Mildura Heritage Study - Part B

Heritage Study

Mildura Rural City Council

Mildura The Sunshine City, c.1960-70
Image courtesy of VISIT Merchandise

Context was recently engaged by Mildura Rural City Council to undertake a comprehensive heritage review of Mildura’s heritage assets.

The Rural City of Mildura is located in the far north-western corner of Victoria. This is a challenging environment defined by hot summers and low rainfall. Over millennia, environmental factors have shaped the cultural heritage of this region in many different and fascinating ways, for both the Aboriginal people and in more recent times, in terms of irrigation, innovation, transport and community life.

A Brief History

Aboriginal people have occupied this country for tens of thousands of years. While the Murray River and the immediate riverbanks and its broader flood plain are resource-rich and shaded by large gum trees, much of the surrounding land is arid and scrubby, a landscape of Mallee Gum punctuated with salt lakes. After several dry seasons, dust from the desert country to the west can be whipped up into enormous clouds that engulf the Mildura area. A possible derivation of the Aboriginal word mildura is ‘sore eyes’, which may relate to the prevalence of dust storms in the area. People, animals and plants have adapted to these harsh conditions in different ways. European settlers described it as marginal country. They were miffed by the salt lakes and struggled with the sandy country that was impossible in parts to travel through on wagon wheels—although these impossible conditions also gave rise to technological innovations. For a time, the river provided an alternative, though slow, transport connection to Adelaide and to Melbourne, via Echuca. Eventually, however, from the early twentieth century, it was the railway that proved the most reliable means of transport, particularly for getting agricultural produce to larger domestic and international markets.

 

While Aboriginal people had survived in this environment for thousands of generations before colonisation, European settlers struggled at first to establish viable homes and settlements. The challenges posed by the natural environment, and by local circumstances such as the relative isolation of the area from other settlements, shaped their development of the region in distinctive ways. These challenges acted as the impetus for bold adaptiveness and significant resourcefulness and innovation, not only in agricultural and horticultural endeavours but also in the context of urban development and community life. The successful development of Irrigation, above all else, changed the popular perception of the area as marginal country and was the foundation for the development of the large regional city of Mildura and the thriving irrigation communities of Red Cliffs and Merbein. With the ability to make better use of the consistent supply of water from the Murray River through a revolutionary irrigation system, along with the arrival of rail freight, the Mildura district promised wealth and prosperity, notably through the development of fruit-growing and wine-making for national markets and export. Away from the irrigation settlements, however, there were ongoing struggles to maintain viable communities, especially with regard to crops and the vagaries posed by drought.

A typical settler's house at Red Cliffs irrigation area, State Library Victoria (Accession no: H2011.134/13), 1926.

About the Project

This is the first comprehensive heritage study of the Rural City of Mildura, made up of the two former Shires of Mildura and Walpeup, that has been undertaken since their amalgamation in 1995. The Context team have been working on a large review of Mildura’s heritage assets, which has included the preparation of a thematic environmental history, consultation with the local community, and the identification of potential heritage places. A Community Reference Group made up of knowledgeable community members, representing each of the smaller townships and the main centre, was established at the outset of the project.

Working closely with our ‘eyes on the ground’—with Council officers and the Community Reference Group—has been integral to understanding the rich and layered history of the region, as well as ensuring the project continues to progress through this current period of Covid-19 restrictions on travel and face-to-face meetings.