Historic treasure trove

January 10, 2018

The 19th century magnanerie building, located on a property a few kilometres from Corowa, where Sarah Florentia Bladen Neill worked on establishing a silk industry.

By Sarah Dean

The property owner where a 140-year-old building stands that once farmed silkworms says it’s one of Corowa’s hidden treasures and should be turned into a tourism attraction before its roof falls in.

Dyonne Rhodes said for this to happen somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of repairs would need to be carried out and is on the search for a grant, alongside the authors of a book detailing the establishment of Corowa’s silk worm farm by a woman called Sarah Florentia Bladen Neill.
Dyonne told the Free Press she is amazed by the story of the Corowa pioneer who worked to farm silkworms in the 1860’s to the 1880’s.
“Back in those days she was a woman of the world,” she said.
The historic building, which is called a magnanerie, is located on Spring Drive about six kilometres from Corowa on Cropper’s Lagoon.
The property has been in Dyonne’s family for 45 years and she recently purchased the land from her father.
“I grew up here and when you have things like this in your backyard you sort of take them for granted,” she said.
The pioneer’s fascinating story is revealed in a book titled ‘Sarah’s Search – A Silk Odyssey’, which was launched in Corowa last July by Castlemaine authors Ian Braybrook and Marilyn Bennet.
“Ian and Marilyn started researching it and made us aware of the history and we knew it was worth preserving,” Dyonne said.
Expensive repairs are desperately needed as the building has been damaged by white ants and a fallen tree, which if not fixed up within a short period of time, the entire roof could possibly collapse.
“We have to stop it from falling down,” Dyonne said.
“If we could get a government grant then we could then make it safe for people to come and look at it, open it up to the public and make it a bit of a tourist attraction for the local area.
“There are that many people in Corowa that never knew it existed, so it’s a bit of a hidden treasure.
“And as the authors have pointed out it is probably the only one in Australia that’s in a reasonable condition.
“It’s only five minutes from town and I would discuss with council or the heritage people about how many days a year I would have it open once repaired.”
Federation Council Interim General Manager Adrian Butler said council was “very aware” of the importance of the silkworm farm magnanerie and that it had been included in an overall Federation Heritage review.
“Council’s Heritage Adviser is conducting an overall Federation region heritage survey and heritage review,” he said.
The review is expected to be completed this year.
Mr Butler said the silkworm farm building had been identified as a building of local heritage significance and possibly state heritage significance as well, which could lead to future funding for the project repairs.
“In the short-term, the owners, and the interested parties who have been liaising with council are free to continue to attempt to seek state heritage funding and advice from council in an effort to safeguard its future,” he said.
In 1874, as part of Sarah’s bold plan to grow the industry, she established another silk farm on Mount Alexander in Central Victoria.
She planted thousands of mulberry trees there but just three years later she abandoned the project and concentrated on Corowa.
The idea for the book started out after the couple heard about ruins near Mount Alexander and after exploring the area happened to come across the remains in a thick pine forest.
But the authors never imagined their research would lead to Corowa.
“We decided then and there that we needed to find out how come a silk farm was here on a mountain, it just didn’t seem logical at all,” Ian said.
“It’s been an amazing story from then on.”
Ian said Sarah was a determined woman who had the idea to start a silk industry, taking advantage of the problems in France and Italy where the industry was devastated by disease.
“Those countries were crying out for product and she saw an opportunity for Australia,” he said.
The book sold out during its Corowa launch last year.
Those interested in obtaining a copy can find it at Miss Madeleine, Gyles Newsagency and the Corowa Federation Museum for $20.

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