Considered with the rest of the Macarthur district and Wollondilly Shire, Menangle is a uniquely beautiful and historically important valley. Perhaps it has always been considered that way. Recently discovered in the area, an ancient Aboriginal campsite seems to indicate settlement of at least a semi-permanent nature. Level and fairly high in the catchment, the campsite commands magnificent views of the surrounding Menangle countryside, and probably afforded the locals an excellent handle on the density of local wildlife so important to their well being. A creek borders the site, which is literally littered with flakes of cutting and skinning implements made from traded materials like granite and quartz, and one can easily imagine an idyllic existence on this productive landscape.
The Tharawal people named the area Menangle, which means “Place of Swamps”. They used the natural lagoons such as Carabeely, Barragal and Menangle ponds (two of which are to be found on the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute today) to cultivate and raise eels for food – an evident example of Aboriginal farming methods. It seems the Tharawal people extended this productive philosophy to the surrounding landscape, using fire to encourage great grasslands on the flat, more fertile land while the hills remained wooded. Today we know this to be a farming combination that maximises species diversity, total productivity and sustainability. So well did it suit grazing animals that when the lost cattle of the fledgling colony of Sydney Cove reached it, they stayed and increased their population ten-fold in as many years.
It was fortunate indeed that history’s next stewards of this country took the responsibility just as seriously. Between 1805 and 1973 John and Elizabeth Macarthur and their descendants maintained the landscape in a similar vein. John and Elizabeth’s involvement in the development of the Australian wool industry is well known, but it is not just the industry and prosperity this development brought to the country that was important. Fine wool was a
valuable commodity, particularly during the instability of the Napoleonic wars, and John saw wool as a way his adopted nation could earn the worlds’ respect – as a nation with something valuable to offer. The rest is history – and it happened between Camden and Menangle.
Two of their sons, Menangle residents James and William, in particular established the area as a showcase of Australian agriculture. Under their leadership a string of innovative ideas and technology were developed or adopted in irrigation, cultivation, harvesting and storage of a range of agricultural enterprises. They developed Australia’s first commercial vineyard, and laid the foundations for what was eventually Australia’s finest orchard and largest dairy– our first truly great Australians of the modern era.
They also established the beautiful village of Menangle. A unique settlement today, it was modelled on the typical English village, including a beautiful church within walking distance for locals, a store, a common, all within a carefully manicured landscape. The English-style village of Menangle is still there and offers a rare experience for visitors and a very special lifestyle for its few residents. It is the only village in the shire with its own Development Control Plan – an acknowledgement by council of the singular nature of the place.
Macarthur family innovation continued and culminated with yet another first – the nation’s first rotary dairy. The Menangle rotolactor was started by Edward Macarthur-Onslow, who went on to develop it into a tourist attraction visited by practically every Sydney resident of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed fond memories of the family trek to visit the rotolactor and buy a milkshake has ensured Menangle holds a special place in the hearts of millions of Sydneysiders.
Today Menangle village’s St James and St Patrick’s churches, the old store, creamery and rotolactor as well as Menangle station, railway bridge and viaduct are listed on the local, state and/or national heritage registers. Add Menangle House, Glenlee and the 19th century Macarthur mansions of Camden Park and Gilbulla to this list and Menangle must lay claim to one of the highest concentrations of historically significant sites in rural Australia.
Macarthur descendants are still landholders, however since the mid 1980s, the district’s biggest landholder has been the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Though their technology is very different to that used before, their land management philosophy would not be unfamiliar to either Tharawal or Macarthur. They operate one of the most technically advanced veterinary pathology laboratories in the world and conduct livestock and horticultural research across the 1600 ha property now known as the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute. Two thousand sheep and cattle share the property with Australian woodlands, including 96 species of rare or endangered plants, as well as over two hundred species of marsupials, reptiles and birds.
So a succession of caring, innovative stewards of this land has left us all with something valuable, something not to be found anywhere else. We can only hope future decisions that affect this area are as enlightened.