'Mira will always love the land': Reflections on the life of 94 year-old wool classer and farmer Mira Galvin

By Catherine Keneley

Catherine Keneley is a postgraduate student completing a Master of Cultural Heritage at Deakin University. Catherine has a passion for history and culture. She is currently a volunteer at Melbourne Museum and has been working on the story of Mira Galvin.

For over 60 years Mira Galvin worked as a wool classer and a farmer at her family's property, "Coralya", near Holbrook NSW. In this blog Melbourne Museum volunteer Catherine Keneley reflects on Mira's career as a wool classer, her love of nature and her experiences of living and working on the land. 

Ever since I was a kid I have always had a great interest in history, culture and museums. Now as a young woman studying history and cultural heritage I have been able to develop an understanding of the value of history in recording the past, and in influencing beliefs and values in contemporary societies.

 Catherine Keneley working at her desk at Melbourne Museum.

Catherine Keneley working at her desk at Melbourne Museum.

 Catherine Keneley holding the letter that was posted in to Melbourne Museum from Aileen Spangaro. 

Catherine Keneley holding the letter that was posted in to Melbourne Museum from Aileen Spangaro. 

I am currently a volunteer at the Melbourne Museum.  Through my role with the Invisible Farmer Project with curators Liza Dale-Hallett and Catherine Forge I have discovered a wealth of stories about the lives of women living and working on the land. The everyday experiences of these incredible and resilient women add a human layer to our interpretation of the history of Australian farming and of life on the land. Sharing their stories is so important in highlighting their value as part of our national heritage. These stories also help wider society and people of all ages to understand the vital role women play in Australian farming and agriculture. 

6 months ago at Melbourne Museum I received a package filled with a treasure trove of photos and articles that had been posted into the museum by Aileen Spangaro about her sister Mira. This package arrived in an A4 envelope and contained a plethora of images and a beautifully hand-written letter. I soon came to learn it was an incredible story about Mira Galvin and her career as a wool classer and a farmer.

 An array of photographs and newspaper clippings that were sent into Melbourne Museum by Aileen Spangaro

An array of photographs and newspaper clippings that were sent into Melbourne Museum by Aileen Spangaro

As I read the letter that Aileen had written and perused the photos I was amazed by Mira’s story, her role within her family and as a farmer, and the challenges she has experienced living on the land. Written correspondence and phone calls with her sister Aileen, along with researching the physical documents that were sent in to us, has all been part and parcel of this wonderful and inspiring journey of documenting Mira Galvin’s story. Like many other women living and working on the land, Mira has always done what needed to be done and has made extraordinary contributions to her family and to Australian farming.

 Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira Galvin was born on August 24, 1923 to Michael Ignatius Galvin and Winnifred Matilda ‘Minnie’ Josephine Galvin (née Parsons) at “Killarney” 20 miles outside of Holbrook (NSW). They moved to their current family home “Coralya” in 1948. The second of nine children Mira helped her mother with household chores and cared for her siblings. She studied by correspondence and had to ride 5 miles every week to post her homework to the school in Sydney.

Growing up Mira was also involved in helping her family in the shearing sheds and out on the farm. As a young woman Mira was no stranger to hard work. Milking cows, looking after livestock, ploughing the fields and planting crops were all part of daily life on the farm.

“She milked cows and did all the usual farm chores that had to be done daily”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
 Mira helping her Dad (Michael Galvin) harvesting oats, 1952. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Mira helping her Dad (Michael Galvin) harvesting oats, 1952. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

In the 1940s Mira helped her father and her siblings clear scrub land for cropping and grazing pasture. They also produced Eucalyptus oil for 5 years. The Eucalyptus oil would be extracted through a process of passing steam through the Eucalyptus leaves in a sealed tank causing the oil to vaporise. The mixture of oil and steam leaving the tank would become cooled and then  liquefied – the oil becoming separated from the water.  

 Distilling Eucalyptus oil in tanks. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

Distilling Eucalyptus oil in tanks. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro

A talented horsewoman Mira competed in many equestrian events at the local shows in Holbrook and winning best and fairest awards at polocrosse carnivals.

 Mira Galvin (middle) with her Sister Joan (right). Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (middle) with her Sister Joan (right). Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira would always enjoy spending time with her nieces and nephews during school holidays. Going on walks through the bush Mira taught them about the farm and to be “one with nature”. Mira’s nieces and nephews have fond memories of "Coralya" - fishing, horse riding, caring for baby animals and learning about nature and the bush.

 Rebecca Spangaro (left) with her sister Gabrielle (right) holding a calf, 1974. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Rebecca Spangaro (left) with her sister Gabrielle (right) holding a calf, 1974. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

They would say to their mother Aileen that their favourite memories were of visiting the farm and spending time with their Auntie Mira.

 Mira Galvin teaching her niece Rebecca Spangaro how to milk the cow, 1976. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin teaching her niece Rebecca Spangaro how to milk the cow, 1976. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Wool classer

At a young age Mira had her heart set on becoming a wool classer. When Mira was five she would help her father in the shearing sheds picking up wool and putting it into a bale while her father used hand shears to shear the sheep. Later on her father used a machine where Mira would turn the handle around and he would shear the sheep. Mira also swept the floors and was responsible for rolling and baling the fleeces. It was from her father that Mira began to learn about assessing the quality of sheep wool. While women were often not allowed to work in the wool sheds Mira’s father encouraged her to follow her passions.

“Dad always believed that you do what you like and you should be independent”
(Mira Galvin, The Land Magazine, October 30, 2003)
 Michael Galvin (Mira's Dad) at "Coralya", 1948. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Michael Galvin (Mira's Dad) at "Coralya", 1948. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Attitudes towards women’s role on the farm never affected Mira’s decision about becoming a wool classer. The shearing sheds were a place of welcoming and Mira says that she never felt disrespected by the men she worked with. Mira began her wool classing course in Holbrook after seeing an advertisement in the local newspaper. She then moved to Henty and to Wagga Wagga where she received her wool classing certificate in 1953.

 Mira Galvin receiving award for her wool classing examinations. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin receiving award for her wool classing examinations. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

The “only girl w’classer”, Mira was one of 4 other students out of 200 to pass the wool classing examinations with a distinction grade – her achievements were accredited in the local newspaper (“The Observer”).  Mira sees this as a very significant achievement in her life. Her sister Aileen remarked that, “right from the start her teacher was proud to have her in his class and the other students accepted her as one of them.” Mira’s determination and her supportive family helped her to pursue her passions and succeed in following a career as a young female wool classer.

Some of the roles that wool classers perform include: assessing the quality of sheep wool based on factors such as the breed of the sheep, grade, the length and strength of the fleece and the spinning capacity of the wool. For almost 60 years Mira Galvin was responsible for classing her family wool clip and ensuring her wool would sell at best market value.

 Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1980. Photo: supplied by  Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1980. Photo: supplied by  Aileen Spangaro.

Like many other wool classers Mira has held an important role on the farm and has been actively involved in decision-making processes surrounding the management of the family property at "Coralya".

Challenges

Mira has experienced the “best and the worst” of the challenges of living and working on the land.

Mira has experienced first-hand the challenges of gender inequality – one that many women face working on the land. Every year Mira would go to the wool sales in Albury where she would sell wool and complete a refresher wool classing course. The story follows as such:

Mira walked into the room and the teacher said, “Can I help you miss?”

Mira replied, “I am here to do the wool classing refresher course.”

“Well this is no place for a lady”, he said.

She replied, “I will be fine”, and sat down.

When it had finished she went out onto the floor to check the family clip. Almost every man in that class came up and apologised for the teacher’s behaviour and encouraged her to continue classing wool.

 Mira Galvin (right), "The Observer", 1953. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (right), "The Observer", 1953. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

The fluctuating changes of prices for livestock and wool within Australia’s agriculture industry have been difficult issues that have affected Mira’s livelihood and the viability of her farm. The stock piling of wool in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was a significant crisis for the Australian wool industry. The impact of this ongoing event hit close to home for Mira’s family resulting in the shooting of the family’s merino sheep. It was a tough day for Mira and her Mother (who was in her nineties) to watch the men take their guns and shoot the sheep, they were given a small cash incentive for each beast.

Living on the land Mira has also dealt with the harsh conditions of droughts, bushfires and diseases in livestock. On January 25, 1954 (her Mother’s birthday) Mira and her family experienced the worst fire on record. Mira’s Sister Aileen recalls the devastating impact of the fire that destroyed 100 houses and took 3 lives. The fire approached the property on 2 fronts that was divided by the Jingillie Road. Aileen along with Mira and the rest of their family vividly remember the image of the glowing 100ft wall of fire destroying everything in its path.

“It looked like a bar on an electric heater … destroying everything in its wake the shearing shed yards where the sheep and cattle were all burnt, fences, machinery”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

As the fire approached the house there was a “roaring blackness”. Pieces of burning wood sprayed sparks as they went flying through the air. Branches from the willow trees crashed into the creek. Minnie guided Mira's younger siblings up the hill through the darkness and chaos into the house.

As the fire approached the farm house Mira and Joan climbed onto the roof and saturated the house with water. They then ran up the hill beside the house dropping matches to start a fire break burning back to the approaching fire. Mira and Joan then rushed inside to escape the fury of the fire and joined their Mother, Father and 3 brothers and sisters. They held their arms around each other as the house shook and the windows rattled amidst the “roaring blackness pounding the house”. Mira and her family gazed in disbelief at the destruction caused by the fire.

 “…the hens were little black balls on the charred ground, stock lay dead and everywhere others staggered about burnt and dying”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

At the end of the day Mira’s mother sat the family down and made them all a cup of tea. The family would start over again and life would go on.

A woman of the land

Mira Galvin wears many hats - a farmer, a wool classer, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. Mira has a wealth of experience in farming and the wool industry. She is a well-respected member of her family and her local community.  

 Mira Galvin, "In a Class of Her Own", The Land, October 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin, "In a Class of Her Own", The Land, October 2003. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira has always been a quiet achiever. Always taking initiative, helping others and doing what needs to be done. In cases of emergencies Mira would be out with the local fire brigade fighting the fire alongside the men; everyone working together as a team and all totally focussed on the job at hand. After which she would rush home and help the other women prepare food and drinks for the men. 

Despite the hardships she has experienced throughout her life Mira has always been positive and resilient.  She believes,

you [have to] prepare for the worst and hope for the best”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

Mira has always done her best in taking care of her family and the farm. Like many other women on the land Mira was just doing what needed to be done.  

 Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1964. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1964. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

In 1945 there was a long drought. Mira’s father and her two brothers had gone away to drove sheep as there was no feed for the stock at the farm. It was up to Mira and her sister Joan to make sure the other animals had plenty to eat and water to drink. Mira crushed wheat and with a horse and cart carried the wheat five miles to feed 500 pigs. Mira also had to take care of her six younger siblings and look after the household as her mother went to hospital for the birth of her ninth child.

Another major drought in the 1970s led Mira and her younger brother Nicholas to drove a mob of 5000 sheep from Holbrook to the Queensland border in search of feed for the flock. Times were tough for a lot of farmers trying to get enough feed for their livestock. Each day Mira and her brother would go out and see how far away water was – this determined where they would stop to feed the sheep. They used their own feed reserves and then had to rely on the feed reserves available in the paddocks. When the rains came Mira and her brother returned back to the family property with their livestock.

Mira and her brother Nicholas then ran the family farm together.

 Mira Galvin working in the fields, "Coralya", 1965. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin working in the fields, "Coralya", 1965. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

“He ploughed all night while she ploughed all day. They planted the crops, shore the sheep and did all the never ending tasks that farmers do”.
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

In 1970 after 5 years of illness Mira’s Father died at Mercy Hospital in Albury. Mira’s Mother and Sister Joan returned from Albury. Everyone worked hard to look after the family and keep the farm going.

Over the years Mira’s wealth of knowledge, experience and skills have shone through in everything that she has done. Mira was involved in all aspects of life on the farm. She classed the wool, and ploughed and planted the crops. She always checked the paddocks and the livestock for any sign of disease or illness. She assisted with the delivery of the young lambs or calves when necessary.

 Mira Galvin (left) with her niece Rachele Spangaro (right) drenching the sheep, "Coralya", 1982. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin (left) with her niece Rachele Spangaro (right) drenching the sheep, "Coralya", 1982. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

At home Mira cooked, cleaned, washed and knitted, croched, smocked and made lovely clothes for her family, including wedding dresses for her nieces. Family members sing her praises for her cheesecakes and the best trifle they have ever eaten. Mira also enjoyed travelling. She walked to the top of Uluru at age 70.

 Mira Galvin taking care of an injured kookaburra, "Coralya", 2018. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin taking care of an injured kookaburra, "Coralya", 2018. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Now at 94 and retired Mira still enjoys living on the land, inspecting the sheep and shearing sheds and spending time with family and friends. Her family will also take Mira out with them on the farm to check the livestock and crops.

Mira loves living on the land. She enjoys the wide open space and watching the changing seasons.

Feeling the sun on her back and the wind in her face being surrounded by nature … Mira will always love the land”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
 Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1975. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin at "Coralya", 1975. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie Galvin

Likewise, Mira’s Mother Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (25-1-1900 – 27-2-2000) is another woman of the land who was important for the success and well-being of her family.

 Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin at 95 years of age, 1995. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin at 95 years of age, 1995. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie was described as the peacekeeper in the family. No shouting or misconduct was tolerated. She was a resourceful and hardworking woman who invested all her efforts into caring for her family and the home against the harsh conditions of the Australian bush and having no access to electricity, water, refrigeration or a telephone. She nursed her children through times of illness and raised her family to live in peace and with dignity.

“She was shy but strong and resourceful, cut from the same fabric as pioneer women”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)

Like her daughter Mira, Minnie Galvin also wore many hats. Minnie was the bookkeeper and oversaw the farm’s financial management. She arranged appointments and always made sure the banker got his reports. At the same time Minnie kept a nice clean house and made sure that everyone was well cared for. 

Minnie would make extraordinary meals using only a few simple ingredients. Mira and her siblings were treated to golden syrup dumplings (a family favourite), as well as rice custard and beautiful plum puddings at Christmas time. She loved being in the garden surrounded by the bush and nature and cared for all creatures.

 Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (right) at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Winnifred "Minnie" Galvin (right) at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Minnie was the one who listened quietly to all the talk about the day’s work, as the family sat down for their evening meal.  She was the “glue” that held everything together on the farm and in the home. She lived to 100 years of age and was always there for her family.

Reflections

The Invisible Farmer Project is an opportunity to share the stories of women of the land and to celebrate their contributions to their families, to their communities and to Australian farming and agriculture.

“Women on the land are the silent ones who make a huge contribution to the success of farming in Australia”
(quoted by Aileen Spangaro)
 Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin classing wool at "Coralya", 1970. Photo: supplied by Aileen Spangaro.

Mira Galvin is an extraordinary woman whose efforts have been greatly important to the success of her family. Her contributions to her family and her community, as well as to the agriculture industry reflects more broadly on the vital role women play for the well-being of their families and for the success of farming in Australia.

On a personal note I would like to thank Mira’s sister for sending this letter and for allowing me to share this incredible story about Mira. It is wonderful to learn about the stories of the amazing women who live and work on the land. I encourage others to share their stories with the Invisible Farmer Project so we can learn more about the role of women on the land and how important they are to the success of Australian farming and agriculture.