Bush Legends: The origins and impact of iconic Dowerin Field Days explained

Headshot of Steve Butler
Steve ButlerThe West Australian
VideoHistoric vision from the Dowerin Field days taken by late former president John Metcalf Sr.

This is the story of how the grazed knees of a bunch of Wheatbelt footballers — and their hopes to have them no longer — triggered one of WA’s biggest agricultural icons.

What started as a Dowerin Progress Association think tank for the town in 1964, with a mission to finance the grassing and reticulation of its gravelly football oval, has become the annual exhibition giant known as the Dowerin Field Days.

“It brought all the people together and it was the making of Dowerin, it really was,” 92-year-old Thelma Hatwell, a Field Days catering committee guru, proudly told Bush Legends.

Arthur Munyard, one of a small group of locals now known as “The Originators”, had just been to the Orange Field Days in NSW and urged the people of Dowerin to “give it a go”. In September, 1965, the icon was born.

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The Field Day committee at the event site. Left to right, publicity officer June Read, originator Arthur Munyard, secretary Pam Anderson, and president L. John Metcalf. August 7, 1974.
Camera IconThe Field Day committee at the event site. Left to right, publicity officer June Read, originator Arthur Munyard, secretary Pam Anderson, and president L. John Metcalf. August 7, 1974. Credit: Ron D'Raine/Countryman

Dowerin farmer John Metcalf — a former Field Days president, whose father John Sr had held that position at the inaugural event — remembered the football oval as a “good knee-skinner”.

He vividly recalled his father telling him they were going to hold the first Field Day to display machinery.

“I said, ‘What’s that?’,” he laughed.

“Even though I was right into machinery, there were just a handful of people standing around (at the first event) and after an hour it was a bit ho-hum.

“But later the enjoyment that came from volunteering, for me, was following family, the fellowship and the sense of community.”

Supplied images from John Metcalf Jnr of Dowerin Field Days.
Camera IconSupplied images from John Metcalf Jnr of Dowerin Field Days. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Mr Metcalf made the typical rise through the Field Days hierarchy from being on the committee to serving as static marshal, chief marshal, vice-president and ultimately president. Any break to that lineage was treated with disdain.

“If you got to be chief marshal or the deputy and you pulled the pin, you were frowned upon,” he said.

As the Field Days grew in popularity, so did the need for crowd control because of the increasing threats to personal safety.

“There were a few close calls, I can tell you . . . dumb people getting in the way of machinery or trying to get a better look,” Mr Metcalf said.

There was also a greater need for security, particularly after a small kid’s motorbike was wheeled out by thieves in broad daylight after one event and a number of other items started going missing during the clean-up process.

“We approached the footy club for help,” Mr Metcalf said.

You’d give them a couple of cartons of piss (beer) and they’d stay there all night and drive around watching.

His favourite times clearly came from the end of the events.

“Wednesday night, getting on the booze,” he blurted.

“There was always a cabaret or something on at the town hall.”

Mr Metcalf’s father John Sr was another of “The Originators” and missed only one event, when he was travelling overseas, until his death at 94 in 2015. A former Australian soldier and keen inventor, he was the first person to build a fully-articulated tandem tractor.

LJ Metcalf Snr (John Metcalf) had been at the Dowerin Field Days 36 out of 37 years.
Camera IconLJ Metcalf Snr (John Metcalf) had been at the Dowerin Field Days 36 out of 37 years. Credit: Greg Burke/WA News

Into his 90s, he would still sit on his red gopher to perform duties as the event safety officer and fastidiously placed plastic caps on every bared star picket at the venue. He was shattered that he would not quite make it to see one last Field Days as his health declined in the days before his death.

He had still attended annual general meetings until just before he died, and had also once carted toilets on his old semi-trailer from Perth’s naval base to Dowerin to replace the outdated long-drops and troughs.

“The one thing that was on his mind in his last few days was that he wouldn’t get to see his mates again for a last Field Days . . . it was his passion, his love, his pride,” Mr Metcalf said of his late father, who has one of the venue’s main buildings named in his honour.

The main street of Dowerin features a montage of the faces of the people who have invested themselves in making the Field Days happen. It is a touching, meaningful tribute brimming with pride.

It also makes mention of the strategy that pays volunteers for their estimated 6000 hours of work each year, with the money going directly to their nominated community group. The resulting amount injected back into the community is estimated to be in the millions of dollars.


Mr Metcalf’s wife Wendy Newman, a former Field Days chief executive, said the event’s power was in its social offerings for a farming community that led an often solitary working life and the networking prospects it presented.

Her uncle Norm Newman was also a former president, and her mother Noela Newman ran the local drapery and put on the Field Days’ woollen garments-only fashion parade for 20 years. Her mother is still part of the “Dream Team” of women who collate exhibitor packs for each year’s event.

“Communities connecting and realising it’s not just you . . . you reinforce that we’re all in this together through the Field Days,” Ms Newman said.

“It really is a great inter-generational community story of collective action and impact. Many have contributed throughout their lives each and every year and handed that passion and commitment to their children.”

Ms Newman, a former WA State School Teachers’ Union acting general secretary and ex-chair of the Wheatbelt Regional Development Commission, said she had conducted a survey during her tenure which showed the Field Days had an annual economic impact of $91 million.

One of only three living Field Days life members, Mrs Hatwell, was part of the catering community for the first Field Day in her role with the local P&C. It was a far more grounded task than the organisational requirements of today.

Thelma Hatwell with one of the Tin Dogs.
Camera IconThelma Hatwell with one of the Tin Dogs. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

“We did the hotdogs,” she said proudly.

“We were in the rams shed with our Metters Stove, the wood and the big pot with the hotdogs. They were lovely, but I think the health inspectors nowadays would have a heart attack.”

An official catering committee had been formed by the late 1960s and Mrs Hatwell was president of it for 14 years with unending support from her now late husband Arthur, who was a keen exhibitor.

Mrs Hatwell said it was difficult to describe the growth of the Field Days to those who were not a part of the inception.

“From where we started, you’d never believe where it’s finished up,” she said. “As one of our first secretaries June Read said, we would have all headed for the hills if we knew what was going to happen.”

Dowerin, which sits 156km north-east of Perth, was gazetted in 1907 after the State Government extended the railway from Goomalling, 23km away.

The name Dowerin was adapted from the Aboriginal word “Daren”, after a series of lakes 8km south of the town and established near a waterhole known as Tin Dog Creek. Two big statues, named Rosey and Rusty, sit in the town centre to celebrate “Tin Dog Territory”.

Shire President Rob Trepp, who moved to his Minnivale grain farm near Dowerin in 1992 after growing up on a rural block in Forrestfield, put perspective on the importance of the Field Days when asked where they ranked in importance to the town against its notable football products, Lance Franklin and Mal Brown.

Shire President Rob Trepp.
Camera IconShire President Rob Trepp. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

“If you ask anyone in the street, you’d have to say the Field Days,” Councillor Trepp said.

“The Field Days are one year younger than me and it pulls the town together.

“It’s a special thing that Dowerin has and it’s important to protect its legacy.”

Dowerin Field Days 2022 will be held on August 24 - 25.

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