Destination Omeo

Omeo, Victoria.

The Life and Times of W.A.Kracke.

And so it came to pass that after twenty-two years of living in northern Queensland, with my wife and young family, I journeyed south. I had taken up the offer to manage “Benambra House”, a general store in the Victorian alpine mining town of Omeo.

Author’s Note: In early 1902, William Kracke and his wife and five children moved to Gunning, New South Wales. This was the region where the parents of his wife, Eleanor Elizabeth (nee Dowling), had an extensive Marino sheep grazing property.
In 1906, Willian Kracke operated a bicycle shop (Kracke & Folkes Cycle Depot Macquarie Street – next to Masonic Hall) in Dubbo for about twelve months.
In 1907, he was again listed as a commercial agent, residing in Dalton. During this time, date unknown, he applied for bankruptcy, perhaps as a result of the bicycle shop venture.
Three more children were born in this part of the country (Feb 1902, Oct 1904, Feb 1908).

I arrived in the town in 1909.
Less than fifty years after arrival of the first fleet, squatters crossed the alps and began to settle the alpine region. Despite hardships, the settlers persevered and slowly consolidated, and the region began to establish itself as a producer of high-quality cattle.
Sheep were introduced later to the region, and wheat was successfully planted. In 1834, a Polish expatriate named Johan Lotski, a botanist, discovered gold in the Livingstone Creek, at the town’s present location. But his claims fell on deaf ears.
It wasn’t until 1851 that the Reverend W B Clark, a noted geologist reported that he had found evidence of gold in quantities that would make the mining of it economically feasible. Alluvial deposits of gold were found in tributaries of the Livingston Creek, and by the end of 1854, over 200 men were camped along its banks digging for gold, most of it being found within a metre or so of the surface.
More and more miners and their families crossed the alps. Miners and their wives walked, while their children made the journey in boxes and crates strapped to the sides of packhorses on tracks that were harsh and unforgiving. Broken tracks on the sides of mountains, stones loosened by unsteady horses hooves tumbling to a river hundreds of feet below, tested the resolves of many a miner.
In time, a ramshackle town of calico tents and bark-roofed huts had established itself with a post office, a store and a pub, The Golden Age, a building made of logs and slabs that served mostly gin and rum that could kick like a horse.
The town had no planned streets they just followed the cow tracks and creeks and are consequently as crooked as a dog’s hind leg to this day.

Up one of the creeks, and on high ground, was the Commissioner’s Station. It consisted of a number of huts and tents, a stable, and the Omeo Log Jail, built in 1858. It was here that the commissioner and his two troopers, one of them Constable Steel, who later was to shoot Ned Kelly, registered claims, issues miners rights, and settled any disputes between miners over land and water. The log jail I might say was constantly occupied, for Omeo was undoubtedly the wildest and most lawless goldmining town in Australia.
The town had it all sly grog tents, gambling dens, opium dens, prostitution, conmen, ex-convicts, horse thieves, fighting, murder, you name it.
Supplies still had to be brought into the town by packhorse and it was only in summer months that bullock drays could make the journey.
There were no roads, there were no bridges. Loads had to be taken off and reloaded time and time again to enable the team to get through the mud and get up steep inclines. And wheels had to be continually chocked to stop the wagon rolling backwards. The entire trip was hazardous.
On the tops of ridges, there was always the danger of going over the edge Some hills were so steep that the only way of going down safely was to tie a tree behind to steady the wagon. Creeks and rivers had to be continually crossed and horses and bullocks had to be rested along the journey, sometimes for days.
Among those to arrive on the Omeo goldfields were Chinese miners.
They first arrived in 1859. The majority of them had made the long journey over the alps from Beechworth many of them arriving with no more than a pole with a sack at each end slung across their shoulders. I may here tell you that they received a mixed reception.

Traders welcomed the possibility of increased patronage the Chinese would bring, but whether it was based on ignorance, whether it was substantiated, or not substantiated, the Chinese were viewed with a lot of suspicion by the European miners. Incidents at other goldfields had inferred that they were thieves and liars and could not be trusted. It therefore wasn’t long before a Chinese camp similar to those on other goldfields was established at the western edge of the township.
Most of the Chinese accepted the camp and it was only a matter of time before it had Chinese traders and tradesmen, storekeepers, blacksmiths, butchers, bakers, cakeshops, and opium dens. Even a joss house was built. The camp offered not only local ordinary common food staples but many Chinese delicacies and I have to say that their contribution to the community was far greater than most of their European counterparts realised or would admit.

By 1855, most of the shallow alluvial gold had been mined and the process of hydro sluicing was introduced to the Omeo goldfields.
In an operation that took nine months to complete a water race was constructed along the mountain slopes for a distance of almost nineteen kilometres. Giant flumes crossed gullies and ravines with the water arriving at about 190 feet above the creek and the alluvial deposits. Races were cut from almost every stream that could supply water. In the process, water blasted away the alluvial gold-containing gravel and the gravel slush was channelled into rows of wooden sluice boxes and the gold ore collected. The Oriental Claims area alone produced an estimated 58,000 ounces of gold.
At a point when alluvial deposits were diminishing, a miner walked into E J Johnston’s general store, the same store that I later was to own and manage, to cash in some gold. Johnston paid the man his cash, but as he weighted the gold, he noticed something stuck to the pieces of ore. It was quartz.
It heralded the meaning of reef mining. And a new boom. The first venture into quartz mining was at the Dry Gully field with the first battery being established at Mountain Creek. People came from all over the district to see a local identity, Miss Rogers, smash a large bottle of champagne over the wheel as it started up, and christen it the Mountain Maid. Bullock teams hauled multiheaded batteries up the mountains and across the alps to work the new found reefs. Smile of Fortune, Rip Van Winkel, Happy Go Lucky, The Joker, and Inexhaustible were some of the names given to the many reef mines that opened up.

The town meanwhile was prospering.
Businesses began to establish themselves. Banks arrived. In 1889, the Colonial Bank of Australia. In 1892, the Commercial Bank. A J McDonald, one of the state’s leading architects designed the post and telegraph office and new courthouse. They were completed in 1891 and 1892 and remain unique for their architecture to this day.

Churches arrived. Archbishop Hindley of the Anglican church rode into town in 1878. His first impressions were the dilapidation of the buildings and the number of goats in the street. The number of goats according to him were a sure sign of poverty in an old mining town. He may have been right.
Alluvial mining had come to an end and no quartz reef had yet been discovered at that time. However, the Anglican church was built in 1892.

The first school in Omeo was next to my store and charged one shilling and sixpence for each child to attend per week, and in its early years, was to win many of the state-awarded scholarships at that time.
The Omeo shire’s first appointed secretary was Thomas Easton. A formidable and colorful character who had previously served as the regions first justice. Easton was a down-to-earth practitioner with a fearlessly effective reputation in ridding the town of many of its undesirables and those that may have thought that Omeo was a safe haven from justice. In many a court case, if the local constable suggested Easton’s verdict was not law, he simply made it law. Such was his manner, such was his reputation, and such was Omeo justice.
The first newspaper in Omeo was the Echo of The Mountains produced by a gentleman named Henry Saunders. Saunders was of the Quaker faith and lived by their strict principles and yet had more than once been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Alcohol was apparently Henry’s weakness but an understanding citizenry forgave him if the newspaper didn’t appear for a week or two.
The town had its own racecourse. It was one of a number that followed in the area and proved to be one of the major attractions for residents throughout the region, many of them putting up their own horses for racing. Horses that worked the week, rounding up sheep and cattle often found themselves running for their lives on a Saturday afternoon.
Local bookmakers found o shortage of takers amongst the locals. It didn’t matter if you knew anything about horses or nothing at all there was always a bookie only to keen to take your bet.

By 1901, Omeo was at its peak with a population of 9400.
They were prosperous times. The main street, Day Avenue, was packed every night with people out strolling, shopping and enjoying the evening air. Hotels and cafes were doing a roaring trade with free-spending miners, and businesses were booming.
People worked hard, miners, timber workers, graziers, but also had time to enjoy the unique lifestyle the high country offered. All aspects of life in a young nation were no different in this isolated, far away town. The isolation of their situation was made up by a strong community spirit and a deep appreciation of one’s neighbor.
But let me tell you, it was tough ,and ongoing battles against the forces of nature – rain, storms, snow, flooding, fire and drought were all part of life.
Bridges were often washed away. Mail contractors could not get through, the telegraph line was often out of action. On one occasion, the town was completely isolated for ten days.
In time, motorcars were appearing on roads in the area. At first, they were regarded as something of a menace. Horses took violent exception to the cars. They didn’t like them at all. These strange-shaped noisy fast-moving creatures proved too much for them to handle and they frequently bolted causing many an accident. But when the motorcar did arrive, it began to change Omeo people’s lives.

Mail that had been delivered by packhorse began to be delivered by car and in 1918 the Omeo mail car service began. It wasn’t perfect – the mail car often missed the train from Melbourne but at least it was a vast improvement on the packhorses. Three local residents bought the town’s first cars and everyone all predicted they would all be killed. I must admit it wasn’t long before I got one. In time T model Fords were to become the most popular, and before long, only two bullock wagons remained in the transport business.

In 1914, Omeo suffered its first setback. It was a very dry season throughout Australia. Crops had failed throughout the shire and in the next few months, large numbers of cattle and sheep perished.
At a time when people were leaving in considerable numbers and a lot were unemployed, World War One was declared.
A total of 232 of Omeo’s young men enlisted. Many of these became casualties. Forty-four were killed, and many never returned to the shire.
That year, many of the mines that were flourishing closed down. The boom was over.

Omeo was hit hard by the rabbit plague. In 1894 they were first sighted in the area. By the turn of the century, Omeo was home to millions of them and there was a real threat that they would overrun the entire region. Grazing land, pastoral land, vegetable gardens, all were being ruined. The rabbits left no food at all for sheep and cattle. Sixty-five percent of land originally taken up by settlers had been abandoned.
In the evenings, thousands of rabbits would emerge in the twilight and move in on anything edible. Horses would not give them a second glance and dogs couldn’t be bothered to chase more than a couple here and there. There were just too many of them. Wire netting proved ineffective and rabbit drives where up to 15,000 rabbits at a time were trapped and killed in fenced-in paddocks failed to have any real effect on their numbers.

Any hardships were soon overcome by preparations for the grand celebrations that were to become the Omeo Centenary in 1935.
The Back to Omeo celebrations. It was certainly quite an occasion.
The town was dressed up from top to bottom with flags and bunting along the main street and extra lighting installed anywhere you could hang a lamp. Hundreds of people made the journey to Omeo from as far away as Queensland and soon became known as “The Comebacks”.
A grand parade welcomed them and kicked off and kicked off a continuous program of activities that included back to school events, fancy dress dances, concerts, sports events and plenty of dancing that had the Memorial Hall shaking to its very foundations. Even an hour long deluge of rain on Saturday night that had campers scrambling for higher ground along the banks of the Livingston Creek couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the grand event. It was a wonderful time.

The year of 1939 began in a summer that was abnormally hot.
The hottest I could remember. It had followed an exceptionally dry spring and forest floor throughout the state were thick with undergrowth and accumulated debris. It was the middle of an extreme heatwave and the entire country was tinder dry.

Literally hundreds of fires had been tormenting brigades everywhere across Victoria. In the immediate Omeo region small fires had been controlled by a bush fire brigade that consisted largely of knapsack sprays, beaters, and rakes, shovels and axes.
But it was a more sinister blaze burning uncontrolled in the mountains to the west, expanding across a forty kilometre front that worried the town’s councillors. Lightning strikes caused by summer storms had ignited the tinder-dry bush weeks before and the fire was running its own course at its own pace. Smoke had been in the air for days and I remember at night an ominous red glow that lit up the distant skyline.

By mid-morning on Friday the thirteenth, strong westerly winds had turned to a gale. The temperature was well on its way to 45.6 degrees. I certainly couldn’t remember when it had done that before. Fires burning to the west of Omeo had joined into one huge inferno that was showering the township with burning embers. It had ripped through the chalet at Mt Hotham and was crossing the alps at a frightening speed. Within thirty-five minutes, it would be at Omeo.

By midday, the fire brigade, with all able-bodied men had retreated from the front to the town’s perimeter. The sun was long obliterated and the air was black and heavy with smoke.

At about eight-thirty in the evening, the fire roared up the slopes of the mountains, up Mt Mesley, and over the top and down onto the townSheets of flame leapt from the mountain across the creek and swimming pool and hit buildings, shops, houses, businesses, in a firestorm that exploded through them in minutes. The Livingston Creek glowed red as eucalyptus gasses exploded overhead.

Boiling winds filled with soot and debris hit into the faces of terrified residents who could do nothing more than watch as the destruction whirled around them. Charles Duve, Arthur Greenwood and Darcy Fitzgerald, and many other of my friends could only watch as their homes were swept up in the flames. Slaters Cafe was saved, but Haylock’s boot-shop was destroyed, as was Shultz’ Arcade. Drums containing 5000 gallons of petrol exploded adding to the roar of the flames, obliterating Sandys Store. Firefighters working thirty metres away battled on, undeterred, desperately trying to save what they could.
Flames raced over open ground to the hospital. Matron Lee and her nursing staff and volunteers frantically began to evacuate the hospital’s inpatients. Many were given morphine to ease their pain and fears.
Dr Gordon Little, who had recently arrived as the Shire’s medical officer was facing the toughest challenge of his career, supervising the arrival of the patients at a make-shift facility at the Hilltop Hotel on the town’s eastern end. Twenty people, including a growing number of burns victims were made as comfortable as possible. Within an hour of being transferred from the burning hospital, Charlie MacNamara’s wife, of Cobungarra, gave birth to a baby in the temporary shelter. Flames licked at the walls of the hospital, and within minutes, it was engulfed and entirely destroyed.
Constable John Hazel, a long-time resident of the town, and its only policeman, did his best to calm men, women, and children, as they sheltered on the town’s public reserve. Firefighters, already exhausted, could only watch as the hurricane of fire began a final attack on Omeo, their home.
And then, suddenly, a miracle happened.
The winds turned and began blowing from the north, pushing the fire away from what was left of the town. Next morning revealed the extent of the devastation. The landmark Golden Age Hotel, the hospital, eleven shops, and twenty-two houses had been destroyed.
Throughout the shire, two hundred houses and huts were lost. Fifteen thousand sheep, eight thousand head of cattle, and two hundred horses were burnt to death. As the fire had raced towards Omeo, a stockman from Cobungarra, Ernest Richards, had set out to try and save his wife and child. The young thirty-year-old’s charred body was found days later lying beside the burnt remains of his horse and dog.
I was too old to be of much use in fighting the fires, but having aquired a general store, and the town’s only bakery, I made available free bread to the hospital, and in fact, to anyone who needed it, until the town was back on its feet. But in fact, Omeo never did recover.
Eight months after the fires, World War 2 started, and once again, young men answered the call, and left the town, most of them never to return. I buried a son, Louis, in September of 1943, one of my ten children.
As for me, well, because I had been born in Germany, all those years ago, even at the age of seventy-six and beyond, I had to report to the local police station, twice a day. Just like I did in World War 1. It was of no great concern to me. In fact, I found it rather amusing .
I’d arrived here in February 1881, and long considered myself to be more of an Australian citizen than a few others I’d met on my journey.

William A Kracke died on the third of June, 1946, aged eighty-four years. Thus was his life and times.

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Produced by Neil Bolitho.
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