Phillip Butler took up some pastoral leases in 1840 which eventually became known as Coonatto Station. On 30 May 1851 Hugh Proby, a young English aristocrat, arrived in South Australia with 5000 GBP to pursue a pastoral career.
In December he purchased a lease east of Mount Brown, and soon afterwards he bought two more leases further north. Hugh’s first run, Lease No. 74, called the Mookra Range Run (later it became the Coonatto Run) was 140 square miles.
On 30 August 1852, aged only twenty-four, he drowned while attempting to ride his horse across the flooded Willochra Creek. Alexander William Thorold Grant bought Lease No 74 in 1852 and lease no. 291 in 1854 this time with his brother Frederick A. as a partner.
They employed F. W. Stokes as manager of Coonatto, and in 1859 after they brought the Pinda Run, F.W. Stokes was taken into the partnership. The two northern leases on which Proby had originally run cattle were stocked with sheep under the management of J.R. Phillips, who later brought both properties and, together with additional land, established Kanyaka Station.
Most of the extensive ruins to be seen today on what was Kanyaka Station headquarters are of the buildings erected by him. Coonatto Station was renowned for its hospitality, and guests, among them itinerant missionary priests and ministers, were always made welcome.
Most unusually, the property included a small stone church. This singular building, with a chimney on one side and a large cellar below, is now one of the few station buildings that remain intact.
Among many notable visitors to Coonatto was the first Anglican Bishop of Adelaide, Augustus Short, who conducted services there.
In 1859 an English traveler and author, William Jessop, visited Australia. In an account of his travels published in 1862, he gave the following description of Coonatto:
“Coonatto is a very orderly station. The buildings are arranged in quadrangular form, and the whole enclosed by walls and gates, so that the interior resembles a small town, the various offices being arranged in their proper streets, and in some places grouped into courts. Everything connected with Coonatto bears the same token of cleanliness and care. The bachelors’ Hall, usually the sleeping place of strangers, is here a bedroom as good as any hotel can furnish. The house is noted as the best residence in the north, and its owners among the most hospitable and best-bred people in the colony…here in the midst of a desert, we had a dinner which the most fastidious Londoner could not despise.
The following morning I had a much better view of the vicinity of Coonatto, which might be expressed in one word…desolation. Partly enclosed by hills, but all bare cheerless, for hardly a tree is to be seen, a little water and that brackish, soil barren and unfruitful, in spite of all attempts at tillage.
What can be done with this land? What is it for, but a good sheep farm?”
The 1864 drought caused Coonatto to be abandoned with all stock.
In 1867 the leases were altered and Coonatto became lease no. 1628 containing 402 square miles. Over the years Coonatto was greatly extended by additional leases until, at its peak, it embraced about 2300 square kilometers (888 square miles).
Frederick Grant lived at Coonatto after the drought, and in 1875, 133.000 sheep were shorn of Coonatto and Yanyarie. In 1876 the State Government issued resumption notices to numerous lessees in the Southern Flinders. Coonatto was subdivided and offered for sale on credit terms to the advancing wheat farmers.
This was the final blow for the partners of Coonatto Station. Their leasehold was reduced to a relatively small area of freehold land, which included the Coonatto headquarters.
A Post Office was operating at Coonatto, by a Mr. J. Moller in 1878 until 1880. They named the station Coonatto, the Aboriginal name for the false sandalwood tree (Myoporum platycarpum), which was abundant in the area.
To be continued…