I’ve always been a history nerd, but, recently, I seem to have taken my affections for all things historical to the next level.
I have a thing for open-air historical museums. Earlier this year, I visited Riga’s Latvian Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, a village made up of historical wooden structures once located throughout the country. I loved the experience, and when the chance arose to go to a similar place in Australia – albeit in very different weather conditions – I couldn’t have spluttered ‘yes’ quickly enough.
It was a scorcher of a day and we turned off the highway, lined with sun-baked dirt on either side, into the Old Tailem Town car park. The sign confirmed that we had arrived, as did the rows and rows of old-school, rusting trucks and cars. Right in the centre of the car park stood a train carriage and mock rail crossing.
As the sign proclaims, Old Tailem Town is considered to be the largest pioneer village in Australia. Just how large, none of us knew, but, glancing at the site map outside, we were keen to get our tickets and start exploring.
To get into Old Tailem Town, visitors need to buy their tickets ($22 per adult) at the cafe/shop. They’re given a map and then they’re allowed to explore at their leisure. The printed map brought the fact home that this place is absolutely huge! If you plan on visiting Old Tailem Town, be prepared to set aside a good few hours if you have any hopes of seeing everything.
Consisting of over 110 buildings, everything in Old Tailem Town dates to the period between 1860 and 1960. The structures vary from massive vehicle sheds to tiny shacks, showing the complete range of what life was like for settlers in South Australia during those years.
Old Tailem Town is the brainchild of Peter Squires, who, after visiting another pioneer village in Swan Hill, was inspired to start collecting pioneer buildings on his own property. The buildings come from different locations; some were transported to Old Tailem Town in one piece while others were disassembled, transported and then painstakingly put back together.
Walking down Old Tailem Town’s ‘roads’, I couldn’t help but pick up on the fact that the whole place had the feel of a Wild West movie set. The authenticity of the buildings revealed itself, however, when we went through the doorways. Some had ceilings that dipped due to age and the heat, and the floorboards screeched in protest as we tested our weight on them.
The buildings reflect all functions, occupations and past-times of pioneer life. One of the oldest structures at Old Tailem Town is a railway ticketing station, which was built in 1870.
We walked past all manner of shops: a grocery store, a clothing emporium, a general store, a hardware shop and a butchers. Inside each one, products dating to the early 20th Century adorn the walls. We loved the grocery store the most, as it’s here that you can see the predecessors of some of the world’s biggest food and drink brands. The clothing emporium is another must, where you’ll find era-appropriate clothing as well as original advertising that markets the latest in pioneer fashion trends.
It’s not all about shopping at Old Tailem Town. There are necessities like the hospital (although I’m not sure I’d be keen on having a procedure done in there), the fire brigade and the police station.
There’s also the state school building, which is officially the second-oldest building at Old Tailem Town, dating to 1881. Inside, you can find a classroom kitted out with desks, chalkboards and globes. Outside, you can find the school bell, which can only be described as a gong. If you’re visiting Old Tailem Town with children, things might get a bit loud at this point of the explorations.
The village isn’t plastered with information boards but, if you’d like to know more about each building you go to, look out for the little pasted placards near the doorways. These will normally tell you the age and location of the structure, but also about its original use.
And don’t think that we were doing all of this wandering in complete silence. Instead, there are speakers playing music; my family’s an immature bunch so I can’t actually recall how many times we stopped everything and danced when ‘The Hokey Pokey’ started playing. I blame the heat.
Speaking of, it can get really, really warm at Old Tailem Town. While the towering eucalyptus trees offer some shade, I’d recommend carrying a bottle of water with you. If you get too warm, there are cold refreshments, as well as traditional sweet treats, awaiting at the cafe.
The best feature of Old Tailem Town is that it’s interactive and nothing is off limits. You can wander into every single building, play out-of-tune pianos and even watch an old movie in the Old Tailem Town cinema. The latter uses a 20th-Century projector and there are plush seats on which you can perch and see the film.
It was wonderful to see the commercial side of pioneer life but, for me, the most fascinating thing was being able to see how and where people lived during that time. After all, it’s doubtful that settlers arrived knowing how to live in these new conditions, which often included extreme heat. At Old Tailem Town, you can see this trial-and-error experimentation, as many of the houses look completely different from one another. There are tent-like Outback abodes, as well as cottages made from metal or far more natural materials.
Visitors also get to see the variation in the houses belonging to people of different social and economic standings: there are the wealthy family homes and there are ramshackle, one-roomed cottages too.
I could keep writing about the buildings, but there are far too many to mention. And there were other entities vying for our attention. When you’re not investigating the buildings, you can board old train carriages, admire the early versions of speedboats, get locked up in a tiny prison cell and take in the wide spectrum of other vehicles on site.
In many ways, because the village is so spread out, Old Tailem Town is a photographer’s dream. Heaps of rusting car skeletons, the abundance of cacti and other plantlife, the presence of lone weather turbines – Old Tailem Town’s buildings may be the star attraction but they happen to have an extremely photogenic backdrop.
I could have done away with the mannequins featured in some buildings but, in every other way, Old Tailem Town captures an interesting period in Australia’s history. Thanks to the attention to detail within the shops and dwellings, after spending a few hours in this village, you do easily forget about speedy modern city life.
For anyone interested in history, Old Tailem Town is the perfect day trip from Adelaide, or for while you’re en route to the Great Ocean Road. We loved our time there and, although I admit that the $22 entry is a bit steep, you’ll spend so many hours at Old Tailem Town that, in the end, you’ll feel like you got full value for your money!
Have you been to Old Tailem Town? Or do you, like me, hold affection towards unusual historical museums? Let me know in the comments below.
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