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Sunday, October 16, 2011

The mighty murtoa stick shed

The Mighty Murtoa Stick Shed

Gday. Leigh Hammerton from Murtoa here.

I am standing inside what is probably the most interesting and unusual building in Australia, bar none! It is certainly unique in the world, being the only one of its type left, although there were many others erected around Southern and Western Australia during WW2 when they were used as temporary storage for wheat, which could not be exported at the time.
It is BIG. In Imperial terms it is nearly 900ft long, 200ft wide and about 60ft high in the centre, with the entire roof supported on slender mountain ash poles straight from the bush. There are an incredible 560 poles inside, so you can appreciated the adopted name of this building – the Murtoa Stick Shed.
This shed, built in 1941, is the largest rustically-built structure in the world. It is currently under protection from Heritage Victoria (since 1992), and is noted in the Australian heritage listings for many, and varied, excellent reasons. Principally, its construction method is unique to Australia, and it also represents a huge leap forward in the handling of harvested crops, with the monumental change from bags to bulk handling. How the poor farmers must have enjoyed that! It employed trucks, elevators, conveyor belts and other ‘modern’ machinery to move wheat. However, the practical structural aspects pale into significance compared to its aesthetics! Its interior presents a fabulous experience, which, once viewed, is never forgotten. A massive forest of trees with a soaring overhead, vaulted canopy produces subdued natural lighting, and gives the impression of a huge empty natural space, with considerable religious overtones. The sheer volume of the structure is certainly impressive, and the two and one half acres of under-cover concrete floor is expansive in the extreme. It is both HUGE and peacefully QUIET, with wonderful acoustics! An amazing and indeed, unique experience, akin to some European cathedrals, but with so much more ethereal and natural characteristics - and MUCH larger!
The whole building however, is flexible in design to allow for the varying stresses of being filled gradually with wheat, using the in-built conveyer belt inside its highest point. The entire roof structure is tied to the vertical poles using only metal straps, which allows considerable movement. This is never more obvious than being inside during high winds - the whole building creaks and groans like a living thing. A total lack of maintenance over the last 20 years has unfortunately resulted in much damage, both internal and external, with two very large holes in the roof at present, many broken or damaged poles and other roof misalignments. All repairable of course.
The Stick Shed was the first one of its type built, and survived largely due to its concrete floor, which allowed it to remain in service long after other sheds, as they had tin floors which were prone to infestations of vermin and other wheat diseases. It was last used to hold wheat in 1989-90. It holds around 100,000 tons of wheat. The roofline is sloped to the same angle a pile of wheat forms naturally, and the shed was filled almost completely up to the roof when full. It is attached at one end to a massive concrete structure which houses the elevator. This elevator raised the wheat to the level of the top conveyor belt which ran the full length of the roof peak and dropped the wheat off the sides. It was emptied in reverse largely, with side conveyor belts. The mail Melbourne-Adelaide rail is adjacent the elevator, which allowed both emptying and filling from this source, although in recent years most wheat is trucked away via the nearby Wimmera Highway, which also runs through Murtoa.
The Stick Shed has featured on the 1994 Heritage Victoria poster/calendar and in countless articles about Australia’s heritage since then. It is probably better known and appreciated outside the immediate area, where there has been a long history of rejection, mainly due to its location within a major wheat handling facility - the largest inland one in Australia.
I see it as the potential saviour of Tourism in the whole Wimmera area, as this building alone has the ability to not only put itself on the Victorian Heritage list, but the Australian one too. It has endless possibilities for usage due to its enormous undercover area, and the interest by many others to simply view and experience its amazing interior. It should become an icon for the farming community who built and used it during a time when few male farmers were still on the land. It has served the people well and can do so in an entirely different way for many years to come.
I think the pictures say it all... the first 3 are recent, the others from the 1990s.
If you are as impressed as I am with this building, let me know, as support for it locally is surprisingly limited, and our small group of supporters would love to hear from you. The main part of the building is currently ‘owned’ by the Victorian Government Property Group, part of DSE. There is supposed to be restoration work taking place this year, but nothing has as yet happened. It could easily languish forever and finally become irrepairable eventually.
Leigh Hammerton
PO 77 Murtoa 3390
Ph 03 53852422

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