Griffith City Council - History of Griffith
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History of Griffith
The thriving City of Griffith is the regional centre of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, an abundant, picturesque oasis in an area which the explorer John Oxley described in 1817 as being "uninhabitable and useless to civilised man". Proclaimed a City in 1987, Griffith, with its modern shops, sophisticated boutiques, international restaurants, clubs, tourist attractions, leisure, recreational and accommodation facilities, bursts with vitality and friendly warmth.

Griffith's path from "uninhabitable...howling wilderness" to today’s cosmopolitan city has been a relatively short one, having its beginnings less than eighty years ago with the advent to the area of irrigation.

Following exploration of the inland, the 19th century saw the westward movement of settlers who utilised the semi-arid plains as massive sheep stations.The Griffith district occupies land which originally formed part of the pastoral runs of Cuba (now Kooba) and Benerembah Stations. Then, in the late 19th century, Sir Samuel Mc Caughey proved how irrigation could change the agricultural landscapes - by the potential for diversified crops and livestock, and the capacity for intensive farming. The New South Wales Government legislated for the "Barren Jack and Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act" in 1906; Barren Jack (now Burrinjuck) Dam was commenced in 1907; huge tracks of land were resumed, and the great scheme was launched.

Large numbers of men came to the area as construction workers, many with the aim of securing their own irrigation farms when released. The temporary headquarters of the administrative agency for the scheme, The Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, was established 5km south of the present site of Griffith at Bagtown - so named because of the widespread use of old cement bags from the canal constructions as the main building material. Quite a little village developed there as shops and service industries sprung up to service the needs of the construction camps, the Commission, and the new farmers and their families.

The first farms were made available in 1912, and the influx to the area increased as potential farmers from as far afield as Sydney, Broken Hill and California responded to the Government's vigorous advertising campaign. Many Italian migrants were drawn to the area to pursue the type of farming familiar to them in their homeland - some had already tried their hand at mining at Broken Hill, others had only just arrived in the country. Since then, Italians have lived and worked in the area, encouraging relatives and friends to migrate. The input of their toil and culture have enriched the area to the degree that it is now regarded as one of the most successful multicultural communities in the country.

Following World War 1, the population of the area again received a boost as returned soldiers settled on the irrigation farms under government sponsorship. By 1923, soldier settlers represented about one half of the total holders of M.I.A. farms.

The town of Griffith was proclaimed in 1916 and was named after Arthur Griffith, who was the New South Wales Minister for Public Works, 1910 - 1915. It was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, the Chicago architect who received world wide acclaim in 1912 when he won the competition for the design of Canberra. Like Canberra, his design for Griffith featured a distinctive radial pattern with wide tree - lined streets, ring roads and parks. The focal point of the town was to be a grand circle, the centre of government administration, crowning the central hill, with the business sector in close proximity. Burley Griffin's plan, however was not completely adhered to for a number of reasons, including the fact that his town plan catered for a population of 30,000. Also, at the initial auction of business blocks in July, 1916, sites along the present main street, Banna Avenue, proved to be cheaper than those located nearer the grand circle and they were in closer proximity to the railway station.

World War 1 held up the building and settlement of the new town, but by late 1919 settlement had begun. Some businesses were reluctant to leave the thriving Bagtown to relocate to the new town which was some considerable distance in the days of horse-drawn transport. However, by the early 1920s Bagtown had been abandoned, and all that now remains is the small Bagtown cemetery.

Up until 1928,the W.C. and I.C. undertook all the responsibilities normally shouldered by local government. In that year Wade Shire (named after the first commissioner, L.A.B. Wade) was constituted. Altered to Griffith Shire in 1982 following concern that its name was not identifiable with the town, the municipality is now known as Griffith City Council in accordance with its city status.

The miracle of irrigation has lead to the establishment of two main farm types in the area. Firstly, there are the horticultural farms with an average size of 16 hectares, clustered around the city and its satellite villages, producing citrus, grapes, prunes, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums. Secondly, there are large area mixed farms of about 180 - 200 hectares, on which rice, winter cereals, vegetables, sheep and beef cattle constitute the major agricultural yields.

With few exceptions water is delivered to the various farms by gravitation, and each farm's intake is measured by a Dethridge Wheel which has become one of the symbols of the district. No single industry in the M.I.A. has enjoyed such spectacular success as rice growing. Tried as an experiment in the early 1920s, it rapidly gained favour with the large area farmers and is now the area's largest money earner.

Completing the thriving primary industry of the area, secondary and service industries have evolved and become well established, making decentralisation in Griffith a working reality. Packing houses and fruit juice factories pack and prepare fruit and vegetables for markets around Australia and overseas; rice is milled and packaged in local grower-owned mills; and Australia's largest egg and poultry enterprise is located near Griffith.

Many other heavy industries are allied with primary industries, such as the engineering and manufacture of harvesting and handling equipment, while others, such as the large building trade, aren't dependant on agriculture. Along with rice and citrus, grapes make up the third component in the three main income earners for the area. The local wine industry now produces 80 % of all wine produced in New South Wales. Both national and local wine - makers have established wineries in and around Griffith and have won many industry awards both in Australia and overseas. Most of the wineries are open for inspection and wine-tasting, with some offering guided tours and barbecue facilities. La Festa is an international music, wine and food festival that is staged every Easter Saturday in the main street of Griffith.

Griffith possesses service facilities worthy of a provincial city. Road, rail and air services connect the city with other centres around Australia, local radio, television and newspaper media inform and entertain the population and the excellent medical facilities are backed up by the base hospital with its attendant specialist services.

There are a huge array of recreational outlets in and around Griffith. All sorts of sports are catered for at the playing fields, sports ovals, indoor stadiums, racetracks, and pools within the city boundaries. As well, Lake Wyangan, 10 km from the city centre is an ideal location for water sports such as sailing, water skiing, power boating, rowing and windsurfing - and has 10 hectares of picturesque picnic grounds.

A little further afield, the Cocoparra National Park, 24 km from Griffith provides the opportunity for bushwalking, picnicking, nature study, bush camping and photography. The park is abundant with varieties of flora and fauna, and the springtime sees the area alive with colour as a great number of wildflowers burst into bloom.

The escarpment which forms the northern boundary of the city area, known as Scenic Hill, offers panoramic views of the city and farming area, as well as being criss-crossed by walking tracks for bushwalking enthusiasts. Also located on Scenic Hill is the Hermit's Cave. This small cave was home for many years to Valerio Riccetti, an Italian migrant who created cliffside gardens, while living as a recluse in the cave. Along with many of his countrymen, Ricetti, was interned at the nearby town of Hay during World War II, then following the War he returned to Italy. His hillside gardens are being restored to their former glory by a local service club.

Also located on Scenic Hill is the popular Pioneer Park Museum where buildings and machinery used in the early days of settlement are displayed in 17 hectares of bushland. The Park was involved in a major undertaking for the 1988 Bicentennial Year, by re-creating the temporary settlement of Bagtown from which Griffith had its humble beginnings.

For those interested in the more artistic forms of recreation, Griffith now boasts an impressive regional theatre which was opened by the New South Wales Premier in 1987. The theatre's programme is filled with a variety of live entertainment featuring performers of a high calibre from local, national and international spheres. A regional art gallery and a number of private galleries also have much to offer the art lover.

Obviously Griffith, situated 570 km west of Sydney and 450 km north of Melbourne, is the ideal destination for visitors, as well as being an interesting stop-over point for travellers using the nearby Newell, Sturt and Western Highways. Straddling the banks of the main irrigation canal, it is the largest centre of population in the M.I.A., supporting 14,000 people, with another 10,000 living within the municipal boundaries, yet over eighty years ago not more then 100 people earned a living from the same soil. Gone is the semi-desert - verdant farms are now to be seen everywhere, planted with fruit trees, vines, cereal crops, pastures and rice, all of which make the area attractive and productive.

This thriving provincial city is fast becoming one of the great cities of Australia, a wonderful place to live, and a delightful place to visit.
Information compiled by Pamela Young, Western Riverina Community Library, Griffith

 
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