Slow Explore of a Country Town

Wagin, 3 or so hours south-east of Perth, may seem an unlikely spot to choose for a camping trip. It is, I can confirm, a sleepy country town with just enough business in and around it to keep it going. I spent two nights there last week and took time to explore it slowly and, if you don’t expect a lot, Wagin isn’t too bad a place to visit.

Federal Hotel, Wagin

 

My dad was born in Wagin, which was why we were headed there. His grandfather moved his two daughters there to be publican for the Federal Hotel between 192x and 19xx when he moved to York. Dad’s mum and dad met there in the 1930s and when his dad joined the air force he listed his address as the Federal Hotel, Wagin. A few years later my grandmother traveled to Melbourne and they married. After the war they returned to Wagin. My dad was born in the hospital but they lived in this house:

Dad outside his childhood home

As we walked along the street, Dad described the garden, shed, vegetable plot and inside of the house. He remembers a lot, even though he left here when is was 8 or so. Later, he would tell us about riding his bike to school with his sister, the magpies who attacked him as he rode to his piano lesson, hiding from his mum to get out of getting immunized and other stories. This experience made the town much more interesting than it might, at first glance, seem. It made me think about the way small towns tend to ‘do’ history; often just in the one spot, concentrated on the big and important (or the slightly larger and slightly more important than the every day) and usually by grouping people into types like miners, farmers, business-people, mothers, etc. I’m more and more thinking about the way individual histories can be as useful in understanding a past as sweeping ones. But that’s another post.

Wagin has another interesting aspect. Something I didn’t know about. It isn’t the Giant Ram (although it is true that he was a surprise to come across):

Wagin's Giant Ram

It is the Wagin Historical Village. Billed as ‘the best social history museum in Western Australia’ with ’25 buildings from our region’s past’ and a ‘Tourism and Volunteer Award Winner’ I was cautiously expecting … well, to be honest, not much. I know I’m cynical about these things but my cheese radar turned on from the words ‘historical village’. Still, I was keen to have a look and it was the last remaining sight to see in Wagin before hours of lying in tent, reading (always the best part of camping!).

The 'main street'

In fact we ended up staying there for more than an hour. It wasn’t especially cheesy – there was no one wandering around in (vague and unknown) period dress, no one pretending to be blacksmiths or jolly shopkeepers. Yes, it suffered from an idealistic view of the past, but had a surprisingly low-key tone to its presentation. Many of the buildings were recreations but others were original (albeit relocated and restored). The best thing about it was the sheer weight of the collection. There were some incredible pieces there; wonderful for having been collected over the 30+ years it has been going. Some of my favourites were the seemingly entire history of small town newspaper printing equipment, including a huge press, typesetting stuff, a massive hand operated guillotine and other pieces from the newspaper offices.

Wagin Newspaper building including Wharfdale Flat Bed Press

There were other really surprising things like a tiger skin from India killed in the 1920s, an ‘Anzac saddle’, an old strait-jacket and an entire bank counter.

My (untrained) conservator’s eye was a little horrified at the way the collection was being exhibited. The tiger skin, for example, was lying on the floor in the corrugated iron bank building, exposed to heat and cold, dust, insects and larger animals…

Indian tiger skin

There were also hundreds of photographs seemingly original, pinned up on boards in the main hall, paper objects lying on shelves in the sun or laminated. Many looked as if they should be in archives.

It was difficult to tell the truly significant from the old – as is often the case in museums with displays like this one – but I think that here most things would be significant.

The other thing that really horrified me were the cages. I know they don’t want people to touch things and I understand that people do. The cages are surely overkill though.

DON'T TOUCH

The Village obviously used to have a committed, energetic and resourceful group of volunteers. At some point they rigged up tape telephone answering machines with some very well recorded (for the time) audio for some displays. The sound of a rewinding tape in a old answering machine is not something I’ve heard for a long time! The sheer number of buildings is impressive, including all the different styles of building; mud bricks, timber, corrugated iron, mallee roots, wattle thatch and straw, bag tent and more. They’ve also included Aboriginal people’s shelter, although this is the only reference. You can see a full list here.

I say that they ‘used’ to have this energy and commitment because it is clear in the displays that there is no one really looking after this collection now. They are still adding to the village – the replica fire station was completed this year I think (it isn’t on the list on the website) and they have school and other groups through. They open every day for six hours (pretty good for volunteer run). But I took this photo just before I left and it kind of summed up the feeling I came away with; that they need help. I have some ideas….

 

Bottles in Mrs Steven's Cottage

Just as I’m finishing this post off (after too long!) up pops on Twitter a murmur about Collections Australia Network and its imminent demise (next month in fact). Is the Wagin Historical Village how things will stay?

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