Between 1868 & 1872, selectors took up land along the river-flats of Manilla District. Initially, small wheat crops were planted for fodder only. A flour mill was established in Tamworth in 1883 and grain was taken there in drays for grinding to flour. As settlement increased along the Tamworth Road, at Keepit and Upper Manilla, grain growing expanded to meet the demand for bread. By 1876, 1,000 bags of wheat were being produced annually in the district and with steady progress and hard labour, the wheat industry would be responsible for the development of Manilla.
Bagging Wheat on "Everton" c. 1900
1885 was a prolific season with bumper crops of wheat and maize. Manilla was reported to have 1,000 acres under wheat. Half of this was cut for hay for the horses. The balance yielded an average of 20 bushels per acre and after providing sufficient grist for the population of the district, it was estimated that there were 3,000 bushels left for sale at market. In 1888, moves were afoot to build a flour mill, but the bank crash of 1893 saw the plan halted for lack of money and the mill committee decided to push for a railway.
Wilson and Oram Snowcloud Flour Mill Manilla 1900s
Manilla boomed with the coming of the railway in 1899. Rain fell after years of drought and increased rural settlement meant more farming. 125,000 bags of wheat were produced in 1899 and there was a new flour mill at the river end of Arthur street to store and process the grain locally. Several stripper harvesters came into the District, an advance on the reaper and binder method.
In 1905, Baker's Foundry was promoting the 6 furrow Stump-jump plough. That same year, Manilla flour was winning prizes at the Sydney Show and the spectacle of 100 horse-drawn wheat teams assembled at the railway station would be recorded for posterity.
37 Wheat Teams wait to be unloaded at Manilla Railway 1901
The "Federation" wheat variety developed by John Farrer in the late 1890s suited Manilla conditions and lent itself more readily to mechanised methods of harvesting. By 1910 the industry was firmly established, but was also subject to the vagaries of the weather and the odd plague of grasshoppers. A late frost might destroy 70% of the crop and years of drought would take their toll. Firms such as H. Baker, machinery makers and transport builders, suffered setbacks from which they never fully recovered. Droughts however, despite delivering hardship, also enforce a period of rest to the soil and with the breaking of a drought the land around Manilla was naturally fertilised by seepage from the limestone hills to the east.
Reaper threshers made their appearance in 1912 and were well-favoured by 1915. Then in 1920, mechanical methods of powering ploughs were introduced for the first time. The harvest that year brought in 250,000 bags of wheat, a record for the Manilla District.
Manilla Flour Mill - the second one, built near the railway in 1913 - was destroyed by fire in 1929 and the need for a storage silo became paramount. In 1933 a 150,000 bushel (4082.299 tonne) silo was erected at the rail yard. A second silo was built in 1958 with a third in the early 1970s. Today 2 of those are still used for grain storage with the third in private ownership.
In 1932, 700,000 bushels (19050.729 tonnes) of wheat were delivered to the station, but in 1946 only half a dozen harvesters were brought out of the sheds, and these failed to gather enough wheat for even the farmer's seed requirements. No wheat was delivered to Manilla railway that year. Such was life on the land. When rain did fall, erosion played a large part in the land's inability to retain water and in 1971, more than 70 Manilla farms were involved in the Soil Conservation project. The resulting contour banks reduced paddock sizes and the evolution of machinery to encompass broad acre farming meant wheat production became less favourable on relatively small holdings. Although locally grown wheat continued to be received at the Manilla silos until the 1980s, grain production largely moved to the broad flat plains further west and the boom years of Manilla's wheat growing industry came to an end.