That's the Spirit: Collie CWA Day Branch - Collie NSW
In just five years’ time, the day branch of the Collie CWA will rack up a century of service to its community – no mean feat given the fluid nature of the region’s fortunes and the changing nature of the bush over the past 100 years. The still fiercely feisty cohort says these days their get-togethers are more about staying connected than being agents for change, a baton they’re carefully and gradually handing over to their mentees in the “younger” brigade of the newly-formed Collie evening branch. Jen Cowley went along for morning tea with the spirited bunch for a great history lesson and some cheeky banter… with not a scone in sight.
Editor's note: This interview was conducted with the whole group – no individual member’s comments are singled out in the transcript. The group answered the questions collectively, with Helen Murray (current secretary of the Collie CWA) agreeing to be the conduit for communication with the That’s the Spirit project. All participants in the group were aware of the purpose of the discussion and that it was being recorded.
These are the answers of individuals within the collective – none of the comments are attributed to any particular person in the group.
Jen: I see from your honour roll here in the hall that the Collie CWA has been going since 1925. That’s quite a responsibility to hold in continuing to carry this legacy.
Well, most of us have forebears, or our family forebears, who were the founding members so there is a great history.
This hall has great sentimental value, but there’s an interesting story because the building of the hall caused a bit of a rift in the village.
Jen: Oh, do tell…
Some bright spark said it was a memorial to the local boys who were killed in the First World War and so they felt that to have gatherings here was like dancing on those dead boys’ graves. It’s a bit of a long bow to draw, but that’s how some felt.
There is a memorial built down there in the corner of what used to be the school grounds, but the CWA women raised the money and they were pretty stubborn back then too (laughter)!
Collie CWA Day Branch, Collie NSW
Jen: Nice to know some things don’t change, then?
Well, you know there are lots of different versions of what CWA stands for (laughter)!
But yes, they raised the funds and built the hall and while they didn’t have enough money to put the supper room or kitchen on or to line the building, they used it a lot for community events. They had dances most weekends, they played cards, all the locals had their meetings here.
That’s still so much a part of what CWA is in a community like this – getting everyone together. The CWA was started specifically for country women, and their children, to try to get them all together.
Back in those days (when the organisation started) it wasn’t always easy to get people together, but you came in a horse and sulky or you rode a horse – we didn’t always have the comfort of cars.
Jen: So given your history, and that you’re only five years away from celebrating your centenary, do you feel a weight of responsibility?
Not so much now that we have a wonderful band of young ones who have stepped up (and started an evening branch) so that has made us feel more comfortable in keeping the hall going and keeping the community going.
We feel sure these women will carry on where we left off, because let’s face it, most of us are not exactly spring chickens anymore (laughs).
That’s were a lot of other CWA branches have just faded away, because there haven’t been the younger ones coming through.
Also, a lot of people no longer want to take on the roles of office or various positions. A lot of things have to be done by computer now, and some of the older ones don’t even have a computer.
Some have computers but no service or signal, so they can only use a computer when they go to town. I don’t have the internet where I live, for instance.
Just like we took the baton from the older ones, we’ll hand it on to the younger women. Eventually (laughs) – not just yet!
Jen: What makes you all proud of being part of the CWA? What drives you?
Helping the community.
Not only our own community here, though. I’m really proud of what the CWA does for the wider community. Look at all that money that came through during the drought, the CWA didn’t charge any administrative fee like a lot of other organisations.
The CWA is renowned for giving every single (donated) cent to where it was intended.
A lot of community people don’t understand exactly how much we do, and I’m proud of how much we do. We’re not just about meetings.
We have a thirst for learning. We have a country of study every year, where we learn all about another country and its culture and so forth. We study flora and fauna. We make sure we’re learning about things outside our own back yard.
Collie CWA Day Branch, Collie NSW
I also really like all the handicrafts we do and the cookery. But the main thing is to get together. That’s really important.
It’s particularly important for some of our members who might otherwise be quite isolated. That was the idea of it in the beginning, and it’s still the case.
Jen: What are some of the things you’ve collectively done for Collie?
I haven’t been here all that long, so I don’t know. I’m local, but I’m new to the CWA.
Jen: From a “rookie” perspective, what brought you to the CWA fold?
Just the idea of being able to help out in the community, to be involved. It’s nice to be able to do things for anyone who needs help. Someone might be sick and need their washing done, for instance, and that’s something we would help out with. I like doing that sort of thing.
Jen: Why is it important for people to step up in the community, not just with CWA?
What person who lives in the bush isn’t generous with their time?
That’s right. Especially when we retire. We want to give back, but we also want to stay involved.
I love the fellowship of being a part of the Collie community. I feel like there’s a support network here.
That sense of support nearly vanished when we lost our proper post office, that was a real disappointment. But then we all got together and decided to have the pub as our official post office (laughter).
Jen: So the official address of the Collie CWA is care of the pub? That’s gold.
(Laughter) Well, I guess. That’s where we collect our mail, anyway.
In a small community like this, people really care about you. People get to know if you need help.
The population has dwindled, I suppose, and that makes it a bit harder. The farmers aren’t employing as many people as they used to any more. Back in the day, the farm workers lived in the village, but when that employment started to dwindle and families moved away, the population obviously diminished. That’s meant we don’t have the services we used to.
It also means we have to work hard to keep the services we do have.
The shearing industry has changed a lot too, and that’s meant the loss of quite a few families because they’re no longer employed in the shearing industry. Everything’s changed, to be honest.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions that people might have about life in the bush?
I don’t think city people have any idea of how friendly people are, or how good we are at keeping in touch and staying connected with each other. Half the time, city people don’t even know the people who are living next door.
Country people keep in touch much better, even if it’s third hand through a network – you mightn’t necessarily talk to a person face to face for a while, but someone in the community is keeping in contact, and keeping an eye out and will let you know if you’re needed.
It’s a bush telegraph kind of thing. People know who’s in trouble, and help is readily at hand, even if it’s only a phone call.
You couldn’t be sick or in trouble in this community and no-one know what’s going on or that you could do with a hand. That’s not gossip, that’s about caring.
The badge of Margaret Stewart, a stalwart of the Collie CWA Day Branch.
Jen: What do you think is the future for a place like Collie?
I think our small towns will continue to shrink. You can’t even buy a pair of underpants in Gilgandra now, unless you go to the paper shop! (Laughter)
Really? You can buy undies at the paper-shop?
Or at the CRT store – you can buy men’s undies there. They actually have ladies’ undies too – those ones for tradie ladies! They have bras too (laughter).
But seriously, we had a school here with two teachers at one stage, but we lost that. And we had three churches. We only have one now. One got washed away in the 1955 floods. One was sold as a house.
Families used to have three or four children – now they have one or two.
But there are young people coming back, and they’re having families. When the school closed, there wasn’t a young family in the district. There were some young people but not families.
That’s changing now, and now we have a lovely group of young families. We have a great service called the Bush Mobile (mobile play group and early childcare) and they meet here at the Collie CWA hall. People come from miles around.
This hall has been a wonderful thing for the community. It’s been a hub for all kinds of things, not just social events, but training courses, first aid and computer courses, farm groups have met here, the Lions Club, church groups. It brings people from all over the place.
I think there’s a growing faith in the rural industries now – farming has changed again.
A lot of young people are coming back to family farms now. They’ve gone away for their education, and now they’re coming back. They feel they belong here. Either it’s their calling (farming) or they’re basing themselves here. We have doctors and nurses and all kinds of trades and professions who have come from here or who are connected to Collie.
If you’re not family, you’re connected in some way in Collie. That’s sometimes a good thing, not always! (Laughs).
Jen: But connections are an important part of community aren’t they?
Oh, absolutely! You can always rely on those connections and friendships.
That’s one of the main reasons we get together every month, is for that friendship and companionship, and to have a yarn. Now that we’re older, we don’t necessarily always do all the country of study stuff or the handicrafts, but we come together for the fellowship.
We’ve all been there and done all those other things, but now it’s more about having a meeting to get together, have a cuppa and a good chat. A social outing. That’s better for us now than trying to keep up with all the other things we used to do.
Although if there’s a function and we have to do the catering, we do and it’s funny because we don’t really organise it but no two people ever bring the same thing. We put on a pretty good spread, though (laughs).
Jen: What would you like people to know about the CWA that they may not already?
People have the idea that all the money we raise goes to head office. That’s not right. The only money we have to send to head office is our membership fees. Then, come the end of the financial year, if we have a few extra dollars in the bank, we can send funds to top up the wider CWA programs.
The other thing people think is that all we do is gossip, that we sit around eating scones and drinking tea and gossiping. I mean, we do those things, but we do lots of other things as well!
The CWA has really been a force for change in the bush since it began. It has a strong voice in government, and government stands up and listens to the CWA. And it’s at their peril if they don’t.
The CWA actually gets results for the bush.
There are all kinds of names that people call us based on the letters “CWA” – the Chin Waggers Association, the Cranky Women’s Association, Chicks With Attitude… although that last one is okay, we’ll wear that one with pride!
Jen: I think that’s a badge of honour, for sure! What would you say to encourage people to join the CWA in their own community?
I’d say, “Come to a meeting and listen to what kinds of things we’re involved with.” Find out what we really do – international study, regional lobbying, pushing for services in our communities, helping people in our communities… all sorts of things besides making scones and gossiping.
We do support community, and the CWA has been a really strong network for keeping people connected.
The CWA has a real reputation for integrity, and is often the first port of call for when something needs to be done.
Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Collie CWA Day Branch, Collie NSW