equipment on our place at Worrigee making silage - what an amazing change."
And in late 2019 and early 2020, the then 75-year-old spent weeks with family members using that modern day machinery to battle the South Coast fires which threatened their property at Worrigee.
Merv and the crew spent weeks slashing tall reeds growing in the peat bog and extinguishing smouldering fires and establishing containment lines.
"Our farm at Brundee, known as Berellan was 56 acres with 60 acres of swamp," Merv said.
He lived on the farm with his parents Os and Ivy, and brother Terrence.
"It was all part of the original Dr William Elyard land grant and later subdivision. Every farm was the same size," he said.
"Geoff Herne, who passed away in 2020, is a direct descendant of Dr Elyard and he almost purchased back just about everything Elyard had in the 1800s.
"What we had was very small scale compared to today's farmers.
"Today, the machinery in particular is so big.
"Back then planting was done with a draught horse and we had horse-drawn mowers to make hay, and then used horses again to get the hay in.
"We had horse-drawn hay rakes and used things called drays, or slides, They usually just had timber down each side which slid across the ground behind the horse. We actually had one that had wheels on it.
"It wasn't until one day I was fencing a five-acre block and I was getting sick of walking down and putting the barbed wire on that I thought about how many miles did a man walk to plough with a mouldboard single furrow going up and down, up and down?
"And then when you finished you had to roll it - today we've got nice steel rollers - a roller back then was a big log that had a metal band with a spike out of it which was the axel. You built a frame around it and that's what you rolled the paddock with behind the horse.
"Everything was done with horses - we had nothing else."
His grandfather Charles Bennett, still had a farm in Ferry Lane, Nowra, at Greenhills and they would also help over there.
"Every year we had to take the draught horse with the mouldboard plough into Nowra as he always grew a paddock of peas," Merv said.
"We used to get Cobber Birch to come and ride the horse from the farm into Nowra - that's how life was."
Within a few years things progressed and a neighbour Mac Watts got a tractor.
"It had steel wheels, with big spikes on the rear wheels," Merv said.
"We contracted Mac to come and plough the paddock.
"He'd come down Greenwell Point Road, from a few properties up, past Mrs Howletts to our place and away we would go.
"Then of all the things to go wrong, Greenwell Point Road was made into bloody bitumen - we couldn't get the tractor across the road - its big steel wheels with spikes would just wreck everything.
"The first year we put boards down to get the tractor across the road."
It could then travel down the grass edge, with boards again put across the road to get him into the Bennett's property.
"And we'd do it all again for the return journey," he said.
"That was just no good.
"The next year Merv Myers, you all wonder where Les Myers (local agricultural machinery supplier) gets it, he was pretty inventive and his Howard Rotary Hoe had rubber tyres - so for the next few years he did all the rotary hoeing."
Then another neighbour, Bernie Apperley, bought himself a McCormick tractor.
"It had a three furrow mouldboard plough - it was flash," Merv joked.
"In 1954, I remember the year as I was 10-years-old, we bought a brand new David Brown tractor.
"We bought it through the local dealer Leila Wheeler. He had a shop right next to Murphy's Tyres in North Street."
When it came for the tractor's first service Mr Bennett got another adventure.
"Dad said 'right you can drive it into town on your way to school?'," he said.
"I was 10 - I had to leave the tractor outside the Masonic Lodge and Leila would come down and pick it up and have it back there after school and I could drive it home again.
"The only thing that went wrong was it was an old petrol/kero machine. You started it up on petrol and then turned it over to kero to go.
"I forgot to turn the petrol over and got down to Millbank Road and it stopped.
"Someone was watching and said they 'saw this little kid on the tractor and it broke down - he jumped out' - I remembered I hadn't turned the switch - 'got back on and off he went'.
"You could start them on kero while they were still hot."
Eventually the family bought a Ferguson tractor.
"That was pretty modern for Dad - we still have it and the grandchildren have got it running - they hope to do it up and drive it at the Nowra Show," he said.
He said small farms like this needed to supplement their incomes.
"Mum always had chooks," he said.
"We had a big association with this place (the Nowra Showground) and back then the whole Added Area was a camping ground, mainly for the navy.
"We came there every week with eggs and went up and down the rows of caravans selling them.
"Many of those people all became lifelong friends and a lot progressed through the ranks. We finished up knowing captains, Commander Air, Commander Engineer etc.
"The other thing that supplemented our income was Dad growing millet.
"Ray Morison had a reaper and binder that was pretty flash. It would put string around it, making a bundle which we'd pile up.
"Dad invented himself a machine out of the old milking machine pulleys and belts that allowed us to knock the grain out of the plants, which we then sold to Ray Bishop."
Mr Bennett's grandfather was one of the first local farmers to install modern milking machines, doing away with the arduous hand milking task.
An article in the Nowra News Leader on Friday, November 18, 1921 announced the fact.
...... Mr CJ Bennett, of the Greenhills Farm Nowra has decided to install milking machines.
He's gone for a three cow plant of the most modern ilk, New Zealand of which Mr CD Fraser is the local agent
This will make a second plant of its kind installed in the district so probably many other farmers will follow suit.
Now they will be able to witness one in operation close at hand.
No doubt the rural wage will be no small factor in hastening decisions.
The family has a photo of Merv's father Os using those same machines in the 1950s.
Mr Bennett can recall his grandfather telling stories of poling the barges up the Crookhaven River and Crookhaven Creek to collect the milk from the various farms.
"That was one of his early jobs," he said.
"Many years ago our best friends were the Borrowdales on Mayfield Road, where the Cochranes have got their farm now.
"We were usually there every Friday night - Bob and Ann, brother and sister, and Gil another brother was there - a different Gil also worked the farm.
"Back in those days there was still the old shed there where they hand milked over against the creek. You could imagine the barges came up the creek and picked the milk up.
"I used to argue with the late Frank Caffery, because out at Worrigee where our daughter Jodie lives at Oakbanks, there's a thing called the milk hole.
"Frank maintained there had never been milk taken from out there.
"After Dad passed we found the plan with the wharf on the end of Boston Road. That was connected to Greenwell Point via the Crookhaven River and the creek that goes up behind Cochrane's farm now (it's only about a kilometre from where the Worrigee lawn cemetery is today).
"Just shows how great a difference there is in the waterways from then to now."
Other family references include at a South Coast Agricultural meeting in the early 1900s talking about district exhibits putting together for the Easter Show and how Mr CB Bennett had a "first class press and would undertake to press the hay uniformly for the Group 5 shows."
Horsepower's role in Nowra Showground
Interestingly horsepower also led to the beautifully level surface of the Nowra Showground, which we all enjoy today.
"In the early stages the Nowra Showground was sloped down towards the tennis court area," John said.
"The pavilion was on the top of the hill - it wasn't level as it is today.
"At the turn of the 1900s, the whole arena area had to be filled to make it level like it is now - it was the farmers from Brundee and all the area who put the dirt on back of the slide or cart (there was even a modern tip truck - pipes in Merv) or whatever and dragged it up behind the horses.
"How much dirt they must have carried, day after day."
Showing a horse's value
Another example of the horses' value was demonstrated through the success of Charles Bennett's horse Greenhills, who went on to have a long and successful trotting career - as well as being the "work horse" around the farm.
Greenhills became quite a famous horse locally and did very well at the local shows.
"People say what is the relevance of horses in show societies," John said.
"They were an integral part of farming back then. It wasn't only the draught horse that did the work.
"Back on great grandfather's farm in 1919-1920 it was Greenhills who did the work.
"A newspaper report even outlined Greenhills' rise to trotting success.
"Someone came past one day who had a trotting horse and dad's grandfather was in the paddock working with Greenhills on the plough.
"The chap asked if there was somewhere he could train his horse as there was a race at Greenwell Point on Boxing Day he wanted to win.
"Charles apparently said 'Yep no probs' and took Greenhills out of the plough and showed the fellow where he could train.
"The chap said 'goodness me, that horse of yours can trot a bit, she'd be okay, perhaps you should train her for the race.
"So it was decided to train Greenhills for the race and a newspaper gave an account of the few days of training she had prior to the race."
....In the morning Greenhills ran in the cows, carried the owner to the maize field, hauled the plough until lunchtime. In the afternoon, the same tasks with two or three rounds of the track to show that the owner/trainer had not lost sight of the end in view - the trot at Greenwell Point.
...The next day was Christmas eve and it was a busy day for Mr Bennett - he didn't have much time to attend the racetrack part preparation but to prevent the accumulation of the fat inside Greenhills ("It seemed to be big concern for her," John said) was given gentle exercise during the day, which included yarding the cows, hauling 10 bags of maize over Poolleys Hill to the piggery, being light she made great time home but the police could not take any action because she did not get out of a trot. Changed to a saddle Mr Bennett did a round of the council chambers, the fire station and the banks and ended by inviting a friend from town, who he met in Junction Street, to hop on behind and come to lunch. As he was in a bit of a hurry Greenhills then put the rest of the day in the scuffler, a tool /device used for hilling the corn, taking out the middles. Not wanting any leftovers they worked late into the night, doing the track work by the light of the moon.
....The next day was Christmas day. Greenhills had the day off - so all she did was run in the dairy herd, run out a few dry cows to the back paddock, cleared the paddock of a few straying stock and took the family out in the buggy to church in the afternoon.
.... On Boxing Day - she hauled the family to Greenwell Point to the races and then went from the shafts to the trotting gear. Starting from a mark nearer the back than the limit and vigorously ridden by her owner she finished 12 furlongs well in front with the riders face a splendid replica of a Sunburst of Erin."
"That's just what horses did in those days," John said.
"How useful horses were and vital to families."
Greenhills went on to have great success over many years but unfortunately she never produced any progeny.
"They sent her away to get her in foal but she fretted so much when she was away from home they had to send her back," John said.
"Such was her popularity that when she died in September 1926, she was even given an obituary in the newspaper."
It is interesting how history often repeats itself.
A wrap up of the 1919 Nowra Show shows society members facing many of the same issues those in 2020/2021 are.
The following is a report from the Nowra Leader in February 1919.
..... The 45th annual show of the Shoalhaven A and H Association was held on Wednesday and Thursday under particularly adverse circumstances.
Not only were the weather conditions altogether unfavourable but the pneumonic influenza plague scare in Sydney and the country had become worse and worse.
For some time it was thought the show would be postponed as was being done generally in various parts of the country and rumours to that effect were persistently circulated but the committee were averse to taking any such action unless actually compelled to do so by the presence of a flu case in their midst.
They realised with the restriction imposed upon railway travelling and the compulsory wearing of masks and the other difficulties that were in their way they were up against it but they considered it a duty thrust upon them to keep faith with members, exhibitors and the public and carry the annual function through.
Though they would have had ample justification for abandoning the fixture all together.
The results have shown the committees' determination to rise superior to all adverse conditions meant that a full measure of success.
And although the show was not up to the high standard of other exhibitions under the auspices of the society it was a phenomenal record under the circumstances.
The report also noted that the "official opening was performed by the Governor" but there was "enormous sadness" within the community "because so many families were mourning the losses of their sons in the war".
Merv went onto to compete at three Olympics
Of course, Merv went on to continue the family's strong connection with horses.
He won a bronze medal in team eventing at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, competed at the 1980 Fontainebleau alternative Olympics to Moscow (bronze), 1982 Luhmuhlen World Championships and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (fifth).
All on the one horse Regal Reign.
The 1976 Montreal bronze medal winning eventing team which also included Bill Roycroft and Version, Wayne Roycroft and Laurenson and Denis Pigott and Hillstead was inducted into the Equestrian Hall of Fame in 2013.
In recent years Merv has taken up another of his loves - training race horses with good success.
And that family connection with horses continues today with the next generations of the family.
A humble, quiet man who never big notes his many considerable achievements, he has also been awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for service to equestrian sports as a competitor, coach and event coordinator.