Opening Night

The Dartmoor and District Coach-House Museum opened on 26 January 1993. Michael’s speech from that night is below:

Welcome everyone here tonight, to the opening of the Dartmoor Coach-house, District Museum, Arts and Crafts.
We have no dignitaries or experts to speak, so I will have to do a ‘Campbell McComas’. He is a renowned impersonator who makes a lot of money from doing functions like this. He adapts a character suitable to the occasion and waxes on in a seemingly learned manner, fooling everyone along the way. Since I am no expert on history and like a good yarn, I can fill in.
I plan to outline our intentions for the venture, invite your participation and deliver some thanks before the official opening.
When travelling in the USA several years ago I visited a Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. There I visited a museum that housed the entire culture of the tribe; it contained its laws, songs and poems, its folk medicine remedies, religious tenets, its future as told by tribal prophets and naturally its history.
The difference with this museum is that it was alive – it was one person called the ‘Singer’ of the tribe but effectively: judge, doctor, historian, guru, poet and philosopher. Like most ancient clan cultures, their history and social structure was passed down orally. The sad thing was that Bernard, the ‘Singer’ was having difficulty in interesting someone in the next generation to take on the task.
Our culture should not suffer that fate – we have a written language to document our deeds, and we can build permanent structures to contain our icons. And yet our district has been more like that Mescalero tribe; despite the arduous work of people like Lyle Spencer, John Emerson and many other family historians, we have no broad reference text of our history, and until now have had no place to rest the bits and pieces that collectively make ‘us’.
We have an excellent opportunity to all become ‘singers’. Especially as about half of our 150 year old European history is still within living memory. Ruby Bull recalls her schooling at North Dartmoor in 1914, Agnes Cain watched the railway line being built in the same year, and Ormond Jones has a store of stories… and it is said that riches cannot be taken with you..!
Consequently one of the goals of opening this facility is to record oral histories. Now there is some dismissal of oral history by academics, but you have to start somewhere. Besides it is accepted that the truth should never get in the way of a good story; like this one – Chrysler Airflow of Sam Malseed, with Cal Spencer, Ted Spencer and O.G. Pettit, editor of ‘Portland Guardian’. O.G. pocketed some cheques, Cal said the Airflow ‘drove as smooth as a piece of silk’ like Bradman who made 270 odd runs. It took a half day to get there but more like 2-3 to get home. Now even if the time taken to return has increased over the years, one fact that I can verify for the academics is this: the boys left Dartmoor in 1936 and didn’t come home till 1937! The test started on New Year’s Day.
And that’s another point about local oral history – its relationship to events of national significance. Name another event… e.g. Gallipoli, 1956 Olympics and the advent of television. Mrs Agnes Cain recalls the First WWI letters of Cephas Haines being read by his brother Hamlet from Sandy Waterholes. Cephas survived the landing and is quoted as writing ‘that the charge up the hill would be passed on from generation to generation’! I haven’t the letters to verify the wording, but there was nothing amiss with the prophesy! And as for the ’56 Olympics, we had a few local Olympians including Ian McIntyre and Tom Kerr. Now what was their event again…?
Another intention is to catalogue, copy and identify photographs. Whilst costly and time-consuming, there is nothing as frustrating as a picture with a few of its thousand words missing. Conversely, there are few things as satisfying for an amateur Sherlock Holmes as putting a name to a face. Harold Cowland recently gave me the names of the bullocks in his father’s team pictured bringing piles from Drik Drik for the railway bridge in 1914. A more difficult task was identifying wedding guests in a 1904 photo. I thought I recognised some from another photo I’d seen, and I thought that the bridal party would have known them. So after eventually tracking down the birthday book of the 1904 bride, I found that it contained the birthdays of the family from the other photo. A match!
There are already some photos here though that require such attention or luck, e.g. 1901 Dartmoor Rifles, Conoles Store ~1900…
Preserving memorabilia is our third goal in the museum. Kids tomorrow will hardly have a use for kerosene let alone recognise an Aladdin lamp or understand that the kerosene fridge doesn’t need a powerpoint. And even we older kids of today are past knowing our drays from our wagons, gigs from our carts and those buggy carriages.
And the great thing about memorabilia is that it isn’t lonely junk when the right story is woven through it. What would that side door step from Conole’s Store (beside Waplings ~1880-1930) have to do with wearing sunscreen? Diary entries of Margaret Conole’s who died from tuberculosis, describe Dr Sleeman, whose practice was from Port Fairy to the border, specialised in T.B. treatment – ‘fresh air and exercise’. Later it was with ultra violet lights leading to bronzed appearances and temporary remission leading to the false notion of a healthy tan. The highest rate of skin cancer in the world may be a legacy of that door-step!
Whilst on memorabilia, it should be explained that items can be displayed for any length of time and remain your property. Your intentions will be noted and receipts issued.
Similarly with arts and crafts: the goods will remain yours and inventories taken. Pricing will be up to you, as we do not favour a consignment method of selling; rather a monthly fee to cover the fixed costs of insurance and rates.
Often we underestimate our talents, but the quality of work here tonight is first class, something which the producers can be justifiably proud of.
Now to the thanks and opening…
To Mum and Dad for babysitting and not mentioning that the farmwork was being neglected.
For Tim Day from Adelaide for inspiration and expertise in altering the old bank building.
To Mrs Agnes Cain, Graham Lawrence, Lyle Spencer and my Auntie Pat for getting me involved in the fascination of history.
To Karen and Tracy Bull and the various tradespeople who have helped.
To Elly for paying for the work and putting up with late evening and dirty house.
To Billy – the 7th Generation of Greenhams to live in this town. To him the honour of opening the building, may he appreciate the past and become a ‘Singer’ in the future.


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