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Griffith, NSW

Unique muliticultural rural town in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.

Griffith is a little piece of Italy in the heart of the Riverina. It still has the extraordinary statistic that 60% of the city's population have Italian ancestors and it still celebrates Italian culture with extensive vineyards in the region, providores in the town selling local produce, and excellent cafes and restaurants where the pasta and coffee can be favourably compared to the best that Sydney (and Italy) can offer. Today the city's dominant Italian culture has been enriched by substantial populations of Tongans, Samoans, Afghanis, Indians and Aborigines.

Griffith emerged out of the construction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) in the early years of the twentieth century. The irrigation channels, and the regular supply of water through the hot summer months, have made the area surrounding the town a major producer of rice, citrus fruits (valencia oranges are the largest crop), stone fruits, vegetables, wheat, cotton, sheep, wool, eggs and canola. Amusingly all of the gherkins used by McDonald's are also grown in the district. Inevitably Griffith has had strong associations with marijuana growing and the activities of the 'Griffith mafioso' reached such a level in the 1970s that local anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay was mysteriously "disappeared", presumed murdered. Griffith was designed by the American architect and town planner, Walter Burley Griffin, and its central feature is the broad, attractive main street with a wide median strip and a impressive park. At the top of the main street are two circular roads. This radial design echoes Griffin's famous design for Canberra.


Griffith is located 574 km west of Sydney via the Hume Freeway and Burley Griffin Way. It is 131 m above sea-level.


Origin of Name

The town was officially proclaimed in 1916 and named after Arthur Griffith who was the Minister for Public Works at the time.


Things to See and Do

Griffith Visitors Information Centre
Located at the corner of Banna and Jondaryan Avenues the Griffith Visitors Centre is more than just an information booth. Outside, on a tall column, is a Fairy Firefly Fighter Bomber which a tribute to those who served in World War II. Nearby is a Dethridge Wheel, a device which measures the volume of water which a given farm draws from the MIA canal. It is a memorial to all those who created the MIA scheme. Inside the centre are displays about the history of the area. It is an ideal place to start any visit to the city.

Banna Avenue and The Memorial to Pioneer Women
Drive up Banna Avenue, the broad main street of town, and you will pass the Regional Art Gallery, the CWA Park, then, at the roundabout, the attractive Court House (1928). In Memorial Park, on your right, is the Griffith War Memorial. At the top of the street, in classic Burley Griffin style, there are three radiating circuits and in a garden in front of the Griffith City Council building there is an impressive brass statue which is a memorial to the district's pioneer women.

Soft Sculptured Curtain
In Neville Place is the Regional Theatre which contains the unusual soft sculptured curtain featuring a panorama of Griffith which was created by 300 local women. The curtain was unveiled in 1987 and was result of a tireless commitment by local woman, Dorothy Waide. The curtain can be inspected at 1.00 am, 2.00 pm and 4.00 pm on weekdays, tel: (02) 6962 8444 or check out http://www.griffith.nsw.gov.au/cp_themes/theatre/page.asp?p=DOC-QVB-14-08-70.

Pioneer Park Museum
It would be easy to spend a day at the Pioneer Park Museum. Located 2 km north-east of town, via Remembrance Driveway, is Scenic Hill where the impressive the Pioneer Park Museum is located on 18 ha of bushland at the southern end of the McPherson Ranges. Opened in 1971, it is a huge complex devoted to preserving the history of the district. It consists of over 40 old and replicated buildings from the Riverina area. Not surprisingly, given the space, the museum is a huge repository with many valuable pieces. There is a special exhibition of textiles; a wedding dress collection from the 1910s to recent times; an extensive range of agricultural equipment; a specialist building exploring the history of wine and irrigation in the district; a souvenir shop housed within the former Bynya Homestead (1879), with largely original timbers; an old school, church and shearing shed; a replica pub, post office, blacksmith's stable and shop of the late nineteenth century; a chemist's dispensary from the early 20th century; an original coach house made of river gum slabs; a transportable type of gaol much used in the early settlements; a re-creation of Bagtown - the first European settlement in the district; a drop-log saddler's shop; 'Fairview' cottage (1880) with its home-made nails and timbers dressed with broad axe and adze; Griffith's first hospital; Goolgowi railway station and aboriginal canoe trees. Particularly impressive is the Italian Museum, contained within the Park, which explores and commemorates the important role played by Italians in the early development of Griffith. The complex is open 9.30 am - 4.00 pm daily, tel: (02) 6962 4196 or check out http://www.griffith.nsw.gov.au/cp_themes/pioneer/page.asp?p=DOC-NJO-73-67-38.

Lookouts and Walks
There is a road, Scenic Drive, which runs along the eastern side of Scenic Hill Reserve and offers a number of excellent viewing vantage points as well as access to walking trails through the reserve. The first lookout, located 1.5 km north-east of the Pioneer Park Museum, is the Rotary Lookout. Further along Scenic Drive is Sir Dudley DeChair's Lookout, a natural rock formation which provides an interesting panoramic view of the citrus orchards and vineyards around the town. Griffith is totally surrounded by orchards and vineyards. From here, or via the Narinari Loop Walking Track from Scenic Hill, it is possible to visit the Hermit's Cave.

Hermit's Cave
Valerio Ricetti emigrated to Australia from Italy in 1914. He was 16 at the time. He arrived in Port Pirie in South Australia, and made his way across to Broken Hill where he worked in the mines until, having been spurned by a barmaid he loved, he left the town and started drifting. He headed back to Adelaide, worked for a while as a timber cutter and took up other odd jobs.

It was in Adelaide that he suffered the first of what was to prove a run of bad luck. Visiting a local brothel he left his wallet behind and the doorman would not let him back in to retrieve it. He hurled a rock through the brothel window, was arrested, and served time in Adelaide Gaol. Freed he moved to Melbourne where, down on his luck, he attempted to pawn his coat. Unfortunately he was duped by a passer-by who said he would pawn it for him and never returned.

From there Ricetti went to work on the Murray River paddle steamers but he was disillusioned and disheartened. He became a swagman and walked along the banks of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers until he arrived at Hillston. From there he walked the 120 km overland to Griffith. It is said that he arrived on the outskirts of the town just as the heavens opened and seeking shelter from the storm he found a large rocky overhang where he spent the night. The next day he realised the scale of the overhangs and caves and the abundant food and water nearby and decided to stay. Over the next 25 years using the techniques of dry stonewalling – he was greatly helped by the fact that he had been apprenticed as a stonemason in Italy – he built a personal utopia which he called ‘mia sacra collina’ (my sacred hill). Misleadingly called ‘The Hermit’s Cave’, the site is made up of shelters, terraced gardens, exotic plants, water cisterns, dry-stone walling and linking bridges, stairways and paths that stretch intermittently across more than a kilometre of the escarpment of Scenic Hill. These structures were created by moving hundreds of tonnes of stone and earth, together with the ingenious incorporation of natural features in the landscape. To remain unseen by the locals he worked at night and early in the morning.

Ironically, in an area where 60 per cent of the population now claim Italian ancestry, Ricetti initially believed he was the only Italian in the district and lived a reclusive life. In reality two of his old compatriots from Broken Hill had settled nearby and increasing numbers of Italian migrants were arriving.

During World War II Australian security became convinced he was a spy and enemy alien and was interned as a prisoner of war in Liverpool, then Cowra and Loveday Internment Camps. He was put to work building roads and instructed his captors on how to improve their road-building methods. When released he was re-employed by his old friends in Griffith. He returned to Italy in 1952 to visit his brother and he died there six months later.

Today what is left of Ricetti's "utopia" can be accessed by driving to the Sir Dudley De Chair Lookout on Scenic Drive just north of Griffith. Interestingly it has been placed on the NSW Heritage Register. The remnants are a reminder of the unique talents of a very gifted stonemason who became disenchanted with his fellow human beings and decided that true "utopia" lay in his introspective and lonely vision.

Griffith Cemetery
Italians really know how to do headstones and cemeteries and, not surprisingly, the Griffith cemetery is a wonderland of elaborate stonework memorialising many of the early settlers. The interesting cemetery with its family mausoleums and elaborate headstones is located at the corner of Blumer Avenue and Wakaden Street.


Other Attractions in the Area

The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme
The history of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme (MIA) began in 1900 when North Yanco station was purchased by Sir Samuel McCaughey, a remarkable man who was both a pastoralist, philanthropist, highly successful experimenter in sheep breeding and inventor-designer-improver of many farm implements.

As early as the 1870s people had realised the potential of the Riverina plains around Griffith and Leeton but realised that the water supply was unreliable and seasonal. It was McCaughey who solved the problem by building a complex irrigation system for his property which included 320 km of channels and employed two steam engines to pump water from the Murrumbidgee. It was a template for the irrigation of the entire area and its success convinced the government to initiate large-scale development by beginning work on the Burrinjuck Dam which would store spring waters brought down the Murrumbidgee from the snows in the Snowy Mountains.

Construction on the scheme started in 1906. The result was that it transformed the barren plains into a fertile agricultural oasis. It is now the richest tract of agricultural land in Australia. The waters of the Murrumbidgee are stored at the Burrinjuck Dam, near Yass, and Blowering Dam, on the Tumut River. The two have a combined storage capacity of 2,654,000 megalitres. The water passes through Berembed Weir and is diverted into the main MIA canal which is 159 km long with a flow capacity of 6500 megalitres per day. Altogether there are 3,500 km of supply channels which operate by gravity flow, and another 1,600 km of drainage channels servicing some 3,100 landholdings owned by 2,500 customers in an area that covers 660,000 ha.

Settlement of the Griffith area started with makeshift accommodation for the men who were building the canal. Located 5 km south-east of the present townsite, the site became known as 'Bagtown', after the old canvas cement bags which were used for the workers' tents. Facilities were soon added. There was a general store, a co-op, an eating house, a barber, butcher, baker and blacksmith.

The development of the MIA enabled the subdivision of land, previously used for grazing, into smaller units which could be used for mixed farming, dairying, horticulture and sheep-rearing. A cannery opened at Leeton in 1914. Becoming a co-operative in 1935, the cannery established a British Empire record in 1940 by canning 419,609 cans of peaches in a day. The first rice mill in the MIA opened at Leeton in 1951. Italian migrants, drawn by the similarity of soil and climate to Italy, were crucial to the successful development of local horticulture which struggled initially. Today the area is so successful that it contributes more than $5 billion to the Australian economy. It is much more than just vineyards and citrus groves. The local farmers produce large volumes of onions, carrots, pumpkins, capsicums, tomatoes, gherkins, watermelons, rockmelons, wheat, barley, corn, canola and prunes. The statistics for Griffith are impressive: it produces 70% of all citrus fruit (predominantly oranges, lemons and mandarins) grown in New South Wales; 65% of all grapes grown in the state and more than 1 million tonnes of rice.

Wineries, Tastings and Cellar Doors
There are a number of wineries in the area which are open for tasting and some conduct guided tours. The most sensible approach is to spend time in the Visitors Centre working out which wines you want to taste and getting a good local map and directions to the specific cellar doors.

Catania Fruit Salad Farm
The most popular way to experience the fresh produce of the district is to go on a farm tour at Catania Fruit Salad Farm. As the website explains "Catania Farm is one of the oldest farms in the district. The original mud brick farmhouse was built in 1912 by the pioneer Percy Cox, using soil ploughed from the farm, and still stands today ... Catania Farm gives visitors the opportunity to visit a working farm which grows a wide range of fruits and nuts and allows them to be able to pick the fruit straight from the trees." The tours take around 1 hour 45 minutes and it is possible to buy the produce from the shop on the property. For more information check out http://www.cataniafruitsaladfarm.com.au/farm-tours.

Cocoparra National Park
Located 32 km north-east of Griffith via Yenda is the 8,357 ha Cocoparra National Park which offers the visitor excellent bushwalking and birdwatching. It is distinguished by a low mountain range which rises above the Riverina plain. The slopes are covered with dry sclerophyll forest and stands of ironbark and cypress pine. There are tea trees on the forest floor and a range of acacia throughout the park. Colourful wildflowers are profuse in springtime. There are a number of scenic gullies, one of which, Ladysmith Glen, is a narrow gorge, 33 m deep, which has been cut into the rock by Jack's Creek. The park is a nesting place for the peregrine falcon and the wedge-tailed eagle and a home to the endangered painted honeyeater and diamond firetail. There are also plenty of parrots, thornbills, honeyeaters, grey kangaroos and possums plus echidna, marsupial mice and bats. The National Parks website provides detailed information about the walking tracks at Falcon Falls, Mount Brogden, Woolshed Falls and Jacks Creek and provides directions to the picnic areas in the park. Check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/Cocoparra-National-Park for more information.

Walter Burley Griffin in Leeton and Griffith
This is abridged from “Pioneer Work: the Murrumbidgee irrigation area towns of Leeton and Griffith” by Bob McKillop published by the Walter Burley Griffin Society. The full article can be read at http://www.griffinsociety.org/lives_and_works/a_leeton_griffith.html.

In the early years of the twentieth century, because Australia was less than a decade old (literally we were still a child), we went through a phase of “nation building”. We loved Big Projects. One of those big projects, and one which shows that big projects are often very good ideas, was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Authority.
The first Commissioner was a civil engineer, Leslie Augustus Burton Wade, who was appointed from 1 January 1913. He had the power to fulfil his grand vision of creating a huge oasis of prosperous, intensive farms operated by energetic families recruited through a world-wide campaign. Wade's vision went beyond the physical infrastructure and the farms. He was looking to new railways to service the area, new business enterprises to handle and market the produce, processing facilities, power generation, and domestic water supplies and commercial service centres to support the expected population. The crowning glory would be new cities and towns that reflected the grandeur of the scheme and the prosperity it would bring to inland Australia. The news that the young and gifted Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin, had won the international design competition for the national capital at Canberra was followed with close interest by Wade. When in August 1913 local architects brought Griffin to Australia to promote his concepts, Wade saw an opportunity to put his vision into practice.
Two urban designs were required. The town of Leeton, named after the prominent MIA supporter Charles Lee and located at North Yanco on part of Sir Samuel McCaughey's property, had already seen buildings erected by the Trust and 140 town allotments were sold there on 3 April 1913. There were more ambitious plans for a city of 30,000 people further west. Named Griffith after Sir Arthur Griffith, another Minister for Public Works, this was to be established on a greenfield site five kilometres north of 'Bagtown', the temporary headquarters of the WC&IC there, for which old cement bags from canal construction works were used as the main building material.
Wade met Griffin in Sydney during his visit and evidently communicated his desire for the architect to undertake his urban design work before his departure from Australia, for Griffin wrote to Wade from Honolulu during his return voyage on 28 November 1913 with preliminary drawings for the tops of the water towers for Leeton.
Griffin wrote to Wade on 20 June 1914 from the office of the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in Melbourne stating: 'This is to let you know that I am not dead, though I have nearly submerged.' Griffin was sending blueprints of the Griffith railway line and advised that he hoped to talk design issues over with Wade in Sydney the following week.
Nevertheless Wade, in his annual report for the year ending 30 June 1914, said that an ornamental parapet had already been constructed to Griffin's design for the concrete water tower at Leeton and that Griffin had been entrusted with the design of the balance of the township not already thrown open. Griffin was also undertaking the urban design for Griffith, including the terminus for the Barellan to Griffith railway then under construction.

Evidently reflecting Wade's hopes and ambitions, the design drawings for the MIA towns reflect a grandeur and scale estranged from the reality of the Australian rural landscape. The drawings were prepared by Roy Lippincott, probably at the office located at 183 Greenwich Road in the Sydney suburb of that name. Coloured sketches on silk were also prepared for each town, the colouring being done by Marion Mahony, and these were mounted in fine cedar frames for exhibition. The originals are now with the State Records Office of NSW.
For Leeton, Griffin proposed a new town centre around a prominent hill. Two water reservoir towers on top of the hill were to provide the main entrance to the town. A grand central plaza would lead from the towers, complete with ornamental pools and a fountain. The drawings depict large buildings with typical Griffin geometric forms similar to those that grace the Griffin drawings for the national capital.

As noted above Griffith was to be developed on a greenfield site and the vision was to be on a grander scale than Leeton. Taking 'a modest estimate of 30,000 for the population', Griffin planned his city around a one and a half mile radius circle. Like Canberra, the urban design featured a distinctive radial pattern with wide tree-lined streets, ring-roads and parks. Griffin saw the focal point to be a grand circle, the centre of government administration, crowning the central hill. Based on similar principles to those used for Canberra, Griffin explained:
These most important structures of the city will command the commercial axis and dominate the vistas in every direction…The central group thus governing the public architecture of the town as well as its affairs comprises the headquarters of the irrigation district, the Town Hall, the court house and subordinate public offices.

Dashed hopes
Fate dealt Griffin's hopes of implementing his vision on the Riverina plains a savage blow. Leslie Wade suddenly took ill and died on 12 January 1915 aged just 50. With his key promoter gone enthusiasm for the grand scheme waned.
Leeton got its circular street pattern and water towers, the first of which was completed in 1915, with their classic Griffin features. For years they were framed by the typical 'outback architecture' of the School of Arts building erected by the WC&IC in 1913. A railway connection was made with Narrandera in 1922 and the infrastructure of a typical Australian rural town emerged over the years. The town's main commercial centre, Pine and Kurrajong Avenues, boasts some of the finest Art Deco architecture in Australia, reflecting the era of the town's establishment.
Griffin's road pattern was adopted for the town of Griffith, proclaimed in 1916, but the scale of the centre and its architecture fell far short of the early vision.
Leslie Wade was buried in Sydney's Waverley Cemetery, the officers of his WC&IC erecting the headstone on his grave. It is located just behind the James Stuart tomb, probably the best built of Griffin's early structures in Australia.



* Prior to European occupation the area around Griffith had been Wiradjuri country for over 20,000 years.

* The first European to reach the area was the explorer John Oxley who passed through in 1817. He was unimpressed with what he saw: "the soil a light red sand parched with drought, a perfect level plain overrun with acacia scrub ... there is a uniformity of barren desolation of this country which wearies one more than I am able to express...I am the first white man to see it and I think I will be undoubtedly the last."

* In 1838 the explorer Charles Sturt passed through the area and commented that: "the dreariness of the view ... the plains are open to the horizon, but here and there a stunted gum tree or a gloomy cypress seems placed by Nature as mourners over the surrounding desolation. Neither bird nor beast inhabits this lonely and inhospitable region, over which the silence of the grave seems to reign."

* By 1839 there was open warfare between settlers and the local Wiradjuri. Massacres and atrocities occurred.

* In 1900 Samuel McCaughey's developed a successful irrigation system at Yanco.

* The government began the construction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in 1906.

* 1912 saw the official proclamation of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme.

* Local settlement started around 1912 with makeshift accommodation for the men who were building the canal 5 km south-east of the present townsite. This site became known as 'Bagtown'.

* The first blocks of land for farming were made available in 1912. Italian migrants were drawn to the area by the similarity with areas of Italy.

* Italian migrants brought their traditions of viticulture and market gardening to the district. They enhanced a winemaking industry which began in 1913 when J.J. McWilliam planted 40 000 grape cuttings on his land at Hanwood.

* Griffith, like Leeton and Canberra, was designed in 1914 by American architect Walter Burley Griffin according to a radial design, with wide, tree-lined streets, ring roads and parks.

* The town of Griffith was officially proclaimed in 1916 and named after Arthur Griffith.

* The railway reached the town in 1916.

* McWilliams built the Hanwood Barrel Winery in 1917 to process his grapes.

* From 1919 onwards many returned servicemen settled on the new farms.

* By the early 1920s Bagtown had been abandoned.

* The rice industry was founded in 1924.

* A milling co-op was formed in 1950 as local producers were unhappy with the returns from private millers.

* Griffith was proclaimed a city in 1987.


Visitor Information

Griffith Visitor Information Centre, 1 Jondaryan Avenue, tel: 1800 681 141, (02) 6962 4145. Open from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm.


Useful Websites

The town's official website - http://www.griffith.nsw.gov.au/cp_themes/visit/home.asp - has useful advice on eating, accommodation and things to see and do in the district. It is possible to download the town's 40 page tourist brochure at http://issuu.com/griffithcitycouncil/docs/visit_griffith_high_res_final/3?e=4012511/4239784.

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