Kanyaka Station was first taken up and stocked by Hugh Proby, the well-educated third son of the Earl of Carysfort, from Ireland. He came to South Australia in the Wellington which arrived at Port Adelaide on 30 May 1851.
Having both money ($10,000) and connections, Proby was soon looking for pastoral land to establish a cattle run rather than invest it in Adelaide property. Towards the end of 1851 Hugh Proby had taken up his first run on lease number 74, called the Moockra Range Run in the Flinders Ranges.
By February 1852 he had secured another run, Kanyaka on leases numbered 117 and 118, and had them both stocked with 1200 head of cattle. A month later Proby was the owner of three runs. He was able to employ a few men and by the end of May had a total of six men working for him, including an American, Tom Coffin, who had later a mountain near Copley named after him.
It now became time for Proby to consolidate his holdings and start building huts for himself and workers on one of these runs. Kanyaka was selected and one of the huts already in use there was enlarged and a start made with a second hut. Having used up almost all his money, Proby hoped to be able to sell his fattened cattle within two years and make a handsome profit.
Unfortunately for him, nature, unpredictable as ever, had different plans. During a violent thunderstorm on 30 August 1852 tragedy struck when some of his cattle stampeded. When Proby and his Aboriginal stockman rode out to hold the mob, they were confronted by the raging torrent of the Willochra Creek. When attempting to cross the creek Proby was swept from his horse and drowned.
Proby was buried the next day and some six years later his family had a gravestone shipped out from London on the Ballarat to Port Adelaide. From there the granite slab was hauled by bullock wagon to the site and placed on his grave where it remains today. It has now become a familiar landmark in the Flinders Ranges and known simply as Proby's Grave. The inscription reads;
TO THE MEMORY OF
THIRD SON OF THE EARL OF
WHO WAS DROWNED
THE WILLOCHRA CREEK
AUGUST 30th 1852
AGED 24 YEARS
Take Ye Heed, Watch and Pray: For Ye
Know Not When The Time Is. MARK XIII.33
Kanyaka station was sold to Alexander Grant. He, and his brother Frederick, settled on the Mookra Range Run and renamed it Coonatto. Another brother James was to live on Kanyaka Station. However, while on his way to Kanyaka James, and a friend who rode with him, became lost and perished. Their remains were found a year later. John Randall Phillips Jr, who replaced James and was taken into the partnership, obtained an additional lease, as did Grant, and managed the station until it became one of the largest in the area, employing as many as seventy families.
The new owners changed from cattle to sheep and Phillips started to build the many solid structures such as the sixteen roomed homestead, overseer's cottage, stables, men's kitchen, sheds, huts, a massive woolshed, carpenter and blacksmith sheds and nearly forty kilometres of dry-stone wall fencing.
Kanyaka, like all other pastoral stations attempted to be self sufficient and independent. Supplies such as sugar, tea, flour, tobacco, boots, gunpowder, clothes and other items were bought in bulk as transport was slow, expensive and often unreliable. The Station had its own milking cows to provide milk, butter and cheese, pigs for bacon and a vegetable garden. This was attended to by John Taylor whose wife Hannah, nee Keatly, gave birth to a daughter Martha on 17 July 1855. They had a son, James Henry on 10 February 1858.
There were many other children born at the station during these early years. Among them were, James, son of Alfred Charles Simmons, teamster, and Betsy, nee Fern, on 16 August 1857. James Talbot was born twelve days later. His father was employed as a shepherd. On 3 May 1859 James Miller, another shepherd, and Jeanette, nee Nevin, had a daughter Ellen. A few months later on 18 September William James, overseer, and Annie, a sister of Betsy Fern, had a son William. On 7 June 1862 Donald and Mary McIntyre, nee King, had a son Alexander at the station.
One of the first persons to die at the station was Martha Phillips, wife of John Randall Sr, at the age of forty-six in 1857. Martha Phillips arrived as Martha Smith in 1830 on the Protector at Swan River, Western Australia, as one of John Randall Phillips servants. They later married and their first son, also named John Randall, was born in 1832. John Sr settled on the Canning River and later died at Albany in 1852. John Jr died in Adelaide in 1917 and is buried in the North Road Cemetery.
With fresh supplies of the basics always available, several people started their inland explorations from Kanyaka. One such party, made up of Dr W.J. Browne, William Marchant and Frederick Hayward, used the station as a base for their trip to Lake Torrens in 1855.
To divert the continuous stream of visitors, which interfered with the workings of the station and expected hospitality, John Randall Phillips built a roadside eating house along the main track some five kilometres from the homestead in 1859. Although he was not allowed to sell liquor, he solved this problem in 1865, after the town of Kanyaka was surveyed around it, by building a two storeys, twenty room hotel. The survey was carried out by A.B. Cooper in January when he pegged out town lots 49-71. The Great Northern Hotel was opened in January 1865, with Moyle from Kadina as publican. Phillips had spared no expense to make it as comfortable as possible for travellers. There were also stables, a coach house and outhouses.
It was by no means the first building or even business. As early as 1861 Kanyaka had been listed as a postal service point and on 18 April 1861 Henry McConville was granted a storekeeper's licence which was renewed on 15 May 1862. The eating house was run by D. Bowman during 1864 and early 1865. In March 1865 the Kanyaka store and Post Office, which had been closed for a while, was taken over by A. Wyly.
While the station became more and more self sufficient it still needed the outside world to buy its wool. During its 1864 season 41,000 sheep were shorn, providing work for an army of musterers, shearers, woolclassers, packers and teamsters. It turned out to be its best season ever. No sooner was the shearing done or the lack of rain was noticed by most station owners in the north. It was the start of a terrible drought which lasted until 1867 during which time Kanyaka lost 20,000 sheep.
Naturally, the drought also affected the nearby town of Kanyaka where D. Brown was the postmaster and Thomas Moyle the publican at the hotel. As late as 1879 town allotments were offered for sale and interested people were told that water was available at very moderate depths.
With the decline in the number of sheep fewer workers were needed which meant fewer babies born on the station as married couples were the first to be retrenched. On 1 June 1864 Jane McIntyre was born, daughter of Donald, teamster, and Mary, nee King. On 29 August 1865 Harrison Grimshaw was born, son of James, a labourer and Esther, nee Watson.
Kanyaka also became a distributing centre for food, blankets and rations for Aborigines in the area. Both station and town were regularly visited by JP Buttfield, protector of Aborigines, from Blinman.
Regardless of the losses the station survived but instead of its previous seventy families it now employed only fifteen single men. At the end of 1867 all the leases were combined into one and granted to John Randell Phillips, George Waterhouse, and William Milne for twenty-one years.
The Hundred of Coonatto, County Frome, was proclaimed on 23 March 1876. The name describes the Aboriginal word for a manna (food) bearing tree. The town of Coonatto was proclaimed on 7 February 1884 but on 20 February 1941 had its name changed to Moockra.