The Society

The Story

Creating a museum without a collection? Preposterous? Perhaps. But certainly unusual. It’s probably why McCrossin’s Mill is described as an “unusual” museum. “unlike any other”. It never had to contend with sheds full of bits and pieces that other people had decided were important. It didn’t have to interpret other people’s junk. It wasn’t compelled, out of a sense of duty or conformity, to display “same old” stories of pioneering families and hang their hangdog sepia photographs on a wall. It doesn’t have any Singer sewing machines or umpteen varieties of rusty flat irons or chipped chamber pots. No Egyptian mummies either, although one or two of those might have come in handy. No, none of that.

Not having a collection was a blessing. We could start afresh. We could be discerning. We could take a novel approach. We could redefine what a museum is supposed to be about. But we’d have to keep our eyes and our minds, open. And so we did. Wide open. A museum must not be merely a storehouse, nor just a research centre. A museum should be interesting, exciting even. It should be stimulating and entertaining. And why shouldn’t a museum be amusing? Many of the world’s most famous museums are, in essence, antique shops without price tags on the goods…well, not yet. What they own and exhibit has always been considered valuable, which is why the artefacts were collected in the first place. But a museum shouldn’t just be an antique shop. It should be something else as well. An ideas shop. McCrossin’s Mill has identified one other very special item to “sell”. Emotion.

Perhaps it’s best illustrated by this conversation that took place at the Mill one Sunday morning.

Visitor (museum buff): “We travel a lot and go to lots of museums…. but we’ve never seen anything like this before. I don’t know how to put it…”

His partner (museum buff) tried: “The exhibitions have character. It’s like the objects have a story to tell… you can connect with them.. it’s not like they’re just things with a label on them.. there’s a feeling about this place.. it’s hard to explain…”

Museum attendant: “Are you trying to say our museum has… personality?”

“Yeah, personality”, they nodded. “That’s close to whatever it is”.

The Early Years

McCrossin’s Mill was built by Alexander Mitchell for John McCrossin in 1870. There is a fascinating irony in the fact that Mitchell carried out the undertaking duties for the funeral of the bushranger Thunderbolt, shot dead by Constable Alexander Binning Walker near Uralla on May 25th, 1870. So Mitchell would have literally downed tools to lay Thunderbolt to rest.

Two eras overlap here. The end of the wild, desperate days of the NSW bushranging period occurs during the blooming of a golden period of commercial enterprise resulting from the Gold Rush and, as well, riding on the sheep’s back.

John was one of the seven children of Sam McCrossin who had gamely came to the colony from Newton Stewart, County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1841. Sam erected a hotel on the intersection of Queen Street (then the Main Northern Road) and Hill Street (now the site of Uralla Bowling Club) in 1853, to cater for the throng heading to the Rocky River gold fields.

So began Uralla.

John followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps by building the Post Office Store in the late 1850s on the corner of Bridge and Salisbury Streets. He then quit Uralla briefy to take part in an expedition (1859-60) led by Captain John Mackay to open up more grazing land in northern Queensland. The party formed up outside the Post Office Stores and journeyed as far as the Pioneer River, the present site of Mackay.

Legend has it that on the bank of the river, a coin was tossed to decide on the name of the new port. Had Mackay not won the toss, the joint would now be called McCrossin.

But back to Uralla and the 1870 McCrossin’s Mill. The Mill was equipped with a sixteen horse power engine capable of driving three sets of mill stones and conveying the wheat to the top floor. The flour was silk-dressed. The Mill’s production capacity was about one thousand bushels per week, an enormous output relative to Uralla’s population of about 350 souls.

At that time there were two other steam powered flour mills in Uralla. One run by Kirkwood and the other by Alex Porter. By 1872 the region was actually producing and processing more wheat than it could use, which implies that people could think in terms of exporting the surplus and also offers an explanation for the profusion of flour mills in the area. They were built on a belief in the good economic prospects of long-term flour exports.

Apart from the shift of the wheat belt to areas west of the New England, two other connected factors led to the demise of the local industry. The first was the importation of flour into the area, due to a shortfall in local production. This occurred from 1871 onwards. By 1876, South Australian flour, superior in quality to the local product, had such a hold on the local market that a correspondent to the Armidale Express wrote in defence of the local product,

“Know this, Mr. Cincinnatus, and it is a fact. That good New England flour makes sweeter bread than Adelaide flour; it is not so rich in colour, but for sweetness and nutritious properties it excels any flour that the colony can produce. Do you doubt it? Well, I can prove it, even by a dumb animal. Put a feed of Adelaide bran and a feed of New England bran before a horse; he will inevitably take the New England, both being in bulk the same lot.”

The second factor was the introduction of steel roller technology, first used in South Australia in 1879. Steel rollers produced a better grade of flour than grindstones. They were also more efficient, doubling the daily output of a mill without the need for more labour or fuel. The New England mills all employed grindstones.

New England farmers were also disadvantaged by climatic conditions. The cooler, wetter climate produced crops that were not of uniform height, and tended to lie close to the ground, making it impossible for farmers to take advantage of the new mechanical ‘stripper’.

Despite the demise of the rather ‘fly-by-night’ wheat industry in the New England, and the subsequent closure of McCrossin’s Mill in the mid-1890s, the construction of this building documents the rapid development of the region. Between the 1830s and the 1850s little development other than pastoralism took place in the New England. By 1870 however, many local industries, including brick-making and flour-milling, had been established. Agriculture had developed and transport had greatly improved, allowing the import and export of many types of goods, including food.

The arrival of the railway in 1882 sounded the death knell for local flour milling. By then, in 1892, John McCrossin had built the Chaff Cutting Shed (‘The Chaff House’) adjoining the mill, powered by the steam engine, with a drive shaft through the first floor ‘western’ brick wall.

In the early 1900s the mill was bought by a skin-buyer. The Coopers, a local pioneering family, became the next owners, using it for their hardware, building and undertaking business.

During the period, 1900 – 1930, the steam engine was relocated to the Rocky River gold field, the milling machinery dumped, the boiler room demolished, and the ground floor granite back wall dramatically modified to accommodate corrugated iron doors.

In about 1935 the McRae family bought the building to serve as a storehouse for their grocery, produce and hardware business, located on the site of the present Pioneer Park (originally the Roxy Cinema and eventually destroyed by fire in about 1989).

The mill boiler was buried on the site of the boiler room by Ken McRae in the early 1960s. It’s still there, but now with only memories bubbling away inside its rusting shell.

Uralla’s population remained at around 1000 from 1910 until the 1950s. By 1975 the population had jumped to 1700 as new comers recognized Uralla’s historic buildings, many of which had been preserved by neglect. Lower council rates and cheaper land also added to the attraction.

The appreciation of Uralla’s built heritage was bound to happen as a consequence of the sudden new regard for historic Sydney suburbs such as Balmain, Rozelle, Paddington and Newtown. This phenomenon was a result of the upheaval caused by Jack Mundey’s BLF’S green bans on demolition and development at The Rocks and Wooloomooloo. Out of the melee of the Green Bans emerged the NSW Heritage Act. It had big sharp teeth, and its bark was quite formidable as well. So that was the heritage climate in 1979.

Today, and even tonight after a few reds, it seems incredible that in that very year there was talk in Uralla of demolishing the old mill ‘in the name of progress.’ McRae’s Store had closed its doors, so the mill had ceased to have a purpose, and was on the market. The 1881 ‘Chaff House’ (known locally as ‘The Wire Shed’ because McRae’s stored their fencing materials in there) was also part of the tattered package. It appeared that McCrossin’s Mill was doomed.

The truly remarkable story of the formation of Uralla Historical Society for the specific purpose of ‘purchasing the mill, restoring it and converting it to a vibrant Museum and Function Centre’ is related vividly, passionately and often humorously in the book, ‘McCrossin’s Mill… Many Hands… and Me,” published by Uralla Historical Society in 2002. Although the book is now out of print, it may be possible to borrow a copy at the museum desk.

In an nutshell, here’s what happened: On November 13th, 1979, thirty five people attended a public meeting to form the Uralla Historical Society which, in hindsight, was something of a misnomer. The members then embarked on a campaign to fund the purchase of the mill by the sale of six hundred $20 ‘debentures’. The Society had fortuitously forged a link with the visionary Sydney architect and academic Peter Myers, who offered to lead the restoration project. He had a sound knowledge of the 1977 Heritage Act and previous successful experience with funding bodies. Myers produced some concept sketches which were quite remarkable. Society members, from that day on, referred to Peter Myers as ‘God’.

It should be pointed out that in the State Government election of 1977, the ‘Wranslide’, Bill McCarthy, Labour leader candidate, was elected as Member for the Northern Tablelands. Several of the prime movers of the Historical Society identified strongly with the ALP. Of course there were members who were staunch Country Party, but political affiliation had nothing to do with members’ commitment to the Mill project.

Uralla received a visit from the Minister for Planning and the Environment, Eric Bedford, and soon afterwards, two senior officers of the Heritage Council. All three recognised the passion in our eyes and the intrinsic promise of the derelict building. Funding for the project was announced soon afterwards. This caused mixed reactions in the Uralla community, from joy on our part to ‘what a waste of public money’ from a very vocal, sceptical and often hostile majority. Under the supervision of architect Myers and master builder Bob Maze, the members put in eight thousand hours of voluntary labour, working every Sunday (religiously) for two years. Funding for a part time curator had been gained, the position shared with Armidale Folk Museum.

McCrossin’s Mill Museum was officially opened by Bill McCarthy MLA on May 2nd 1982. Its first exhibition was ‘Thunderbolt, Life and Legend.”

In 1983 peter Myers received the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Award (NSW) for the restoration of the Mill, which was now the subject of a Heritage Council Permanent Conservation Order.

To many people’s surprise, especially some debenture holders, all debenture money was repaid by the end of 1983, thanks to generous donations from Uralla Players’ annual theatrical extravaganza, “Mrs O’Malley’s Magnificent Music Hall,” which dispersed considerable funds to local charitable organisations, schools, and sometimes needy individuals at the end of each season.

Many of those involved in the Mill renaissance were heavily involved in Uralla Players as well, the two separate committees often having the same executive office bearers.

McCrossin’s Stables/Store 1878

During the restoration of the Mill, several Society members broke into the 1878 Stables/Store near the Chaff Shed. Neglected by its owner, the brick decay was so bad that the structure would soon have collapsed. To prevent this, the sad, sore and sorry building was shored up with railway sleepers ‘liberated’ from a stack beside the track the day before.

In 1990, The Department of Environment and Planning provided the Society with funds to purchase the Stables/Store. This was most unusual, but because of the exceptional work done on McCrossin’s Mill, perhaps the government appreciated the return they’d get for their support. Further funding was supplied (on a $ for $ basis) to restore the building, under the Armidale architect Tony Deakin, and volunteer building supervisor, Peter Feitz.

At the 1998 New England Heritage and Urban Design Awards, the Stables/Store won two categories: ‘Best Restoration’ and ‘Best Internal Fit-Out’; and received a ‘highly commended’ for ‘Landscaping’. It now houses the Museum’s office, records, artefact storage and workshop. The ‘shopfront’ is leased, providing the Society with a welcome and ongoing income stream and the old Stables/Store with a new and fresh raison d’etre.

The Chaff Shed

The restoration of the 1881 Chaff Shed was completed in 2004, under the direction of Architect Peter Myers and voluntary building supervisor Peter Feitz.  The project was a winner at the prestigious Energy Australia/National Trust Heritage Awards in Sydney.

For too many years the Chaff Shed had leaned drunkenly, forlornly against its older brother, the Mill. Stout poles rotted at the base. Doors askew. Shattered windows boarded up. On its last legs. Desperate. Hopeless. A loser. It rattled and creaked through the long summer days, and sulked in the gloom of winter nights. The cries of despair from the rusted roof were heard, but ignored. That was before the miracle… performed by men on a manic mission. The big skeleton jacked back to square, the old bowed timbers squealing their protest, and their relief. New doors. New windows. Rugged staircase. Smart balustrades. The snarl of saws, thudding of hammers. The curses of exhausted sweaty men, the way it used to be when the shed was young and straight and true. Now it’s old, but straight and true. So rustic, yet so proud, standing tall again. A winner.

“Look at me now”, it gloats, shrugging off the thunderstorms, resilient to the winter’s howling winds. “Welcome” it says to the curious, who marvel at its immensity, its strength, its rough charm, its big fresh spaces.

The wide eyes wonder about the idiosyncratic lumps of rock and quirky chips in the granite wall, and the great stern poles lined up like grenadiers. There is a stillness here. No heaving and straining anymore. No cursing. There is calm here. There is respect.

Kent Mayo,
Honorary Director,
McCrossin’s Mill Museum.