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A brief history of the original old Nhill Mill

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(Or how the town of Nhill began)

John Williams, Treasures of Nhill & District Facebook page, 16 November 2023, Nhill Free Press & Kaniva Times

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the growing of wheat and its conversion to flour had become major industries in the colony of Victoria.

Steam-driven mills were set up in major cereal-growing areas and Nhill’s future prosperity was built upon the growing of wheat and the establishment of a steam grinding mill.

The township evolved from this mill on a plain, stretching away from the base of a sandhill in the East, within a “selection” called “Nhill Station” owned by Dugald Macpherson.

(Under the Selection Act, settlers were able to apply for a licence to occupy Crown land. If they met certain conditions, such as improving the land and paying a fee, they could then apply for a grant of land. This system allowed small farmers and labourers – known as selectors – to acquire their own land for the first time.)

Almost on the summit of the sandhill and barely a mile from what was to become a town, was the Nhill homestead where the manager William Macdonald lived for many years.

In 1878, before the town was established, flour millers Frank and John Oliver saw a need for a mill further west of Horsham to serve the needs of wheat farmers who were forced to cart their crop over an arduous route to Horsham.

Bordertown was an option, however, customs duties ruled it out.

An attempt to establish a mill near a creek at Mount Elgin was knocked back, so the Olivers turned their attention to a location on a rough road junction near a swamp below Nhill Station that linked Dimboola, Lawloit, Bullarook and Glenlee.

John Oliver bought a 3-acre site, opposite the swamp which included a creek, from the Government for 24 pounds.

It was from this location on the Dimboola to Lawloit road (the Overland Route) that the “new township” grew on the back of Oliver’s new mill constructed during 1879.

In the bushland there were no other buildings in cooee! other than the mill and a small hut behind the mill built by Dan Brown to serve as a residence for Frank Oliver and family for a number of years.

The hut, Nhill’s first house, was demolished some 18 years later.

The mill, in what was to become Victoria Street, appeared to be three storeys high, made up of two floors and an attic and would have contained a small steam engine, and at least one pair of millstones.

The boiler was housed in a smaller building next to the mill and behind both buildings, the Oliver’s built a large dam fed by water from a creek, which in modern times became a box drain.

The mill wasn’t of a solid stone construction but timber and galvanised iron carted from Horsham. It was painted white and was up and running by the end of 1879.

In time, it would become a white elephant, with its final demise coming during the 1897 tornado when the vacant building was virtually flipped into the middle of the road and completely demolished.

Mansfield and Murphy’s furniture store was later erected on the site, eventually converted into a garage by Jack Bullen and then down the track, it became Bongiorno’s garage and now Home Hardware.

In 1879 the area around the mill was surveyed for a township and licences were issued for several businesses, including a store and a hotel, in the future Victoria Street, referred to at the time as the Lawloit Road or Mount Elgin Road.

The primitive township developed four “suburbs”. West of Victoria Street was known as Church Hill, North of Nelson Street was named Halpin Park after James Halpin, who built a house in the area; beyond Lorquon Road was Kellytown, where Edward Kelly resided and the East End was land east of Campbell Street where Dugald Macpherson had subdivided part of Nhill Station into allotments.

When built, the mill was an imposing and noisy structure and was registered as the Union Flour Mill. “Union” was a common name given to many mills of the era, reflecting a joint enterprise. However, it was usually referred to as “the mill”, “Nhill Flour Mill or Oliver’s Mill”.

There were several Olivers involved in this “Union”…John Melbourne, Frank Henry and their children, Frank Henry Junior, John Duncan, Loftus Nhill, William Alfred and Ada Maud. Ada would become Nhill’s first Post Mistress, operating from the telegraph office next to the mill.

Ada, the daughter of Frank Senior, would later recall the day in August 1880 when she and her sisters arrived in Nhill. Their accommodation would be that previously mentioned slab hut behind the mill. It was almost ready for occupation, except the oven was not set, waiting for a bricklayer, so the cooking was done outside, which was quite an experience for Geelong College girls.

Frank’s brother John built a small house for his family three-quarters of a mile northeast of the mill.

While Frank became the most active in the community, John Melbourne Oliver was to become a mover and shaker in his own way. In 1880, the year Nhill was informally recognised as a township, John’s wife Annie gave birth to the 4th of their 12 children.

The baby was named Loftus Nhill Oliver.

Loftus Nhill became a labourer and went to live in Kalgoorlie, where he enlisted in the First World War.

He died of an illness (abscess on the brain) during his service and was buried with full military honours at the Brookwood Cemetery in the UK.

With news of a mill attracting settlers and squatters from far afield as the South Australian border in 1880, A Polish Jew from Buangor jumped at the opportunity to provide a general store at the location.

Marks Kozminski also saw a need for a pub because hotels provided valuable local hubs that strengthened community relationships and encouraged wider social interaction. They also contributed to the local economy.

But the pressing need was for settlers to be able to quench their thirst during the scorching heat and buy food while they waited for their grain to be turned into flour at the new mill.

Kozminsky encouraged Horsham selector Clement Hardingham to shift his tiny timber wayside hotel from Kiata to Nhill, which he did, using builder George Nuzum and his bullock wagon. One assumes he made several trips or had more than one wagon for the removal operation.

(Kiata, Dimboola and Lawloit were established places before the existence of Nhill)

Later Nuzum would use 7 wagons to remove the “Pig and Whistle Hotel from Dimboola to Kaniva where it became the Club Hotel.

In Nhill, Hardingham and his new wife, Mary, called their relocated hotel, The Union, after the mill on the other side of the broad road which evolved into the main street.

(Kiata would have another hotel in 1884. Ironically, it would be called the Union.)

The Hardingham’s were said to be the first couple to settle in Nhill and they set about supplying the needs of travellers to the region, which had only recently been thrown open to settlement.

After a short time, Hardingham’s had to give up the hotel because they were too generous, giving extended credit to cash-deprived travellers who stayed the night at the little pub. Robert Rintoule took over in 1882 and the hotel was rebuilt twice over the years.

Clem was fond of racing and was responsible for the first racecourse being constructed at Nhill, and his horses competed in the first meeting. He also erected sale yards.

Either the Union Hotel or Kozminski’s store was the second building in Nhill after the mill….there are conflicting stories.

The “new township” as it was referred to by squatters, although primitive, grew rapidly with timber buildings similar to those seen in a Wild West movie popping up in the newly surveyed streets. In less than 12 months, three hotels, a store, and a dozen other businesses had joined the mill and were in full fling.

To use the modern word “logistics”, it must have been a significant challenge when building a new town. There was no railway, just bullock wagons and horse teams to transport building materials and all the other items required to set up a business or house.

The Naracoorte Herald wrote:

There is nothing to which the Nhill people will not aim at, and strange to say they generally succeed in obtaining all they want.

Nominally there are only two leading spirits in Nhill a very |tall one (Frank Oliver) and a very short one. (Marks Kozminsky) but wherever they lead all Nhill follows.

One of these gentlemen, may be considered as being the pioneer of Nhill and the other followed soon after.

In 1885, problems began to arise for the mill. First, a new boiler had to be installed, stopping flour production at the height of the season; then, a crank on the steam engine failed and wrecked some of the machinery, resulting in a considerable damage bill.

Sadly, the pioneering Oliver’s family fortunes collapsed six years after the mill was established with Marks Kozminsky stepping in to take over the building, employing John Duncan Oliver as head miller.

Soon after acquiring the mill, Kozminsky was faced with an expensive problem. The dam had turned into a health issue as it was filled with sludge and was causing a stink.

The Lowan Shire ordered that the dam be filled in following a report by the Central Board of Health. Frank Oliver had escaped this predicament as he had gone on to run a mill in Goroke.

The mill was later sold on to James Fry, while the Fry Brothers established a new roller mill near the new railway.

With Fry Brothers moving into their new mill, the Victoria Street mill fell into disuse and in no time, the building was referred to as “the old mill”, used for storage and then as a creamery for a brief period in 1893.

Kozminsky was behind a butter factory being built near the brewery opposite the race course and while construction was underway, the old mill building was used to process milk for cream and cheese.

The final death blow for the pioneer landmark came in 1897 when it was demolished by the tornado that caused considerable damage to Nhill.

Reports say the mill was literally flipped onto the roadway with wreckage strewn along Victoria Street.

Other than being the first building in the town and a wellknown historic landmark, the abandoned building didn’t seem much of a loss, with sheets of iron and matchwood littering the road.

However, the heavy mill stones remained in place and were put to good use by builder John Barnes, who in 1911 broke them up to use in the foundations of his new shop on the corner of Brougham and Victoria Streets. The two-storey building is now being restored by Jeremy Whitehead.

See all the pictures in the issue.

Nhill Free Press & Kaniva Times 22 November 2023

This article appeared in the Nhill Free Press & Kaniva Times, 22 November 2023.

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