Pauline Milich helped to deliver more than 200 babies in the Riverland region in the early 1900s. (Supplied: Mannum Dock Museum)
Midwife Ernstine Pauline Milich helped deliver more than 200 babies in her life, including 14 of her own. She even gave birth to her youngest while delivering someone else’s child.
It was the early 1900s in South Australia’s Riverland and ‘Mutter Milich’, as she affectionately became known by local German-speaking families, was the region’s only medical professional.
Mrs Milich originally learnt midwifery and homeopathy skills at Sedan in the Murray Mallee, from her future father-in-law Ernst Wilhelm Milich.
After establishing a family with her husband, Johannes, the midwife followed her spouse to Pyap, near Loxton, by paddle steamer. She arrived in 1902, already with nine children in tow.
History lives on
Lottie Bradtke, one of Mrs Milich’s children, recalled the urgent nature of her mother’s work.
Pauline Milich’s prized medical bag is part of the Women of the River Country exhibition. (ABC Riverland: Anita Butcher)
“Sometimes it would be just ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the kitchen window at night, and an anxious husband would urge mother to come quickly,” Mrs Bradtke said.
“A few words would be exchanged, then the precious medical bag would be taken from the cupboard where it was safely locked from her own brood.
“Off Mother Milich would go by horse and sulky into the darkest night, often driving many miles through harsh outback country.”
One night, Mrs Milich delivered her own child at the same time as she was delivering another woman’s baby. She stayed at the woman’s home for two days providing care for the mother and the two newborn babies.
“Many a night I remember a little bundle being popped into bed beside me,” Mrs Bradtke said.
“I would think drowsily, ‘Oh just another baby’ and go back to sleep.”
River women’s stories on show
Mrs Milich is just one of the many river women being featured in a travelling exhibition that is on show in Loxton.
Compiled by volunteers and staff at the Mannum Dock Museum, the exhibition has now called 12 places home, including the National Maritime Museum.
The stories of river women are on display at the Loxton Historical Village. (ABC Riverland: Anita Butcher)
Curator Deb Alexander said there were still several locations left to visit.
“We could probably tour this forever,” she said.
“A three-year tour has been extended to a four-year tour and the response that we’ve had from places like Echuca — or little towns that would never see exhibitions of this nature — they all want it back again.
“There are so many fantastic stories out there of pioneering women that should be told … this exhibition is truly special in that it connects with so many different people.”
Ruby Hunter is another unique river woman featured in the collection of stories.
The Ngarrindjeri woman was born near the banks of the Murray River in 1955 and went on to be one of the best-known Indigenous singer-songwriters, alongside her soulmate, Archie Roach.
Ms Hunter was nicknamed Froggy by her grandfather, who rubbed her with warm ashes when she was born prematurely.
“You can’t use water on a newborn. It’ll take the strength away,” he said.
A member of the Stolen Generations, Ms Hunter was forcibly removed from her family at the age of eight.
Ruby Hunter sits in on the banks of the river near Paringa, SA, where she was born. (Supplied: Mannum Dock Museum)
She met Mr Roach when they were both homeless teenagers, and together they encouraged each other to share their music with the world.
In 1988, Ms Hunter took to the stage for her first performance where she sang Proud, Proud Woman at the Bondi Pavilion in Sydney.
Just six years later, she released her debut album Thoughts Within, making her the first Indigenous Australian woman to be signed to a major record label.
Ms Hunter went on to release more albums earning her a string of awards, and even published a children’s songbook.
Her life’s work lives on through Ruby’s Foundation, which is dedicated to creating opportunities for Aboriginal people through arts and culture.
As the nation’s first female river captain, Pearl Wallace had the ability to get behind the wheel of any commercial vessel.
Pearl Wallace was Australia’s first female river captain. She’s pictured here in 1983. (Supplied: Mannum Dock Museum)
She came from a river family — her father was captain of the Alpha and her mother was the engineer — together, they passed down valuable practical skills to their daughter.
Ms Wallace first became a skipper when her father needed more help on deck.
She sat the master mariner’s exam in 1947 and ignored ridicule from men who did not believe a woman could work in the role.
Her male assessors admitted she was “as good as any man we have put through — and better than some”.
In 1956 Wallace drove the Vega barge down the flooding Darling River and became the inspiration for Nancy Cato’s novel All the Rivers Run.
“That majestic, tranquil and, at times, dangerous beauty had been lost to development and stupidity,” Ms Wallace said, reflecting on changes to the river system in her lifetime.
Women of the River Country is coming to the end of its tour and a book has been written to share the extended stories of the women profiled in the exhibition.
Ms Alexander said keeping history alive was vital for future generations.
“I think what exhibitions of this nature do is permanently record the amazing stories — women or men — it doesn’t matter, because those stories are gold, and we need to educate our youth.”