A GOURMET HERITAGE
The prestige of Milawa lies in the history of its people and landmarks.
The prestige of Milawa lies in the history of its people and landmarks.
THERE is more about the classic small country town of Milawa than meets the eye. There is a treasure trove of historic buildings scattered around the quaint landscape, stemming from the crossroads in the town centre, to the flat plains that surround, bordered by distinctive trees adorning the Snow Road - all a part of the rich history of how this wonderful town began.
The Milawa Commercial Hotel was established during the gold mining days and it was first owned by Colin Gardner, with his descendants still in the district. In the early 1860s James Henley built and named the Emu Hotel and the crossroads that later became known as Milawa, then simply known as ‘The Square’.
It was probably in the 1870s that it was agreed the local area should have a distinguishing name instead of being covered by the general name of Oxley. Suggestions were invited for a suitable name and George Harry Brown, who was the secretary of the Oxley Shire, was asked to make a choice from those submitted. A local clergyman allegedly suggested ‘Milawa’ and George Harry Brown selected this to be the official name as he thought it sounded pleasant. The word is of Aboriginal origin, meaning ‘flat land’.
It was 1901 and John Francis Brown, the founder of Brown Bros, later to be named Brown Brothers, and now Brown Family Wine Group, was the president of the Oxley Shire. He led a group to plant the initial trees in Milawa in recognition of the Federation. A detailed contract required 96 holes to be dug and a celebration was held on July 25 of that year to commemorate the completion of the project.
When looking at the history of Milawa, a good place to start is Brown Brothers Winery. It was the catalyst for the town people’s employment and its subsequent growth, mainly from the mid1970s onwards. I caught up with the great grandson of George Harry Brown, John Graham Brown, a third generation winemaker, who I’ll refer to by his Christian name ‘John’ from here on, to avoid confusion.
On the maternal side of the Browns’ heritage was John’s great, great grandfather, a fellow named John Graham. During the gold rush at Beechworth he came to Australia from Scotland via Canada - a builder by trade. Because the number of miners was “getting to plague proportions” the food supply became depleted so John Graham made a decision to buy land and produce food crops in Milawa. He bought 120 acres and planted grain, fresh fruit and fresh table grape varieties. A man named Wills bought an equivalent sized block on the western side and John Graham later bought the title from him. John Graham settled in Milawa in 1857 and strangely enough the government land sales occurred between Christmas and New Year.
A year later George Harry Brown, who was a gold miner, purchased 92 acres of land at Hurdle Creek with four mates – Robert Montgomery, Alexander Simpson, and brothers Frederick and Charles Lloyd. George retained the land when his friends sold out their share to him and bought other parcels of land in the area. It was George Harry Brown’s son John Francis Brown - John’s grandfather - who planted the first vines at the now famous vineyard. John Graham, who was living at the existing Brown Brothers site, had a daughter. When she married “George Harry Brown from down the road”, the couple inherited the land, after “old John Graham” died. >>
John Francis Brown planted 10 acres of vines when he was 18 years old in 1885 and they came into production in 1889, a time when the first wine was made. He registered the trading name Brown Brothers expecting one or two of his brothers to come in with him - but they never did. He traded as Brown Brothers throughout his career and his son followed on, continuing to use the trading name, but because he had only one son and three daughters it couldn’t follow its literal meaning. It wasn’t until John’s generation that there were four brothers and the Brown (Bros) Brothers name genuinely mirrored the company structure.
The company wasn’t without its hard times, with the original vineyard planted in 1885 wiped out by the disease phylloxera during World War I. But it was John Francis Brown’s astuteness which saw them through. Knowing the disease was coming, he planted grafted fruit varieties tested in Rutherglen on resistant root stock before the disease arrived.
John’s father, John Charles Brown, had a tough time from WWI, the Great Depression and WWII, like many others trying to survive let alone make a crust during this time. Rabbit was a common food on the dinner plate and Wangaratta car salesman Alan Capp used to come and buy the rabbits John hunted, allowing the young entrepreneur to buy his first Malvern Star bicycle.
“We hung the rabbits in pairs at the Milawa crossroads and Alan left the money in a tin and we’d come and collect it after school,” John chuckled.
It was during the post war period of the 1960s that John Charles Brown wrote in his diary that Milawa was “a bit of a backwater” with no investment. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s it began to change and John believes that this was parallel with the growth of Brown Brothers.
“We were able to employ more people and they came to settle in the area,” he said.
“Now we employ about 300 people, not all in Milawa but we’re quite an economic driver in the local community and it has given prestige to the area.”
The Milawa Gourmet Region is now well renowned and John says it was his brother Ross who was instrumental in getting it under way. He was able to marshal a few people to get the gourmet region going and John said it has a life of its own now.
To further understand the history of the town and its origins there are countless stories in hardback books released about Milawa and Oxley. One is titled About A Mile Away (available for purchase at Brown Brothers), put together by several people who are behind a current project to signpost key landmarks that will inform trail users of the town’s heritage.
Called the Oxley-milawa Heritage Trail, the plan is to signpost 15 points along the walking/bicycle trail from Oxley to Milawa. Key focal points in Milawa are earmarked to include the police station and stables, the R Culph Blacksmith, the hall, primary school, Royal Bank of NSW, Commercial Hotel, Milawa Mustards, Farrell’s Blacksmith, Brown Brothers, Powell Butcher Shop, Milawa Cemetery, Milawa Dairy Co-op, recreation reserve and racecourse.
Every year thousands of people visit the King Valley for its food and wine but several locals still say more can be done from a tourism perspective to market the town and the interesting stories that have made it the intriguing place it is today. In hand with the work that’s been done by the heritage wineries such as Brown Brothers and others in the valley, and the notoriety of the gourmet region, it’s the work locals have done to document this history, and future projects like the trail, that can assist in taking the town’s prestige to the next level.
RICH HISTORY / Third generation winemaker John Graham Brown’s family have played a pivotal role in the development of the gourmet region.