Of all the local histories of migration to Australia, the story of the Cossacks who became peanut farmers in the Northern Territory town of Katherine is perhaps one of the strangest.
In the 1920s, a small group of Russian men from one of the world’s coldest climates found their way to the NT and grew peanuts in the formidable tropical heat.
Katherine Museum’s local historian Simone Croft said many men were from aristocratic families.
“They had a huge skill set,” she said.
“They were artists, musicians, and had been to conservatoriums and done degrees on classical music.
Tundra to Top End tropics
One such farmer was Germogen Sergeef who was an expert violinist and artist.
He was nicknamed “Galloping Jack” because he rode his horse “flat out” around town, according to Ms Croft.
Mr Sergeef also built an elaborate planetarium, which remains on display at the Katherine Museum, out of a large collection of empty sardine cans he amassed because he was too paranoid to eat fresh food.
“He was always scared he was being spied upon, or was going to be taken back to Russia, or poisoned.”
The path from frozen tundras of Russia to the tropical heat of Katherine was not easy or direct.
Many of these men were so-called “White Russians” who fought against the newly formed Communist government in the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1920.
They first fled to the northern Chinese province of Manchuria before travelling to Australia.
Many worked through Queensland by cutting sugar cane before being employed in the railway gangs that built the NT’s Birdum railway and Katherine railway bridge in the mid-1920s.
The government of the day released arable land for peanut production and these Russian men took up the offer, clearing trees and seeding their crops by hand.
Ms Croft said the NT’s peanut industry collapsed and many farmers “went broke” in the lead up to World War II because of crop failure from erratic rainfall and a troubled supply chain.
The few remaining Russian farmers, like Ivan “Long John” Ivanetz, eventually sought permission from the government to grow other agricultural crops such as cotton.
The Russian brides
In the early days of peanut farming, Mr Ivanetz, a former White Army officer, lived alone in a shanty with a corrugated iron roof and an “ant bed” floor made of compacted ant mounds.
His daughter Neila Boyle, who still lives in Katherine, said her father and a few other Cossack farmers eventually returned to Russia to find brides.
“Four or five ladies came out and when they got to Darwin they wanted to turn around and go back because they didn’t like it,” Ms Boyle said.
“It was bush compared to what they lived in.”
She said life was hard for her mother, who could only wash clothes in the Katherine River and refrigerate food with a wet hessian bag and a breeze.
Katherine bombings in 1942
The town of Katherine marks the southernmost point of Japanese bombing raids during WWII.
Ms Boyle recalls the day bombs were dropped on the town.
“Dad grabbed Mum and the kids,” she said.
“We had a creek down the back of our house, and we ran down there and just stayed there for the day.
Ms Boyle’s father was one of three Russian farmers who stayed in Katherine to supply soldiers with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat.
“The American soldiers were over on Manbulloo Station and my father used to supply a lot of vegetables, poultry, and pork,” she said.
“They used to bring back a lot of stuff from America.
“My brother and I used to get a lot of chocolate and Mum got parachute silk from old parachutes — she used to make a lot of clothes out of them.”
Today, streets in the locality of Cossack to the north of Katherine are named after Russian families such as Zimin Drive and Tokmakoff Road — a reminder of this strange local history.