A Riesling with Rex

Rex Craker loves a good Riesling. The Nuriootpa 91 year old is hailed as Whistler Wines’ number 1 customer and if he’s ever seen sitting at an empty table enjoying a glass of his favourite white, it’s not long before friends start gathering and stories start flowing.

Rex Craker

Nine decades of memories seem to demand that sort of attention and with aged, work-worn fingers tapping on the table, Rex happily tells of early life growing up in the Valley.

“I was born in Angaston. My Dad was the manager at Sheard’s Store in Angaston… Harold Sheard sold Angaston and bought Nuri. – where The Co-op is now. Then Dad came down to manage Nuriootpa,” explains Rex.

Relocating from Angaston with his parents and two siblings, he admits to “always being late” at Nuriootpa High School, even though he only lived down the road, opposite the Nuri. CFS station.

There’s still a glint of mischief in Rex’s eyes which brighten further when he explains the antics he and his mates got up to when the North Para River was in flood. After all, “you had to do something” to entertain yourself, even if it meant being on the receiving end of “many a wack” around the ears.

“We built a boat, put it in at Nuri. and finished in Gawler! I had to ring Dad up and he said where the hell are you? I said you have to come and get me, the boat won’t go up stream. That was a bit of a hairy trip!”

Rex can still picture the early streetscape and the much-loved characters who made his hometown what it is today – he doesn’t realise he’s actually one of them now.

“I remember when old Billy Coulthard was living in Coulthard House and Miss Brock used to be his house keeper – so called!” he says with a cheeky grin.

Nuriootpa’s Murray Street was gravel back then and the first memory he shares of his earliest days in the workforce as a lad, was helping with deliveries at Sheard’s.

“I used to drive a horse and cart, delivering groceries,” he says, setting the scene.

“One morning, I harnessed the horse, loaded the cart and went down the Street. I’d just got up past Siegele’s, in front of Summerton’s, and the horse just stopped.”

He slaps the table for added drama, leans in and continues his story, “The horse dropped dead in the Nuri. main street! No grocery deliveries that day…”

That story coming to an abrupt end, Rex moves on to the time he bought his own horse named Sam, a four-legged friend that accompanied him on many more adventures to come.

“My uncle used to call me Crackers – he said Crackers, if you want to go somewhere, I’m going droving next month. If you can find a horse you can come.”

Not one to miss an opportunity to get out of the house, Rex did just that.

“I went and bought a horse and showed it to Uncle Bill [Shemmeld] and he said I know that horse. He spoke to it and the horse was going brrrr…brrrr. He said I used to ride that horse for Mattiske’s in the country race!”

Rex Craker in his Airforce days.

At 18, Rex got “called up” to serve in the Airforce and drove trucks.

“I got as far as Darwin, that was far enough!”

After driving a truck in a convoy from Darwin to Adelaide and reporting in, he was told he was “still in the airforce today but tomorrow you’re not” and that was the end of his national service.

Rex caught a train to Gawler and walked home to Nuriootpa.

“I walked up the main street and my Dad saw me and said, ‘what are you doing home?’ I said, I’m finished, he said I can start work tomorrow.”

A job now assured, Rex continued towards home.

“Then I walked further down the street and Hugo Jaensch was out the front and he said what are you doing home? I said I was finished. He said you can start here tomorrow. I hadn’t got further than the main street and I had two jobs!”

He took the job at Jaensch’s service station where he learned to be a radio mechanic. It was here that he developed a love for motorcycles and ended up buying the black Velocette that would allow him to visit his future wife, Peg whom he met whilst in Glenelg for his brother’s tin kettling.

Peg and Rex Craker on their wedding day.

“Then Mr Jaensch said I think I might take on a tractor agency…the first tractor arrived and it was a CASE and Freddy Falkenberg bought that. The next one arrived and it was a red David Brown.”

Rex’s job was to sell and service the tractors and having now married his bride, the couple were “living in the shed” next door to where their future family home would be built.

“We used to knock off work, come home and make concrete blocks for the shed – 100 of them at a time. We couldn’t buy any foundation rods so Hugo Jaensch said there’s a couple of old car chassis down the back you can have, so I cut them up!” he laughs.

“There’s no foundation rods, just car chassis in there.”

It was when “Jaensch’s sold up” that Rex was offered the opportunity to continue the tractor agency.

“I had to go somewhere, so I bought that block of land up there where Steinborner’s are now,” he explains.

Craker Holdings had begun and with hard work, Rex and Peg built their venture into the reputable, long standing farm machinery business that continued for decades.

“Back then, the best way of getting David Brown tractors was to get them sent from England in crates, straight to us. We’d put them together and sell them.”

Rex designed and sold tractor implements that were manufactured to his specifications in Adelaide, believing if anyone said “you can’t build that”, he would prove them wrong.

“Then we got into chain saws, lawn mowers and everything that made a noise… The family grew, everything grew!”

A shack he built in “Little Barossa” on the River Murray would provide many weekends of fun, fishing and relaxation for the Craker family, which now included son, Michael, who would eventually join the business, and daughter, Julie.

“Just one of each, there’s nothing else to get!” Rex laughs.

Two journeys around Australia, including many others in his hand built camping trailer, and a trip to England won through David Brown, helped Rex quell his life-long appetite for adventure.

Back home, he gave back to his community as a Life Member of the Lions’ Club of the Barossa Valley and providing tractors to tow floats in the Vintage Festival parade. Rex was instrumental in bringing a public swimming pool to the Cambrai farming community by coming up with a fundraising idea that led to him providing two tractors and donating his time to work a vacant paddock for seeding.

“Those days, if you didn’t join the community, you weren’t in it,” he says.

Whilst there have been “lots of highlights” in Rex’s long life, there’s also been heartbreaking lows.

First with the passing of his much loved wife, Peg, who had to move into aged care; then the untimely death of their son, Michael a few years later.

“I don’t like people dying, but I suppose it has to happen…I’d like my son back, but I can’t have that,” he says sadly.

Life continues for Rex who has just recently moved into the Barossa Village where there are many faces he recognises from selling tractors “out on the flats”.

“I’ve got some good friends and I didn’t make any bad ones that I know of!”

Rex sharing a cuppa with long time family friend Martin Pfeiffer

He still goes to the Angas Park Hotel with his mate “Big Norm” [Andrew Norman] for what he calls “Thirsty Thursdays” and every week he’s taken to Whistler’s for “Tasty Tuesday” to enjoy dinner with long time family friends, Martin and Sally Pfeiffer.

“I’ve enjoyed myself, that’s the main thing,” he says. “I enjoyed work, which is a silly thing to say, but I did. Long hours didn’t worry me.

“I’ve had some bad moments, but bl**dy hell, I’ve had some wonderful ones!”