Warragul needs little introduction to most Gippslanders. It’s the jewel at the heart of some of Australia’s most favoured and famous farm lands and to dairying in particular; one of the main drivers of its development. It is picturesque, sitting as it does on a range of rolling hills that connects the Baw Baw range to the north, with the Strzelecki Range to the south. It is a major cultural and commercial hub of West Gippsland and home to around 15,000 people.
However, when one considers the very beginnings of Warragul, one might ask was the township a bit of an accident? After all, to the west lay the infamous Kooweerup Swamp, considered to be impassable and to the east lay the even more daunting Moe swamp that never saw any settlement until the late 1800s. Early traffic from Melbourne to Sale, which lay far to the east, was over tracks that meandered up and down steep hills, across numerous creeks and was generally considered to be a cruel journey by those who braved it. The route lay to the north of what is now Warragul and Brandy Creek and Shady creek were two main coach stops along what came to be called the Coach Road and later, the Old Sale Road. The route past Brandy Creek and Shady Creek were notorious as bog holes, with coach horses sometimes forced to wade through mud belly deep. It was named The Glue Pot. Farmers who work the light grey soils of the area will have stories of what happens when a machine breaks through the surface into the spewy clay beneath – there is no bottom to it. Coach drivers in the mid-1800s told similar tales.
To add credence to our thesis that Warragul was a bit of an accident is the fact that prior to the railway line, in 1850, C. J. Tyers, the Government Surveyor, had blazed the very first Gippsland Road about 1850. It was referred to then as ‘the Marked-Tree Road from Melbourne to Gippsland’. It skirted north around the “impassable” Moe swamp and came down from the hills on the Melbourne side at today’s Robin Hood, north-west of what is now Drouin.
Then along came the railway line from Melbourne in 1878. And the railway surveyors decided to build a station at a place that is today called Warragul. One account is that Warragul had permanent water nearby, whereas Drouin did not, so Warragul is where the station was built, amidst the towering trees of the forest. That story makes perfect sense, because, after all, steam trains require a lot of water with which to make steam.
Strangely, the colonial government refused to sell parcels of land near the station, but enterprising settlers either squatted, or took out Miners Rights, in order to claim parcels of land. Human enterprise is a wondrous thing when left unhindered and by 1897 the Warragul Guardian was reporting that –
“That there is a great future before the agricultural industry in Gippsland is undoubted. Around the Warragul districts abundant proofs of the wonderful capabilities of the soil and climate are given by the magnificent crops of oats and wheat. But unquestionably the most striking example of what this district is capable of producing is the fruit, flower and vegetable garden owned and operated by Mr. T. R. Ricketts, which is situated about half a mile from this township. It is only about seven years since Mr. Ricketts purchased the land which he is now cultivating to such advantage. The whole of it was thickly timbered and the task of rendering it fit for cultivation was one which necessitated the expenditure of considerable capital and labour. The whole of it was done in the most thorough manner, only one stump – which is used as a tank stand – being left in the whole area under cultivation – about 17 ½ acres”.
We think that lengthy quote from the past gives an insight into the ingenuity, the perseverance and the enterprise of those early settlers who transformed the country side into the beautiful rural vistas, across world class farms, that visitors to Warragul enjoy today. And we think the characteristics that were the hallmark of the first settlers are still in evidence today and that they are what gives Warragul its vibrant community atmosphere. It is a cultural hub that has thrown up some prodigious talent from amidst its citizens. There is a statue dedicated to Aboriginal boxer Lionel Rose, in the Queen Street park, adjacent to the railway station – “Undisputed Bantamweight Champion of The World”, it proudly proclaims. And who could forget the Gold Medal win of Warragul’s cyclist Kathy Watts, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics? It was Australia’s first ever Olympic road race Gold medal.
We should probably here mention the Warragul Football Club. It was formed in 1879 – and that makes it older than the Collingwood Football Club and older than the VFL too. Warragul FC has produced more than its fair-share of champions who played in the elite ranks of VFL/AFL. Warragul loves its sport.
Across the street from Lionel Rose’s statue are some great examples of 19th century architecture, including the Railway Hotel, built in 1899 and the old Shire Hall, constructed in 1891 and now a museum.
Warragul is central to much that west Gippsland has to offer. It is a short drive north to the historic township of Noojee, to which a rail branch line ran until 1954, where the 100-metre trestle rail bridge is a tourist attraction. Held annually, to the south of Warragul, is Farm World, at Lardner Park, which showcases what the area’s agricultural industry has to offer. Exhibitors come from all over Australia to showcase their wares and more than 55,000 visitors come from far and wide to attend the three-day event, held each March.
Warragul caters well to the tourist, with plenty of motel and hotel style accommodation and bed and breakfast and farm stays aplenty. There are plenty of activities to enjoy, such as the harness racing at Logan Park and regular events at the West Gippsland Arts Centre, which is currently undergoing a multi-million-dollar expansion.
In short, Warragul is one of the jewels of Gippsland and we fervently hope it continues to prosper and develop through the encouragement of those same traits found amongst its founding fathers. After all, it was they who laid the foundations for Warragul’s prosperity.
Historical source – http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/6502552?zoomLevel=1