Cowarie Station was first taken up and stocked by William Benjamin Rounsevell of Corryton Park. His application, no 654 of 1875 resulted in a twenty-one year lease, number 2568, being granted on 31 December 1875 over an area of four hundred square miles known as Cowarie. The name comes from Cowarie Hill, an Aboriginal word for a marsupial rat.
The station was started in February 1876 and within a very short time other leases were taken up in the area. This resulted in a large increase in the number of pastoralists, workers, shearers, drovers, station hands, well sinkers, fencers, hawkers and travellers along the tracks between these northern stations. The main track later became known as the Birdsville Track. There were enough people in the area for a post office to be opened at Cowarie in 1877. During its first year of operation it received 342 letters.
As early as 1878, Rounsevell sold some of his properties. On 23 August both Moolooloo, near Blinman, and Cowarie were sold. Cowarie had increased in size to about 1,300 square miles and carried 2,000 head of cattle, all Durhams. Additionally it had about 140 horses. The Head Station had a good residence, men's huts, storerooms and two sets of drafting yards. Prospective buyers were also told that with a very moderate outlay in dam building the property could easily carry from 8,000 to 10,000 cattle. Unfortunately life was not always assured as the station's cook was murdered by Aborigines in October 1878. A year later W Coles, another cook, left the station and was never seen again. His gear and tucker were found some ten days later. As late as February 1890, John Neaylon had to shoot an Aborigine in self defence.
The Cowarie lease was later transferred to William James Paull, August Helling, Walter David Hewer and William Pulsford. Helling was later involved with W.J. Paull in 1878, with a lease of 700 square miles near Goyder's Lagoon. Both these leases were worked while the Hellings stayed at Sliding Rock. In 1880 August Helling leased an additional block near Cowarie, which made his holdings in that area quite impressive. The whole Helling family now moved to Cowarie.
Isabella Helling must have accompanied her husband many times on his travels, even at an advanced stage of pregnancy. On 1 July 1882 she presented August with a son. She certainly was a great woman, who deserves as much credit and recognition, if not more, than some of the male pioneers of the Northern Flinders Ranges. Isabella was neither afraid of new adventures nor of isolation. At Cowarie she ran the post office, issued blankets, rations and medical supplies to Aborigines, catered for drovers on their way to or from Birdsville, the station workers, and the growing number of her own children.
This was all achieved without the benefit of female company or indeed any other company, the nearest station being fifty kilometres to the east through sand hills. The nearest township (Marree) was 180 kilometres south. Unfortunately for the Hellings and thousands of others, drought during the 1880s drove them out of the north, out of work, and often into bankruptcy.
The 1880s were hard times at Cowarie. Several deaths occurred at the station during these years. In 1883 Charles Winnicke, an explorer and experienced bushman started his inland expedition from Cowarie with his camels and succeeded in mapping about 40,000 square miles of unknown country. Conditions deteriorated quickly after that and soon were just terrible.
In March 1884 hundreds of cattle died. Teamsters deserted their loads to save their animals. By June there was no water anywhere between Cowarie and Etadunna. On 14 July 1885, twenty-six year old Charles Gould, the station cook, died. A year later both Louis Dupuse and William Garrety died at Cowarie. December 1886 saw the marriage of Andrew Gilbert Murray and Elizabeth Prout. They made a special trip from Cowarie to Quorn where the ceremony was performed by the Rev. WF Marshall at St Andrew's Church on 11 December.
On 13 January 1887 twenty-four year old Eugenie Patterson died of sunstroke. She was the fifth daughter of A Patterson of Hawker and a sister to Mrs A Helling.
In 1888 Cowarie station received only sixty-five points of rain, and by 1890, after the birth of their daughter Mary, the Hellings moved back to Sliding Rock. However in 1893 the Hellings were once again at Cowarie, where Isabella provided meals for travellers along the Birdsville Track. One such meal was served at Christmas to Dr Hoche and his young family who had left Farina and were on their way to Birdsville to take up his new appointment.
There was no doctor at Cowarie when on 5 October 1892 Minnalinna, an Aborigine, was speared. He died the same night. His attacker was arrested by Mounted Constable Edward Napoleon Buonaparte Catchlove of the Diamantina Police Station. There was no doctor on 20 December 1893 either when William Alfred Thomas died. He was the son of WH and C Thomas of Blinman. He died at the residence of his aunt Mrs A Helling at Cowarie.
During the 1890s there was a slight improvement in the Helling fortunes. In 1892 Helling sold his mailman's plant to Sidney Kidman, who had successfully tendered for the mailrun on the Birdsville Track. In 1894 Helling acquired a lease of Wilpena Pound and sold Cowarie Station a year later to the Kidman Brothers. On 4 April 1895 he took out lease no. 403 over 3,116 square miles with William James Paull for twenty-one years in the Cowarie area near his old station he had pioneered. During 1897 the drought was still very bad but because of it the rabbit pest declined. In June 1897 August Helling charged William Henry Wheatley, teamster of Marree with killing one of his cows. Wheathley was committed for trial at Port Augusta but bail was allowed at £400.
After the turn of the century, conditions improved substantially at Cowarie. In 1901 Helling was back and running cattle. While at Cowarie in March 1901 the government Geologist wrote that there had been plenty of rain in the area and several creeks were running into Lake Eyre. Mr Helling told him that the Birdsville mail was late but when it arrived he was told that had been four inches of rain at Goyder's Lagoon.
Conditions remained fairly good during these years and in September 1908 drover J Robinson arrived at Farina with 3,200 sheep from Cowarie, the property of W Coulthard & Co. Some 900 sheep went by train to Adelaide while the rest would walk to Parachilna. In March 1910 there were beautiful rains which did the country a lot of good. They had 2 inches at both Cowarie and Lake Harry, while Mount Gason had more than an inch.
Later managers or owners of Cowarie Station were S Kidman in 1917, E. Pratt-1915 and Neal-1923. At the Kapunda Horse sales on 30 August 1932 Sir Sidney Kidman offered over a thousand horses from his Yancaninna, Mundowdna, Glengyle and Cowarie stations to be auctioned. George Morley, ex-Kidman drover, owned Cowarie in 1936 and John Otto Watt managed it in 1938. During 1940 George Morley sold out to Claude Oldfield and on 25 April 1942 The Mail published this article;
BROTHERS' £10 GROWS TO THOUSANDS IN 3 YEARS Three years ago two brothers, CH and EJ Oldfield, left Marree with their wives and families and less than £10, to take up 500 square miles of country 200 miles north of Marree. Today they have built assets worth several thousand pounds. The area taken up was originally part of Cowarie Station, and some time earlier had been abandoned by the previous lessee.
There were no improvements on the area taken up by the Oldfield brothers, which is now known as Mona Downs, and on arrival there they and their families had to sleep under the trees. They built a home of mud and coolabah logs near practically fresh, permanent water, and in a year, with the aid of their wives, they were growing many types of vegetables.
Soon after their arrival on the property a neighbour offered to buy a mob of cows and run them on the property, the Oldfields to keep a percentage of the progeny. The brothers grasped the opportunity, and so successful did it prove that there is now a herd of 400 to 500 cattle on Mona Downs.
A few months ago the brothers dissolved partnership and this week Mr CA Oldfield, now the sole owner, was represented at the Abattoirs by 171 prime young cattle which were a credit to the country and their breeders. Mr Oldfield, who is a comparatively young man, said he had been in the back country all his life. When it was suggested to him that it was a pity to send such splendid, immature cattle to market, he said, 'Oh. in that country we don't often get our cattle fat, and when we do we find it a wise policy to market them as soon as possible. Mona Downs, he said, consisted mainly of sand hills, many thousands of acres of which in good seasons were flooded by water from the Diamantina and Kalahpoo Rivers.
There was always water in the beds of these streams, he said, and some immense pools. But in dry seasons the water of the Diamantina became salty. So did some of the pools in the Kalahpoo, but fortunately some remained fresh enough for stock. 'Since we took up the country seasons have been good. That applies to much of the country in the area, although in places it is patchy he concluded.
In 1943 Claud and Dora Oldfield, nee Scobie, moved from Mona Downs to live at Cowarie. The homestead had been rundown and required some time and effort to be made liveable. Goats who had previously considered the house their home were most reluctant to move out and tried several times to reclaim it. Eventually the homestead was completely renovated.
Claude Oldfield, born in Marree and educated at Quorn, was considered a professional pastoralist and created history in 1974 when he employed haymaking contractors. Later he even bought his own baler and produced many thousands of bales of hay at Cowarie. It was the large flood of 1974 which caused considerable stock and property damage and eventually filled Lake Eyre. The Oldfields had seven children and after the death of Claude, senior, his eldest son Claude and wife Barbara, took over the running of the station.
From the formation of the £10,000 Cowarie Pastoral Company Ltd in October 1950, of which CH Oldfield became governing director, Claude supplied the Adelaide Abattoirs regularly with cattle and bullocks. In September 1953 they included 797 Shorthorn, Hereford and Aberdeen bullocks. In December of the same year his son James got engaged to Nance Woon of Loxton.
During the early 1990s Cowarie was run by Grant Oldfield who later married Sharon, a former nurse from Sydney. Since the death of Grant, in an aircraft accident in 1994, Sharon has run the station successfully on her own. She too has earned the respect of station people for the manner in which she operates and as a mother of three children. She also has attracted the admiration of people across Australia for her efforts in rangelands management, rural land conservation and general environmental issues. In July 1999 she was awarded the Commonwealth Bank IBIS award.