How an ancient trade is helping one of SA’s oldest farming families survive the big dry

Holowiliena Station in the Flinders Ranges is in the grip of one of the worst droughts of its 167-year history.

The big dry gripping large swathes of inland Australia has brought the award-winning merino stud to its knees.

Station manager Luke Frahn said it is the worst he’s ever seen the property.

“We haven’t had a rain above 8mm since November 2017,” he said.

With stock numbers at an all-time low, Mr Frahn was forced to leave his family and travel off-station to work.

“When he was going away shearing, I had days in the school room with the kids and no adults to talk to,” his wife Frances Frahn said.

“I might go a week without having an adult conversation. It wasn’t fun for the kids and it wasn’t fun for me.”

The Frahns’ drought-ridden future looked bleak, but the path forward was written in the history books.

From Scotland to the outback

Holowiliena looks like an average sheep station, but its history makes it one of a kind.

Frances Frahn is the fifth generation of the Warwick family to call Holowiliena home.

It holds a South Australian record for the only pastoral lease still to be held in the family of the original lessees.

“My family have been at Holowiliena since 1852 when they first came out from Scotland, when they sought a place to make their own in South Australia,” Ms Frahn said.

She said although the station had faced countless droughts throughout its history, none had been like this.

“If Holowiliena looked like it does now when they first arrived, they would have turned around and gone back to Scotland,” she said.

William Warwick, the first of the family to settle here, was a master blacksmith.

His workshop had fallen into disrepair but with the help of a restoration team, the forge was brought back to life.

The sound of metal striking metal rings out from the open door and smoke drifts from the small chimney of the small pug and pine blacksmith shop.

For Mr Frahn, the sound of a hammer on hot iron is an escape from the drought outside.

“The moment I come in here it’s like you’re in a different space, you’ve got the fire ready to go,” he said

“You’ve got your work for the day and you can just escape from what’s going on outside and focus on the magic of the forge.”

A bowl of handmade cheese knives sits on a table of blacksmithing equipment.

‘The shop’s open and it’s working again — it’s breathing’

Mr Frahn experimented in the forge as a hobby, but he couldn’t justify spending time there.

“Any farmer will tell you that if there’s a ruin in a paddock or a fence that needs fixing or stock water to be maintained, the farming business has to come first,” Ms Frahn said.

After a long discussion about how they could improve morale, the family decided to take a leap.

Blacksmithing equipment in an old forge.

They elected to open the shop for business, giving Mr Frahn an opportunity to take his mind off the drought.

“It’s rewarding to light the fire and see the smoke blow up through the chimney,” Mr Frahn said.

“It just means it’s alive, it’s alight and the shop’s open and it’s working again — it’s breathing.

“Nothing disturbs me in here. You’re in four walls and you’re distracted from the outside world.”

Forging a future

But blacksmithing is now much more than a distraction.

As well as earning an income from selling cheese knives made from old metal from the property, the Frahns are happy to be following in ancestor William Warwick’s footsteps.

“It feels like Luke is forging his own history because the Warwicks have been here and done this before, but Luke is making his own chapter now,” Ms Frahn said.

Luke Frahn brings down a hammer on a hot rod in the forge.

“I actually think [William] would be pretty proud of us because he came out to Holowiliena not knowing what he was getting himself into and facing a lot of uncertainty.

“That’s what we’re looking at now with a lot of other farmers around Australia.

“We have a really uncertain time ahead and we’ve chosen to take this pathway forward and try a new adventure.”