Today, we drove north from Benalla to visit four towns north along the Oaklands railway line – a freight-only line in north-eastern Victoria. This line runs from Benalla across the Victoria-New South Wales border to the town of Oaklands in New South Wales. It carries seasonal grain traffic.
Every town in the grain growing areas had a silo next to the railway siding. Changes in agriculture, combined with the closure of railway lines, has left hundreds of these old grain silos in regional Australia abandoned. Our largest grain handler, GrainCorp, is the owner and operator of several hundred of these public silos throughout eastern Australia but it is increasingly moving towards low-rise bunker storage facilities, in which the grain is stored under tarpaulins, sometimes in a paddock.
About half of the 340 concrete and steel silos are now non-operational. The silos range in age from 60–100 years old for the tall, concrete ones, and 50–60 years old for the lower steel and rectangular structures. An increasing number of these are being used as outdoor canvasses for artists. They are doing a great job of enticing people to visit communities that have been decaying for decades and now provide a boost to their economy.
Our first stop was at the town of Goorambat which has a population of just 297 people. It is an old pastoral and grazing area with the Goorambat Railway Station first opening in 1883. Queen Elizabeth visited this town in 1954 as part of her Victorian Tour and she stayed over in her royal carriage for one night.
The mural here was painted by renowned Australian artist Jimmy DVate who chose to feature an endemic threatened species – the Barking Owl The owl that he actually used as a model was named Milli and she lives at the Healesville Sanctuary in Healesville. It is said that there are only 50 breeding pairs of this owl currently living in the wild. He also painted a farming scene on one of the steel silos that is similar to the environment in which the Barking Owl lives.
This artist returned to Goorambat later to paint another silo with a tribute to three Clydesdale horses Clem, Sam and Banjo. He has captured the motion of these horses in gallop, feathers flying on their feet as they travel side by side in harness. Before the days of motor transport, these horses commonly carted grain from the farm to the railway station
Just up the road from the station is the local Uniting Church. It has a mural of ‘Sophia’ which was created in 2017 when the church community was approached to host a mural inside the church as part of the local ‘Wall to Wall’ festival. The mural had to be relevant to the culture and ethos of the church community and of a quality that would enhance the church precinct. ‘Sophia’ was painted by well known street artist ‘Adnate’. She is said to depict “Sophia” the female aspect of the Holy Spirit, a tradition that draws on the spirit of God as it is manifested in the Old Testament times and the post Pentecostal period.
Further north is the town of Devenish. It had a population of 360, declining to 197 by 2016. The Post Office there opened on 9 June 1877 as Broken Creek and was was renamed Devenish in 1878. The railway arrived in 1883. The Devenish concrete grain silos were built between the railway line and opposite the pub in the main street. It opened to receive wheat in December 1943. Later the Bulk Oat storage building was built in 1965.
The paintings on the two tall silos were officially unveiled on Anzac Day in 2018 to celebrate the 100-year centenary of the end of the First World War. It depicts a stunning image of a WW1 nurse and a modern female military medic of the Australian Armed Forces. This mural also depicts the changing role of women in the military and society in general. (I never had a medic that looked like the modern one on this silo while I was in Vietnam. Ours never wore pearl earrings!)
The mural on the smaller oat storage silo is a tribute to the Australian Light Horse. The Australian Light Horse were mounted troops with characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. They served in the Second Boer War and WW1. They are responsible for conducting the world’s last mass cavalry charge at Beersheba in Palestine during WW1.
Fifty young men and women from the Devenish Community enlisted in the military services in WW1. At that time, this represented one in six residents from this very tiny town. I noticed that three men from the local community served in Vietnam and one or two saw more recent action in Timor and Afghanistan.
Our next town was St James. This town came into being as a result of selectors taking up land in the district around 1870. It was the location of the first business of G.J Coles, founder of the Coles Group (now owned by Wesfarmers). Former Carlton Football Club premiership captain, James “Jim” Flynn played for many years with the St. James Football Club before and after his playing days in the Victorian Football League.
The Graincorp silos here have again provided another blank canvas for the Silo Art Trail. The site of the silo was once filled with the sounds of trucks and played a major role in the community’s economy. The streetscape now looks very sad and is a far cry from the once vibrant town of the mid 20th Century.
These silos have a history dating back as far as the 1915-16 wheat season when 135,000 bags were delivered to the railway station. More history followed when in December 1943 the St James Silo received its first bulk load. These events are recorded in the art on the silo.
In 1882 George J Coles married his wife Elizabeth and purchased his first store in the town. He soon opened a second store four miles away in Lake Rowan, trading mainly in farming equipment. George and Elizabeth had 10 children and all would attend school in St James. Tragically Elizabeth died in 1900 causing George to sell his two stores and moved to Geelong. He returned later and re-purchased both stores. He travelled overseas and learned about department stores and on his return he set up the first one shilling store in Australia at 288 Smith Street, Collingwood. This was the start of his retail empire. The Coles company made a generous donation towards the St James Silo Art Project.
The final panel on the silo shows two men who were bag sewers – sewing up the full bags of wheat in the early days for onward shipment.
Our last stop was at Tungamah which is situated on the banks of Boosey Creek. Its major industries include grain production, wool growing along with dairy and beef.
The town had its heyday in the late 1800s. Plaques along the main road depict the site of many long gone old buildings such as hotels, banks, stores and a timber yard. Now, the pub is the grandest building in town but it also has a General Store, a Mechanic, several service, sporting and general interest clubs.
The silos at Tungamah is home to the first silo to be painted in north-east Victoria and was the beginning of the North East Victoria Silo Art Trail. They were painted by Western Australia street artist Sobrane Simcock who is the only female artist (to date) on the Silo Art Trail. She used 60 litres of paint, 142 spray cans with the entire project taking eight days to complete.
Her art depicts dancing Brolgas on the tall concrete silos and some much loved Australian birds on the shorter metal silo – a Kookaburra, Pink and Grey Galah, a Humming bird, a cheeky owl hiding in the leaves, a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, two small wrens and a white ibis.