This time-warp town is a portal to the past

Travelling Well | Story: Peter Hanlon | Photos: Anne Morley | Posted on 30 July 2019

Old world charm meets quirky nostalgia in this tiny Victorian town.

“Everything on the shelves is original,” Denise Nichols says of the Wedderburn General Store Museum, and with a sweep of her arm takes in the tins, boxes, curios and cure-alls that transport the beholder to a simpler time.

A time of Doan’s backache kidney pills (“there’s no peace for the kidney sufferer”), Maxa Eczema Ointment (“takes away the rash”), Marshall’s Fresh Herrings (resting in their unopened can, half a world and generations of missed breakfast opportunities away from their beginnings in the North Sea off Aberdeen).

“Most of these are a little beyond their use-by date,” Denise chuckles, admitting they’ve lost the odd tin in the heat, “which isn’t pretty”. She lifts the lid on a safer bet – Sunshine dry biscuits, much as they were (albeit a little stale) on the day they were packed. “We don’t serve them for morning tea any more.”

Once part grocer, part chemist, part hardware shop, the General Store closed its doors in 1969, then reopened a few years later as a ready-made museum. A time capsule of disarming authenticity, the store is fittingly at Wedderburn’s heart. The central Victorian town thrives on nostalgia, welcoming visitors who are drawn to the glitter of gold, the smell of eucalyptus, and the honesty of country life.


A countryside lifted from a Fred Williams painting, of flat plains, granite outcrops, gum trees and endless aridity.



“It blows me away when you look at the landscape around here,” Suzie Deason says of countryside lifted from a Fred Williams painting, of flat plains, granite outcrops, gum trees and endless aridity. “To get from Melbourne or Adelaide to here, walking with horses, with little kids, they were incredibly tough people to survive.”

Famously, her great-great-great-grandfather John Deason was one of them. Cornish by birth, in 1869 he discovered the Welcome Stranger at Moliagul, south of Wedderburn. Weighing 66 kilograms, it was then the world’s largest gold nugget.

In February, more than 200 people celebrated the Welcome Stranger’s 150th anniversary at the monument where it was found. Many wore period costume, proud of their links to a golden past. “It’s part of our lives,” Suzie says.

At Hard Hill Tourist Reserve on the town’s western fringe, free campers hold fast to the notion that the ground still hides treasure – and are regularly rewarded for their toil. “They’re still finding gold,” says Marg van Veen, of the local Community House. The prospector’s single-mindedness has endured; Marg awoke one morning to find fresh holes dug right up to her house.

Gold-seekers visiting Hard Hill enjoy the bonus of seeing eucalyptus oil distilled from an ancient stew pot the same way the Bosisto family did in the 1850s. Eighty-year-old Robbie Collins oversees the process with a couple of hardy helpers, loading up “Mum’s cake rack” with layers of gum leaves, stoking the fire below, and waiting for steam to extract oil from each leaf. A batch takes three days, and produces just six litres of oil.

It’s a mod-con-free zone – an old jam tin catches the oil-and-water mix as it spills from a pipe, while a cut-off detergent bottle is used to separate the liquids. It’s painstaking, but with certain benefits. “You don’t get many head colds doing this job,” laughs Greg Canfield. “And it keeps you nice and warm too.”

Warmth of spirit pervades Wedderburn. At the Community House, beautifully repurposed from the old primary school, Marg van Veen revisits a long-running discussion over what ‘image’ the town should adopt. Nature tourism is rivalling gold (two rare orchid species have been rediscovered in the district), while birds and bats draw enthusiasts from afar. A Melbourne University-partnered project is growing ‘super trees’ to safeguard eucalyptus oil production for generations to come.

“Last time I took stats, there were 34 registered community groups in a town of 900,” Marg says. “People say to me, ‘We live in a town four times the size, and we don’t have anything like the amount of things going on that you do.  

“Community is our strength. That whole concept, ‘You move to the country to relax’, it’s a furphy. It’s an intensely active town. Go to Melbourne if you want to relax.”

Wedderburn General Store Museum
Wedderburn General Store Museum

Wedderburn General Store Museum.



WHILE YOU’RE THERE

Melville Caves

The cavities amid these granite boulders were the perfect hiding spot for bushranger Captain Francis Melville in the mid-1800s, their vantage point a prime lookout to spot his next gold-transporting victim. It’s now a nature paradise with breathtaking views. 

Bridgewater swimming hole

Pack your trunks and head east to Bridgewater, where generations have enjoyed a dip in this natural infinity pool on the side of the Loddon River. A deck and bathing platform mark a spot beneath the gum trees that’s hard to beat on a balmy day.

Lonely Grave

The resting place of Scotsman Thomas Whyte, marked by a tombstone, rocks and wrought-iron fence, is lonely indeed. The letters he wrote to family in Edinburgh are a window on the harshness of a gold miner’s life far from home. wedderburn.vic.au
 

THE FACTS

Where is it?

217 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, 75 kilometres north-west of Bendigo.

Trivia

Next to Steel’s Butchers, Wedderburn recently welcomed what locals believe is Australia’s first community-owned hair and beauty salon, where a barber, hairdresser, masseuse and soon a beautician rent space in a building renovated by townsfolk.

Don’t miss

Nana’s Homemade Tomato Sauce – grown in the community garden, made and bottled by volunteers, sold at the Community House.

Best time to visit

Every Labour Day long weekend, the Wedderburn Detector Jamboree attracts prospectors in search of gold, gold gold.

Take home

A remedy for colds, aches and pains, carpet stains and flea-ridden dogs. All for $7 in a 100ml bottle of eucalyptus oil, fresh from the still at Hard Hill.

 

The perfect country getaway at the RACV Goldfields Resort