The Renmark district was part of a large pastoral empire owned by brothers John and Robert Robertson since the 1860’s. During the 19th century the indigenous Erawirung people co-existed peacefully with the white pastoralists. The river provided fish, mussels, yabbies, ducks and reeds for weaving while the land supported game and was forested with river gums for canoe making and carrying vessels. The Erawirung territory encompassed a chert quarry at Spring Cart Gully. Chert was highly prized for cutting and scraping tools as well as spearheads and was traded with other indigenous peoples from the lower Murray regions. By 1900 the Erawirung had ceased to occupy their territorial lands and today the district has many former burial sites, shell middens and canoe trees.
On 14 February 1887 Canadian brothers George and William Chaffey signed an agreement undertaking to establish an irrigation colony on part of the Robertson brothers Bookmark Station leasehold. Younger brother Charles was appointed to be in charge of the Renmark settlement. Surveys of the Renmark township began in September 1887; it featured a wide boulevard entrance and numbered streets after the American style of street naming.
The Chaffey’s had produced a promotional book (Red Book) in 1888 to entice investors and new settlers and this was sold by an agent in London and available in Australian capital cities. It painted a picture of adventure and eventual prosperity in the fruit growing industry, but failed to mention the isolation of the colony and lack of transport, though there was the added ‘inducement’ of being a temperance colony.
The Chaffey office was the first stone building constructed in an otherwise tent and hessian town, and has housed the Renmark Irrigation Trust since 1893, when the Chaffey enterprise failed due to a bank collapse followed by a depression.
The concept of a temperance colony was a failure ,there was a flourishing sly grog trade for ten years before a hotel license was granted to the original temperance house in 1897 and renamed the Renmark Hotel. It was administered by a trust and became the first community owned hotel in the British Empire; profits continue to be allocated to the community to this day.
The settlement or fruit growing areas expanded as channel construction took water further afield. Today all water is delivered by underground piping to members by the Renmark Irrigation Trust. Deciduous fruit, citrus and vines were the original plantings and sometimes had to be replanted when soil types were found to be unsuitable for particular varieties.
Fruit packing houses were constructed along the town wharf areas where dried fruit was loaded onto barges then towed by paddle steamer to Morgan to be despatched by train to the Adelaide markets. Co-operative business ventures saw Renmark grow and provide stability to the fruit growing industry.
Disasters which have wreaked havoc with fruit growers include droughts, dust and hail storms, insect plagues and floods. The 20th century saw three major floods; 1917, 1931 and the biggest in 1956 with many high water events in between. The 1956 flood was a catalyst for change; roads and bridges had to be reinstated, there was a re-organisation and modernisation of the irrigation infrastructure, in addition to restoration of public buildings. Flooded fruit blocks and those affected by seepage had to be replanted causing hardship and it was some years before profitable harvests returned.
It has been many decades since the local emphasis was on the family ‘fruit salad’ block. While deciduous fruits are still grown, the district’s major crops are citrus, wine grapes and almonds. Many growers have sought profitable niche markets for figs, cumquats, olives, persimmons, avocados, walnuts, pistachios and bush produce.
The Renmark Paringa Council vigorously promotes tourism and the original Chaffey brothers’ provision for the riverside to be for public recreation is evident in Renmark. River walks and cycling paths, an historic paddle steamer, history plaques and memorials, lawns to host special events and regular festivals ensure our riverside is always an interesting and vibrant part of Renmark.