Relics bring new life to country towns

Man standing up surrounded by metal rusty metal objects.

Sarah Harris

Posted June 14, 2019

Country towns bringing Victoria’s colourful past to life.     

In front of the big doors of the Rescue Station, a coal miner’s daughter with ballet dancer’s poise gestures to a lumpy field. “This,” says Wendy Crellin with a sweep of her arm, “is where tent town was. This was the heart of Wonthaggi, not up where it is now.”

At the core of many a Victorian community lies the place that was …  the old hospital, foundry, butter factory or bank. They’re tangible, often grand, legacies of cultural heritage in regions which, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, boomed with coal, gold, wool and wheat. But built heritage is not all about romantic iron-lace balconies and the manor reborn.

Here in South Gippsland, 17 million tonnes of coal was extracted between 1909 and 1968. The men and boys who dug for it were the foundation of the modern town of Wonthaggi and inevitably some paid with their lives.

Wendy’s father, Allan Opie, himself a miner’s son and an active union man who started in the State Coal Mine as a brace boy at 14, was among those at a stop-work meeting to discuss escalating safety concerns on February 15, 1937, when there was an explosion in shaft 20. 

Specially trained miners in breathing apparatus immediately set out from the Rescue Station, but there was no hope for the 13 men killed in a methane gas explosion so powerful it blew a two-tonne iron cage from the shaft to the top of the poppet head. 

Today the Rescue Station is an arts hub run by an incorporated committee of which Wendy is president. A handsome structure built of signature orange Wonthaggi bricks, it was derelict and had been boarded up for 50-odd years until community volunteers rescued it from a mountain of bird droppings and negotiated a lease from Parks Victoria. 

Since 2005 the Rescue Station has been the scene of well-attended festivals, markets and performances from ballet to bagpipes. But while Parks Victoria has received Heritage Victoria funding for structural work, the co-op itself receives no recurrent operational funding. It is philanthropic donations from organisations like the RACV Community Foundation that helped fire the kilns of its new pottery centre with a $16,700 injection. 

While this creative space now hums with potters’ wheels, it retains historic integrity, from the small crosses carved into the floor to stop the pit ponies slipping to the smoke tunnel where the rescuers practised.  

“The Rescue Station really shows how spaces can be reignited with a new purpose and more often than not it’s from the imaginings and hard work of creative people who tend to see potential first,” says state MP for Bass Jordan Crugnale. “It was one of those neglected buildings where colourful things are now happening and it’s wonderfully participatory.” 

As sustainable development has become a goal for all levels of government since the Year of Built Environment in 2004, derelict spaces have increasingly been revived and repurposed. Built heritage has emerged as the new financial and social hero of many regions, both attracting visitors and strengthening locals’ sense of place and community. 

Man standing up leaning against an old bus.

The Mill Castlemaine co-owner Phil McConachy at his office in a converted bus. Photos: Julian Kingma


The makers’ mill 

When, in 2013, a For Sale sign went up on the choice 2.6-hectare old woollen mill site betwixt Castlemaine railway station and one of Victoria’s earliest and loveliest botanical gardens, there were anxious murmurings in a town known for its vigorous defence of historic character.

The Mill Castlemaine, which until its sale was still a working factory used by Victoria Carpets, stands as one of the most successful examples of a repurposed landmark building in regional Victoria – its preservation more remarkable given it has absolutely zero heritage status.

After three fires and additions as recent as the 1990s, there’s just one small section of wall remaining from the original woollen mill built in 1875. Although The Mill is arguably as much part of the town’s psyche as the Castlemaine Gaol, it didn’t automatically make the cut for conservation. 

“Architecturally, it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast and in that we were actually lucky,” says owner Phil McConachy. “If we had to wait for any sort of heritage planning we wouldn’t be able to afford to get it off the ground.”

Phil and his wife Ronnie Moule, a GP obstetrician, bought the site, which includes 9000 square metres undercover, with plans to establish a self-storage business as an alternative income after some lean, dry years on their small family sheep farm. “But with the botanical gardens across the road it was a no brainer that some sort of tourism-based thing and a cafe would work,” says Phil.

The very first tenants poured their hearts and hard-earned dollars into the creation of a decadent European-style coffee house (Das Kaffeehaus) in return for a 25-year lease, and set the tone for the rest of the site. As the aroma of roasting coffee began wafting from the 1923 chimney stack, tenants and visitors were enticed.

Now a hub for local makers of everything from underpants (Wonderpants) and beer (Shedshaker Brewing Company) to ice-cream (Icecream Social), artisan sourdough (Sprout Bakery) and sausage (Oakwood Smallgoods) it has become a key tourist destination. 

In addition to the 40 tenants, Phil and his wife retained 1850 square metres for the Castlemaine Vintage Bazaar – a retro heaven with 116 stallholders that attracts an average of 15,000 visitors a month. 

The transformation was not without its challenges including immutable rules of bureaucracy requiring that, as an industrial site, it have 29 toilets, where a comparable-sized shopping centre might get away with 15. 

“I was driven, but there was one point I thought, 'what am I doing?' Should I just sell or knock her over – because she’s a definite entity, but nah,” says Phil, who clearly loves every red brick. 

As a father of four boys committed to the growth of the Castlemaine community, he sees The Mill creating jobs, if not for them, then their mates or his mates’ children. Nor has he sought a cent of taxpayer help to achieve the transformation. “My philosophy is if your business can’t stand up without government funding, then maybe you don’t have a business.”  


Woman sits in darkened home studio with sewing machine.

Shoe maker and designer Pamela Gower at Ballarat’s George Farmer & Co building. Photos: Julian Kingma


Artistic ambitions

Even something originally as unlovely as a bacon curing plant can be vividly repurposed, as demonstrated when the George Farmer & Co Building in Ballarat was opened for the first time in 50 years as exhibition space for the Biennale of Australian Art (BOAA) last November.

George Farmer & Co was wound up in the 1960s but it was once one of the biggest businesses in Ballarat with its own abattoirs and railway siding to support the main factory, which produced sausages, cured meats, dripping and lard. 

Artistic director Julie Collins is a person who thinks big and she was grateful to find like minds in the building’s owners Richard Perry and Megan Wahr, who agreed to give BOAA a year’s free lease on a huge swathe of the labyrinthine complex, before the arts organisation’s debts forced it into administration in early May. That spelled the end of BOAA’s grand plans to purchase half the (1.6-hectare) site and turn it into a permanent MONA-style contemporary art space.  

During last year’s festival, the old factory, which was completely rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire in 1913, became the platform for 27 solo artists who responded with everything from projections and soundscapes to literally immersive performances in the old brining baths.

One of those artists was Tiffany Titshall, whose exhibition of charcoals titled Voir made the most of the “sense of danger in its cracks and dark corners”.  

“I got some pretty strong reactions and I think the audience was as much moved by the building as by the artwork,” says Tiffany.

Despite BOAA’s recent demise, Julie, a sculptor and project manager who previously helped establish the Yarra Sculpture Gallery and curated the Lorne Sculpture Biennale, believes the old plant still cries out for reuse. “Ballarat cares for its classical heritage,” she says. “But nobody is taking a lot of notice of its industrial heritage.”

Megan and Richard, who since buying the site seven years ago have revamped one end of it for apartments and a home for Oxygen Photography College, agree. 

“I like interesting old buildings and I put my money where my mouth is,” says Megan, who with Richard previously redeveloped the Flour Mill in Piper Street, Kyneton. “When we came in, this building was completely derelict, awful really. We spent a hell of a lot of money just defrigerating it. The whole thing was coated in coolrooms.”

She is still hopeful that in the long term the building’s potential will be realised. “It would be a privilege to see it as an artistic centre. You don’t want these buildings so precious that nobody can do anything in them.”



Black and white photo of two old, run down buildings.

The Rescue Station in the 1970s. Photo: Wonthaggi & District Historical Society.


Oasis found

The idea of art as a community wellspring is particularly apt in the town of Rainbow where, after more than 40 years waiting for Lake Albacutya to fill, residents created their own oasis replete with palm trees.

The transformation of the historic primary school, at the centre of the town where the Wimmera merges with the Mallee, into The Oasis Rainbow arts and community hub has done much more than quench a creative thirst.

It’s also a well for practical information like the Rainbow Snail and Slug Management Forum to address control of the critters that infest local farmers’ crops and glug up machinery. 

“I call it The People’s Shed,” says Peter Gosling, president of The Oasis project, poet and a fourth-generation farmer.

The final bell rang from State School 3313 bell tower in 2011 when students were relocated to the site of what is now the Rainbow P-12 College. The town of just shy of 700 souls was left wondering what would happen to the handsome old school, hand-hewn from local sandstone in 1905.

“It is very close to the main street and when you were up the street you could always hear kids playing. When it closed we noticed it sort of killed the place and it became evident something should be done with it,” says Peter. 

After possums damaged to a classroom ceiling, a letter was fired off to the Department of Education and Training expressing concern about deterioration.

“They wrote back saying well, if it becomes a problem we will bulldoze it,” says Hindmarsh Shire Mayor Ron Ismay of his old alma mater. “My grandmother went to that school, my dad went to that school and my two kids went to that school. There is a lot of history there for a lot of people in this town and it is a beautiful old building.”

In 2016 the perfect opportunity to repurpose the old school presented itself when Rainbow won a $350,000 Small Towns Transformation grant through Regional Arts Victoria. Following a whip-round among some of the school’s old boys and girls, the site was bought from the education department for $25,000 to become the headquarters for Oasis.

During the two-year project more than 3300 people took part in workshops and educational events which included mentoring almost 500 local artists. 

One of the high points was The Embodied Landscape performance featuring a visiting troupe of 18 dancers from East Java and the Wimmera’s own indigenous Wotjobaluk dancers.

“It was a fierce job to get the visas for the Indonesians and it seemed a bit of an ambitious project that a lot of people couldn’t get their head around,” says Peter.

But witnessing a warm-up performance on the sandhills with the Wotjobaluk back on country, it seemed the waters of Lake Albacutya shimmered once more in the eyes of some of the audience.

“It stunned us, it was just an extraordinary experience,” says Peter. “I couldn’t believe I was part of it.” 


Tattooed man with arms crossed standing in front of shed.

 Shedshaker Brewing’s Jeff Carr at The Mill. Photo: Julian Kingma


Victoria’s historic building capital 

Ballarat is the built heritage hotspot of regional Victoria. As the richest place on Earth at the height of the 1850s goldrush it boasts more than 10,000 properties covered by heritage overlay, ahead of Greater Geelong, Bendigo, Mount Alexander and Central Goldfields LGAs.

Backed by tourism-driven investment strategy, heritage has become the city’s new currency as visitors flock with wallets where miners once rushed with picks.

Ballarat is part of a long-term push by 13 municipalities to gain World Heritage listing for key sites of the Central Goldfields region which, if successful, will add even greater allure.

Partly to this end, Ballarat was the first Australian city to become part of a pilot to implement UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape in 2013.

This has led to a more holistic approach to managing the city’s development, including encouraging the adaptive re-use of existing built fabric. The City of Ballarat also gives low-interest loans to residents and business owners to help restore, repair or develop heritage properties.

Across Victoria there are more than 180,000 properties subject to local government heritage overlays, with more than 2350 places and objects listed as being of state significance on the Victorian Heritage Register.