Horse-drawn history on show

A remarkable piece of horse-drawn transport history with links to the legendary Outback identity Daisy Bates has recently been donated to the Millicent National Trust Museum. All going well, volunteers will spend the coming year on a ground-up restoration job on the one-time missionary van including the painting of stirring Biblical passages on its side and rear panels.

Such travelling preachers vans are staples of Hollywood Western movies but were also evident in real-life in the European colonisation of Australia. Millicent already boasts the state’s best collection of horsedrawn vehicles with around 100 restored and un-restored examples and now it has the van used around Alice Springs a century ago by Swiss-born missionary Ernst Kramer.

Millicent National Trust branch chairman Barry Long said the rarity of a missionary van along with the possible association with Daisy Bates meant it was an important acquisition to the local collection. Mr Long said his group was indebted to donor Merriwyn Thonard who was given the missionary van as a 16th birthday gift by her parents in 1969.

“We know the R.M. Williams clothing company was very keen to get the missionary van but it has come to Millicent,” Mr Long said. He is eager to again have a hands-on role in the restoration work on a dilapidated vehicle along with a team of fellow volunteers in the museum’s workshop.

Heading the team undertaking the restoration will be Adelaide-based expert Peter Foster who has freely given of his time at Millicent on similar projects over the past 30 years. Mr Foster has researched the background to the 100-year-old missionary van and cannot be definite that it was the one-time home for the fabled Daisy Bates. The Irish-born journalist achieved nationwide fame for living for decades among the isolated Indigenous communities on the Nullarbor Plain.

The Thonard family purchased the missionary van 52 years ago from ex-drover Bruce Gray who operated the Saltbush Bill riding school in suburban Adelaide. Mr Foster said Mr Gray (now deceased) had claimed the missionary van had been lived in by Daisy Bates. “It is possible that Mr Gray and Daisy Bates were known to each other from their Outback days and there is an archival letter where she has written to the government asking for a van,” Mr Foster said. “She had eye surgery which required recuperation at Escourt House which was near the Saltbush Bill Riding school.”

Although there is a long period where the whereabouts of the missionary van is unknown, Mr Foster said there is plenty of photographic and other evidence which confirms it was the mobile home for Mr Kramer and his family as they travelled through Central Australia. “Ernest Kramer was a biblical scholar who felt a calling to minister to the Aboriginals,” he said.

The missionary van has been in the elements at Mount Compass for decades and its rumoured association with Daisy Bates has been described in the past in the capital city media. It is now stored in the museum workshop which, as a coincidence, is located alongside the building which houses the Helen Hughes National Costume Collection. A dress once owned by Daisy Bates is on display.

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