The pres­tige of Mi­lawa lies in the his­tory of its peo­ple and land­marks.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Steve Kelly pho­tos Marc Bongers/ Mel Guy

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.

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