Sited on a vast plain, this town with strong Merino heritage has provided a stopover to everyone from Ned Kelly to today’s Newell Highway travellers.

Story By Kathy Mexted

“People see Jerilderie as a cool oasis,” says local councillor, resident of 45 years and local historian, Laurie Henrey. He’s quite right, and history can recall a long line of thirsty jackaroos and shearers who have come to this town seeking comfort in the cool of Billabong Creek and the town’s three pubs.
Jerilderie is a neat four-hour drive from Melbourne, travelling 56 kilometres across the border and slowing down to take the Newell Highway’s 90-degree right-hand turn onto Jerilderie Street. Many travellers pull in to enjoy the pristine five-hectare lake environment, let the kids loose on the playground and unwind beneath the imposing and rare Steel Wings windmill. This huge working structure is a nod to Jerilderie’s status as part of the world’s best Merino-breeding district. It was built for “Goolgumbla” in 1910 and operated until 1977 when it was donated to the shire, which restored and installed it at the lake.
Jerilderie has the enviable position of being the only town in its shire, which means there’s no competition for funds. It’s an easy shire to survey because you can see most of it across its flat expansive plains to the horizon. Hogarth Hill, a three-metre sandhill north of town, is the only geographically named hill in the shire. Laurie notes that, “Hogarth Hill was used as a vantage point by bushranger Mad Dog Morgan prior to 1863”. Perhaps if somebody had been keeping lookout from the hill in 1879 they’d have noticed the Kelly gang ride by.
Unlike other touted Kelly haunts, Jerilderie has at least six original buildings from that era, and from the lake there is a well-constructed Ned Kelly walking track. Starting at the miniature steam rail, the track meanders along Billabong Creek (the longest creek in Australia) and weaves its way around storyboards and beautifully restored buildings.
“Ned Kelly knew there was a printer in Jerilderie and that the town was largely unprotected,” Laurie says. “He’d dictated the 57-page Jerilderie Letter to Joe Byrne over the few months prior, and had come to Jerilderie to have it printed and published. When he couldn’t find Samuel Gill, the newspaper editor, Ned gave the letter to the bank’s accountant. It is now held by the State Library of Victoria as a national treasure.” Every second February the town celebrates this aspect of its history with The Jerilderie Letter Event. In 2012 it will feature a musical about the story of Kelly’s visit as told through the eyes of Mrs Devine, the wife of the police constable who was locked up in his own lockup. “This is a great occasion for the local dramatists to indulge their passion,” Laurie says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #80

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2012