The Littlewell mob in Western Australia’s mid-west are on the trail of realising a dream.
Seven years after setting out to preserve the old Littlewell reserve where they and family members grew up, it is set to open as a heritage precinct and walking trail by the end of the year.
The Littlewell reserve sits on the outskirts of Mingenew, a town nearly 400km north of Perth and about 100km south-east of the coastal city of Geraldton.
A 500m walking trail that incorporates the reserve’s history and the stories of those who lived there could open before Christmas.
Wattandee elder Thomas Cameron, who grew up at Littlewell, says the four hectare reserve — which operated from 1898 until 1972 — was originally named the Mingenew Aboriginal Reserve, but residents called it by another name.
“We called it Littlewell because prior to having two-bedroom houses built by Native Welfare at the time, we lived in humpies and the well supplied people who lived on the reserve at the time,” Mr Cameron, 63, said.
“Then it came about and we called it the Littlewell then. So we got tagged with that name and we talk of Littlewell and know and relate to where we come from in discussion with each other.
“It means a lot to us. Many of our elders have passed on and I’ve sat with them and asked them for some advice in regards to what we need to do with the reserve.”
Mr Cameron said the camp was originally set up when many Aboriginal men supported their families by working on nearby farms. They lived on the edge of town in houses they made from materials they found.
The camp was formally turned into an Aboriginal Camping Reserve by the WA government in 1938, and later provided with running water, a laundry, toilets and simple houses.
Several years ago the Littlewell mob, through Mr Cameron and his fellow Wattandee and Littlewell elders Reg Brockman and Michael “Buddy” Edwards, began working with the Mingenew shire council, which has title on the land.
Together they came up with plans for the heritage trail and an oral history project with the help of a grant from Lotterywest.
“We can see light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still working to fine-tune the signage,” Mr Cameron said. “When we have finished with this, we’d like to be there when the shire do the works on it — and leave a legacy behind that will be there for the future generations to enjoy it.”
A great grandfather, Mr Cameron said the site was important to hundreds of people who had lived there and their descendants. He hoped tourists and other visitors would be interested in the reserve’s history. Guided tours may be held.
“I’m a great grandfather now and I’ve taken my grandson back there to country and told him this is the little well, this is where we grew up and where we learned to work and we learned to corroboree and all that,” Mr Cameron said.
“It’s important to our children and their children to give them a better understanding and concept of how we lived and how life was back in the reserve days.”
The eldest of 14 children, Mr Cameron said his two youngest brothers were emotional when he took them back to Littlewell. They were taken away by welfare authorities at the age of one and two and placed with non-Indigenous foster families.
“It gives them some closure to know where they came from,” he said.
His memories of the reserve and the seven homes that sat in a semi-circle with one in the middle are still vivid.
“We were a close knit family,” he said. “We were very close-bonded. We never lived the life that the Native Welfare wanted us to live, but we lived the life where we had our family all around us. That was very rewarding for us.
“My memories of my grandfather, when I was eight years old, he passed on then, but I still have vivid memories of my grandfather.
“I’ve never seen my mother’s mother. She passed away when Mum was a child, but having my grandfather around on my mother’s side was rewarding for the time I spent with him.
“Everybody worked. There was no dole. No unemployment. If you didn’t work you didn’t put food on the table for your family. Memories of my uncles and aunties – we bartered and we shared, with tea, sugar, flour and meat.
“There were the ration days where you’d have to ring up to Geraldton and get a ration order from the welfare to get food.
“That made me the person I am today in regards to the lifestyle I lived back on the reserve days.”
Mr Cameron said he was pleased the council had been supportive of the project.
“I told them I left here in 1971,” he said. “I went to Moora to live because of my marriage and my job but I never left the Mingenew reserve.
“They couldn’t work out what I meant. I said, ‘My spirit was still back here’.
“When I got to Geraldton, I talked to people and many of them come from the reserve, and the next generation, we talk about Littlewell and how our spirit is still here. I’m glad the council could see where I was coming from and my passion for it.”
Last month the Littlewell and Wattandee people did a connection to country covering Depo and Mingenew Hill and the Mingenew Aboriginal Reserve.