The Marks of Culture that Remain at Mount Barker

The following was prepared by AR Mills, Mount Barker Branch of the National Trust SA, 29 March 1996 and reproduced below with permission of Don Goldney, Chairman of the Branch (2014).

“Who said that there ever was any culture that left its mark on our town?  The old part of the town is just a hotch potch of ancient pink freestone buildings just fit for knocking down by supermarket developers and the sooner it happens the better!”  That kind of thinking has ruled in this District for far too long.  Those who have held the power in our community have had to cope with issues forced upon them before they were prepared to handle it.  Damage has been done in our town, not just to buildings but evidences of cultures for which Mt Barker was unique.

At the Annual Convention of the National Trust of South Australia which was held on 23/3/1996 in its Adelaide headquarters, the CEO of the organisation, Mr Graham Hancock, addressed us on the need for quality development of the new type of tourism which has been identified as Cultural Tourism.  He also called it Small Tourism which implies a clear distinction from that which turns over an area, project or town into a high pressure business thing.  A number of these small, quality developments are already proving their worth in this State it seems.  We perhaps have some in the form of The Flour Mill in Cameron Road and the Albert Mill Restaurant at Nairne.  There may be others.  The Bed & Breakfast type of thing was pointed out and the Collingrove property at Angaston was used as an example.  In each of these you can find a culture that either prevailed or still prevails in the local area.  The CEO’s lament was that we haven’t always made a quality thing of it.  Is it possible that we still have at Mt Barker, evidences of a culture that could be developed as a quality tourist thing?  That, of course, is not a National Trust problem but I would suggest that National Trust is concerned in identifying cultures which once thrived here.

The Wapstraw Culture

This curious name came from the Old Country where it was applied to the act of thrashing grain with a flail.  In The Courier it was adopted by a correspondent who wrote on wheat and flour prices and at Callington, a noted wheat growing area from the 1880s, it was applied by a Courier reporter to the local farming community.

As you all know by now, Mt Barker achieved world fame for wheat from 1851 and in Adelaide, from 1846.  Mt Barker was definitely the Wheat Capital of Australia for the next 20 years or more and was, in quality, the Wheat Capital of The World for a long period.

We have the Cleggett farm, still complete with its steep gabled stone walled style, its stone workshop and special bulk wheat barns.  Almost certainly some of the wheat in the famous world prize of 1851 came from storage in one of these barns.  There is of course, The Cameron St Mill and a few items associated with the mill.  There is in addition, housing of the type built by or for, workers at the mill.  These were small with small windows, one chimney a lean-to roof over rooms at the rear and a low front verandah.  It was this housing which characterised the early development of the town into the chief town beyond the Tiers.  Other special things of the Wapstraw days appear in the National Trust booklet Prime Place, Prime Product. ($6)

The Cast Iron Culture

Cast iron was the chief material from which early machinery for the wheat industry was constructed.  It soon proved unsuitable because it broke up under rough Australian conditions.  Two major foundries were operating in competition in the town.  The number grew to at least four in the 1860s and up to 90 men were employed at the largest.  The town earned the title of “Foundry Town” before the industry began to decline in 1892.  Charles Dutch specialised in mechanical thrashers and John Ramsey in Ridley strippers.  Cast iron was still required for many applications but the foundries became more truly, Agricultural Implement Works.  One has only to visit the cemeteries, front gardens etc or view the verandahs of distinctive houses and hotels of the District to see where the cast iron continued to be used for purposes other than machinery parts.  Friezes etc show that cast iron was an artistic medium and one which will be popular for many years yet.

After the demise of Ramsays in 1892 and the smaller foundries prior to that, Dutch’s and one new foundry, Salam’s, continued, Dutch’s being the last to close, in 1936.  Founding in non- ferric metals began during the Second World War and continues to this day.  The Dutch site is now a motor body repair works and the Ramsay buildings were all destroyed except for the home which continues as one of this town’s distinctive heritage properties.  The old home is now marked as the Ramsay Foundry site by a mounted fireplace backplate which was once produced at the foundry to advertise its products and was dug up in the garden a few years ago.  Again, much of the housing of old Mt Barker, particularly, and, it is thought that on Adelaide Road, was for workers of the foundries.

Associated with both these “Cultures” through its workforce were the Lodges created by the workers of both the mill and the foundries.  The chief lodges in historical order were The Oddfellows, The Rechabites, The Druids and The Freemasons.  The reason for their existence was very practical.  For a small weekly fee workers would be indemnified against sickness or death.  There was a real brotherhood in a lodge and a special regalia such as silk sashes and badges were worn and in some, a special ritual was used in meetings.

Perhaps the most spectacular and popular of these lodges made its debut in Mt Barker about 1889, this was The Druids Lodge whose ritual was based on the Celtic culture of England.  A timely interest in tree planting occurred at Mt Barker in 1890.  A Tree Planting Committee was formed and the Druids agreed to dig the holes for the planting of Dutton Place with oak trees for they needed rows of oaks under which they went in eerie procession dressed in grey gowns and hoods and carrying flaming torches.  It had already been proved from 1839 by Joseph May and others, that English oaks were especially suited to Mt Barker.  From 1890 they had a glorious avenue of them.  The Premier, Mr Cockburn, planted the first one at the Adelaide Road end of Dutton Place and for the school, it was a grand Arbour Day.  After this the street seems to have been known as Druids Avenue.

The ascendency of Lodges blossomed into a great Sunday parade of all the Lodges on Sunday Dec 4th 1891 in Gawler St.  This demonstration was reported at great length.  It revealed how important to the working men of Mt Barker the Lodges had become.

After this, the chief lodge demonstration was that of the Druids in Druids Avenue until changing circumstances made all of them of less importance in the new century but the avenue remains in its leafy beauty and I trust, will always be kept that way as an example of a development from cultures of the past.

The Rural Culture

More than any other factor influencing the nature of development in old Mt Barker is the fact that it has always been a rural centre until recent changes have made that fact much less apparent.  The rural character left a predominance of the old which tended to make Old Mt Barker unique.

Being a rural centre tended toward less pressure for change or modernisation so that when the city influence came with a rush it found Old Mt Barker still happy to look old and rural thinking prevailed in local government.  This might have been all right for Old Mt Barker but a super market was allowed, without sufficient forethought, to take over the heart of the place and thus has tended to destroy everything around it till the rural character is under serious threat and buildings and areas of the town that many people would rather have seen kept even if altered to some extent, have been swept away.

One factor which greatly influences the character of a rural town seems to be the market, generally known as the saleyard.  It was a serious loss to the character of Old Mt Barker when its last saleyard was closed down so suddenly.  Saleyards had always been a strong influence here.  Some would say “particularly when it comes to their influence on the atmosphere and the sound waves!”  There had been at least five saleyard sites in the town.  This may have contributed to an irregular way in which things developed but that isn’t necessarily all bad.  One example of the effect of a saleyard for a long period was the absence of any notable development on the land at the rear of Hotel Barker for a long period as a market was held there regularly at one time.  Up to 800 cattle were sold in such markets in one day.

Another fact of rural Mt Barker was the hedges.  The same system which now struggles for survival in England prevailed here.  This happened because agriculture developed here 20 years before wore became freely available and the only other satisfactory forms of fencing were post and rail or stone.  An original post and rail fence still remains in old Mt Barker, it is hidden within a hedge almost as old.  Dunn St is the last remaining example of the proper use of hedges.  Several hedge plants are utilised in them.  Hedges were maintained by a workforce which suddenly disappeared when war broke out in 1914.  After comments were made about their untidiness most of them have been removed but the wild nature of hedge plants is such that they are still growing, most of them as woody pest plants, in every part of Mt Barker District.

Some of Mt Barker’s buildings were designed or developed specifically for rural use.  One example is the Murray Shoebridge building which is now a stationer’s in part.  At the rear was a wagon height doorway for the entry of goods.  Beneath the shop floor was a basement for storage.  Rope was used in large quantities in the days of horse transport and horse draught for working farms.  Coiled rope being too untidy above, the coils were kept below and the ends from which the customer made his selection were visible above after being passed up through a series of holes in the floor.

The Religious Culture

Mt Barker has always had the distinction of having the head churches of a number of denominations with ministers or priests and others being resident in the town so that there are many building and even some areas of buildings in the town, of a religious nature.  Chief among them are the Dunn Memorial Church, designed like an Anglican Parish church building in England, the Presbyterian building, The Anglican Christ Church and the Catholic Church building.  The Anglican and Presbyterian churches, manses and other building stand on an area of land devoted to that purpose by the proprietors of the private township of Mt Barker in 1839.  The Dunn Memorial and other Uniting Church buildings occupy a whole block between streets where they face Mann St so that here are two notable zones where culture is distinctive and deserves respect.  The Catholic Convent, other Catholic buildings and the Catholic Cemetery and Town cemetery adjacent to the town also come under this same cultural classification, the Town Cemetery having been the Wesleyan originally.  Besides these churches there are the former Baptist Church, the former Primitive Methodist church and traces of other former church buildings within Old Mt Barker which come under this cultural classification.  In short, Mt Barker is a township of churches.