FOR THE past five years Leonie Balfour has been living two different lives.
One that of a 21st century woman who drives a car, holds down a job and owns a house.
And the other of an 1850s woman who lives and works in the Ballarat goldfields at Sovereign Hill.
While at the outdoor museum, the semi-retired nurse dons different hats, from an upperclass woman in a formal habit, riding side-saddle through the cobbled streets, to a housewife who cooks large meals on an open fire.
“When I’m inside Sovereign Hill, I slip into the character. I talk differently,” Ms Balfour says. “I just slow down.”
Sometimes, she says, the change comes as soon as she walks through the back gate into what feels like a “magic land” - a land where the past becomes the present and the present...well, it recedes.
“Stepping into Sovereign Hill is like opening a gate into a bubble,” Ms Balfour says.
“It has its own energy and momentum.
“It is different.”
Ms Balfour, a volunteer, spends at least 20 hours every week at Sovereign Hill.
“It’s very relaxing,” she says.
“I’d love to go back and live there.”
“There” is an 1861 Ballarat, depicting the decade after the discovery of gold, when thousands of international adventurers rushed to the Australian goldfields in search of fortune.
Conceptualised in 1965 and opened in the late 1970s, the not-for-profit enterprise has become an iconic part of the town.
In fact, for a lot of people, Sovereign Hill is synonymous with Ballarat.
Sovereign Hill chief executive Jeremy Johnson says the museum was opened to meet the twin goals of showcasing the area’s history and attracting the burgeoning tourist market of the ‘60s.
Since then it has won many tourism awards, including Australia’s best historic and cultural experience 2009 by Travelling in Australia magazine.
Today it draws 450,000 visitors each year, with many coming from abroad.
“About 25 per cent of the visitors are from overseas,” he says.
“We also had over 100,000 school children visit in one year.”
Mr Johnson says Sovereign Hill’s success is due in part to its management structure - a not-for-profit, community-based organisation which does not rely on local or state government funding.
But Sovereign Hill’s magic, he says, comes down to the authenticity achieved through years of research into the gold rush era.
“We are based on museum principals of collecting, researching and providing public information programs,” Mr Johnson says.
“It’s not a theme park. It’s the real thing.”
Researchers studied lithographs, in particular those of renowned English-born Australian artist Samuel Thomas Gill, to create a faithful replica of an 1861 provincial town.
“A lot of the buildings onsite came from the gold-rush period. The others are all based on
factual research,” Mr Johnson says.
“For example, to build the New York Bakery - its scale, the collection items we have to put in - would have taken two years of research.”
When in doubt, Sovereign Hill’s 350 staff and more than 250 volunteers can turn to their own in- house historians to fine-tune mannerisms, clothing or any other minute detail about the various characters they portray.
Bill Llewellyn is one of those volunteers. The winner of this year’s Museum Victoria award for Excellence for volunteers, he is a thorough gentleman.
Mr Llewellyn opens doors and apologises after swearing, what would be considered a mild curse by today’s standards.
Yet, the grandfather-of two can’t help but show off the buttons on the fly of his moleskins. A proud volunteer, Mr Llewellyn is talking about the museum’s attention to detail which has gone into the making of Sovereign Hill. Zippers weren’t around in 1861.
The authenticity, he says, is visible in each costume worn by both the paid actors and the volunteers, who are also known as the Friends of Sovereign Hill, or FOSH.
Mr Llewellyn’s love affair with Sovereign Hill as a FOSH started 22 years ago.
Along with his wife Nance, Mr Llewellyn was a founding member of the Gold Museum.
He was a volunteer the day the tourist attraction, then known as Sovereign Park, opened for the first time.
Then, he was just stepping in to lend a hand, wearing his own clothes and merely “trying to look the part”.
Today, Mr Llewellyn can be found every first and third Thursday of the month sitting in Sovereign Hill’s main street, outside the United States Hotel, whittling a piece of wood.
Dressed in his Sovereign Hill issued attire of ivory moleskins, blue drop sleeve shirt, yellow and
white striped neckerchief and a chequered waist coat, the former State Electricity Commission
manager certainly looks the part of a 19th century gold digger.
And like any other man of the times, Mr Llewellyn won’t be seen in the streets of Sovereign Hill without his hat. A cross between a bowler and a top hat, it is festooned with assorted feathers, a crimson scarf and a wooden chain.
There’s also a sack and a tortured willow staff carved into a snake head to complete the look.
Mr Llewellyn gives at least 20 hours each week to the Gold Museum and to Sovereign Hill, despite significant family commitments.
Part of his role as a volunteer includes conducting guided tours of the Gold Museum and restoring some of the artefacts.
Born and raised in Ballarat, Mr Llewellyn puts his volunteering down to a “force of habit” of always lending a hand to community organisations, including the YMCA and Rotary.
Apart from the enjoyment of meeting different people, Mr Llewellyn says a commitment to Sovereign Hill is a commitment to the growth and prosperity of his hometown.
“I went to Golden Point School and I played around here in this area [the site of Sovereign Hill],” Mr Llewellyn says.
“Helping Sovereign Hill is helping Ballarat.
“As long as I can, I’m happy to give a hand.”
Ron Wheaton, on the other hand, would not be considered by many to be a Ballarat local. He
has only lived here for 16 years.
But volunteering at Sovereign Hill once a week, Mr Wheaton says, makes him feel like he truly belongs.
On most Thursday, the maths teacher can be found wearing his digger’s outfit, panning for gold or helping others look for the precious metal.
The six hours, he says, never feel like work.
“When I first started, I thought Sovereign Hill was an iconic feature of Ballarat and it sounded
like a good idea,” he says.
“Now that I come, I keep coming because I really love it. I really do.
“I meet people from all over the world. This morning I had a French family. I know a bit of French. I had a great time chatting away.
“And you get all the kids, you can share the history of this place and the Eureka Stockade.”
At the end of this year, the grandfather-of-seven will celebrate 10 years as a FOSH member.
“Being part of Sovereign Hill represents being part of Ballarat,” Mr Wheaton says.
“Wherever you go, if you say you come from Ballarat (and) work as a volunteer in Sovereign
Hill, it’s a conversation starter.
“To be part of a such an iconic part of the town is something that makes you proud to be
associated with Ballarat.
“You really are a part of the real sort of things that make Ballarat tick."