The transformation of an old flour mill bought for $1 into a luxury hotel in Katanning, WA, has revived the remarkable story of Frederick Piesse.

Story + Photos Jane and Michael Pelusey

As you enter the Premier Mill Hotel in Katanning, WA, opened two years ago, you get a sense of its former industrial life and understated sophistication. There are conveyor belts on the roof and a dust collection hopper underfoot. Some rooms are lined with jarrah timbers that previously formed wheat silos. Former packing or boiler rooms serve as some of the 22 up-market hotel rooms. Everywhere you look, there are old jarrah beams and pieces of flour mill equipment, carefully engineered and morphed into contemporary, chic architecture. 

Now reinvented, the Premier Flour Mill once again takes pride of place in Katanning. Popular with the locals, it is also attracting visitors in great numbers to the Wheatbelt town of 3700 people, three hours south-east of Perth. 

“The mill is in the heart of the community,” says shire president Liz Guidera. “It’s a social hub. The fact that it is open from 6am to 9pm, seven days per week, is an absolute game changer for our community. We can’t quite believe our luck that we have something so fantastic and unique right here in Katanning.”

Below street level, in the old machinery room and now the hotel’s Cordial Bar, retired diesel engineer Peter Carrigg is visiting his old workplace. “I would drive down from Perth to fix and maintain the diesel engines. The engines drove the mill’s main shaft, which ran all these belts and pulleys,” he says. “We heard the mill had been restored into a hotel and have come for a couple of nights to see what it is like.” 

Built in 1891, the three-storey mill was the centre of Katanning. In the late 19th century, when the Great Southern Railway was being built from Albany to Beverley, passing through Katanning, Frederick Piesse saw the golden opportunities it would provide. He noticed farmers sending raw grain to the flour mill in Fremantle and imagined milling the grain in the town itself. 

Piesse was open to many business ventures. He had already tried pearl farming in Shark Bay and started a shop in Williams, 100km to the north-west of Katanning. But Williams was going to be 40km from the railway, whereas Katanning was planned as the location for the shunting yards and goods shed. So Piesse started work, building many of Katanning’s first buildings, beginning a great boom for the town. 

“Frederick Piesse is considered the founding father of Katanning,” Liz says. “A pioneer, businessman and politician.”

With his brother Charles, Fred deliberately built the mill with engine capacity considerably greater than that actually needed for a flour mill. He believed that Edison’s “everlasting electric light” should be made available throughout the region and, as a result, the mill became the source of the first commercially distributed electricity in Western Australia. It remained the sole source of electricity for the town in the early 1900s.

This story excerpt is from Issue #130

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2020