Black Friday, 2009. I left Carngham with my three sons, aged six months, two and four, packed into the car with the dog and cat and our belongings.
My 73-year-old father drove as I looked at Carngham Road through a lens of tears, and smoke. Here ended my marriage and life in Carngham valley.
Our own loss was given perspective, though, by lives and homes being lost altogether from bushfires.
It is now 2013, and my old neighbours stare out at me from the front page of a newspaper as I buy petrol in Melbourne, far from the gritty reality I knew in fire seasons.
The obliterated ashy ground they now stand on is exactly opposite Carngham Station, where the once imposing residence has burnt to a Pompeii-like maze of quartered-off walls.
While the grand 1920s residence of Carngham Station has gone, earlier original buildings from Carngham Station still remain: ornate 19th century brick horse stables that still face the main road, the manager’s residence, plus the 1886 Carngham single men’s quarters which housed station workers.
It was known in more recent days as the ‘shearers quarters’, but in fact the shearers were accommodated separately in a simple tin dwelling down the road. The workers’ quarters, the oldest building of this precinct of heritage brick buildings, was built in 1886 of bricks handmade from local clay dug from cemetery hill, Carngham.
Today it stands with its green gardens amid scarred black houses either side taken by fire. Dale of Beaufort described the scene: “It’s like it had its own personal rain cloud”.
The personal rain cloud was Beaufort winemaker Michael Unwin. Last time he was at our Carngham house he was packing children into his car after a meal with us with something like a miner’s torch strapped to his head to find his way in the dark as he carried slumbering children.
This time he was trying to see through smoke and locate the house he knew was there and needed saving. Through the haze of smoke Unwin located the home behind its wall of ancient gums and so now the house stands stubbornly untouched, somewhat like the stubbornness of its stark architectural edifice.
‘Is it a school or a church building?’ I was often asked. The house originally had 13 rooms for its workmen, running off a 30-metre hallway, almost like small cells. That it was the single men’s quarters was shown when the house was renovated, with men’s work boots with roughly nailed soles revealed beneath the floorboards, as well as bottles of hair tonic and gin.
The Carngham Quarters was built in 1886 by squatter turned grazier, Phillip Russell, to house unmarried men working at his Carngham Station. Russell and his associates bought the right to Carngham Station, 30,000 acres south of Lake Burumbeet and 3500 sheep from an insolvent estate for 950 pounds in cash. Phillip Russell then became the sole owner in 1853.
The workers’ quarters have outlived the grand owner’s residence for the second time.
Phillip Russell originally built a homestead of timber in the 1850s which was lost in the 1918 fire and replaced by the new residence that burnt last Tuesday.
When an arborist visted to fell a centuries-old gum at Carngham Quarters she pointed out the internal rings of its stump showed a single black ring among its radiating circles of age. From this, she could date a bushfire had swept through the area around 100 years ago.
In fire seasons, as the deputy director of Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, I would treasure my photos in a cupboard at work for safe-keeping. The gallery’s treasurer, a senior, liked to reminisce with me about lavish parties he’d attended at Carngham as a young man, evenings spent drinking from champagne fountains.
I did not hear tales of fire, only expansive green lawns and garden parties. In almost a decade of my own life in the Carngham valley, fire featured heavily.
The local and remarkable Snake Valley CFA educated us that the house was on a slope where the speed of fire compounds and that fire could blow out the thin antique glass of the sash windows. The hard brick cell and the new galvanized tin roof could well be penetrated by embers entering the old timber ceiling.
The CFA rolled into the drive each Christmas morning with Santa aboard the firetruck throwing lollies to the kids and they rolled into our yard four years ago with seven fire trucks to stop a burn-off that had reignited. That fire took the original 19th century timber milking shed and a later ‘killing shed’ for butchering or hanging meat to feed the workers.
In its heyday, Carngham boasted a pub and a transient gold mining population of up to 22,000 people.
Carngham Quarters has its own gold mine. It was a fire truck rolling over the ground that exposed the sharp 90-degree walls of a deep-lead mine in our backyard.
Sarah Schmidt is an independent writer and curator. She previously owned The Carngham Quarters.