A short history of Colac

Colac is a city in Western Victoria, situated on the banks of a large freshwater lake. This feature, Lake Colac, had its part to play in the settlement history of the town and district. For thousands of years it had been a seasonal magnet for the Gulidjan people whose traditional territory was around it. The earliest European settlers, sheep graziers from Van Diemens Land who arrived from the late 1830s took up their initial holdings around the lake. A store and hotel servicing these settlers was situated close to the lake, where the Barongarook creek, which emptied into the lake, provided fresh water. The nascent settlement grew as a service centre, and when Alexander Skene made a survey of the area in 1849 the site for a formal township was laid down on the southern edge of the lake. By 1857 the town and surrounding district population numbered 792, of whom 337 were under 14 years of age. This reflected how prospectors and people hoping to profit from meeting the needs of an increasing population were drawn to the ‘golden colony’ of Victoria after the discovery of gold in 1851. There were Colac residents who did well on the goldfields to the north of the district, as well as many who made money both selling food to the gold diggers and from carting it to the fields.

A small impact was made on the graziers’ stranglehold of the land with the Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s forcing some land to be sub-divided around Beeac, Barongarook and Irrewillipe. The large-scale breakup of the pastoral holdings came in the 1880s and 1890s when prices for their products became depressed. Smaller farms were established, co-incident with the rise in co-operative dairy schemes making dairying an attractive proposition. Mixed dairy farming then became the dominant feature of the district’s agricultural production. Potato and onion cropping developed in tandem and for a time Colac was the largest producer of onions in Victoria. South of the town orchards and berry crops also developed and the timber resources of the Otway Forest began to be exploited. The railway from Geelong reached Colac in 1877 and branch lines, especially those to the forested areas to the south, added an important element to the story of progress.

Murray Street in the 1850s.

And progress the township did too. By 1893 Wise’s Victorian Directory – Towns could say: “Colac (90 miles west by rail from Melbourne, 50 miles for Geelong; 5 branch banks, 5 churches, state school, a tri-weekly newspaper as well as a bi-weekly paper, post telegraph and money order office.” There followed in the directory a long list of tradesmen and service providers. The population of the town was then around 900 persons. It was the era of the smaller individual entrepreneur.

The original jetty and shed, near the present location of the Rowing Club.

Popular recreations and cultural diversions were developed. A Botanic Gardens, sports ground for football and cricket, bathing and swimming in Lake Colac, an annual regatta, bowls and tennis clubs, road cycling races, cultural events by visiting groups and local bodies and churches, an annual round of picnics and sports days by businesses and other organized bodies were a feature.

While the initial economic and emotional impact of the Great War was felt, it did not preclude the 1920s from becoming a period of boom for the town. Sawmills in the Otways obtained huge contracts for War Service Homes, and soldier settlement schemes augmented the district, and town population. Development slowed during the depression of the 1930s, although one project, the Colac Community Hospital, opened in 1934, did more than provide work for unemployed men on its construction. Colac became a leader in the development of community hospitals, a model which would be followed in other parts of Australia in coming years.

Water levels permitting, Lake Colac has always been popular with boating enthusiasts.

The years immediately following World War 2 were boom times for Colac and a major expansion phase in population and economic activity. More housing was built, new schools provided, main street shops rebuilt or expanded, a swimming pool provided and sporting, social and cultural avenues enhanced. The town became a City in 1960 with a population of 10,000.

Post war infrastructure projects saw Colac become a work centre for the State Electricity Commission, Country Roads Board and Post Master General. For many years these respective arms were gradually expanded throughout the district to areas that lacked these services. Other Government departments, including Agriculture, Lands, Forests and Education established regional offices, and mental and disability health arrived in a big way with the establishment of the Colanda Centre in 1976.

The War Memorial in Memorial Square.

Structural change to rural industries from the 1960s and through to the early 1990s saw transformation of traditional ways and farming methods and a turn towards the development of larger enterprises and the provision of services. In 2016 residents are hopeful that the provision of a dual-lane highway between Colac and Geelong will attract business to the town. The dairy factories are closed as farms again became larger and bulk transport created different patterns of marketing. In the township industrial development and employment is dominated by three big firms in the Australian Lamb Company – an abattoirs producing meat for supermarkets and for export, AKD Softwoods – a giant processor of pine logs into various products and Bulla Cream – manufacturer of milk and cream derived wares such as ice cream and yoghurt for the Australian and export markets.

Kanyana, now known as the Kana Festival, remains an annual opportunity for community celebration, c.1960s.

Local government patterns have changed since the first Colac Roads Board was formed in 1859. In 1864 this became the Shire of Colac extending over an area from the coast in the south, north to Cressy. The year 1919 saw the excision of an area in the south of the shire which became the Shire of Otway. The next change came when the Colac township section of the shire became a separate borough in 1938, and eventually evolved into a town in 1948 and a city in 1960. Then, in 1994 as part of enforced local government amalgamations, the Colac Otway shire was created as a new municipality. It incorporated the former City of Colac, the Shire of Colac and Shire of Otway, and parts of the shires of Heytesbury and Winchelsea. This remains the situation in 2016.

Murray Street in the 1940s.