Located 277 km south east of Perth and 311 m above sea level, Katanning is one of the major centres in the Western Australian wheat-belt. The combination of a major railway line and a rich sheep–wheat area surrounding the town have made Katanning an important and thriving centre. It now boasts the largest stockyards in the state.
There is considerable disagreement as to just exactly what ‘Katanning’ means. Some sources argue that it is derived from the local Aboriginal word ‘kartanup’ meaning a ‘clear pool of sweet water’ while others suggest that it comes from ‘kartannin’ meaning ‘meeting place’. A third suggestion combines these two interpretations suggesting that a ‘clear pool of sweet water’ would be an ideal ‘meeting place’. Just to confuse matters there has been some people who insist that the town was named after an Aboriginal woman called Kate Ann or Kate Anning.
The first Europeans to explore the Katanning area were Governor James Stirling and Surveyor General John Septimus Roe who travelled through the area in 1835 en route from Perth to Albany. They both commented on the richness of the soil and the quality of the grasses and so by the early 1840s Elijah Quartermaine was grazing sheep in the area. He moved his sheep across from Beverley and then herded them back in the spring for shearing. By 1852 Quartermaine had a holding of 17 284 acres and by the 1870s he was the largest landholder in the district.
It was around this time that the sandalwood cutters moved into the area but they did not settle. It was not until the arrival of the Great Southern Railway from Perth to Albany in 1889 that the township really came into existence.
The founding father of Katanning was Frederick Henry Piesse, an entrepreneurial merchant who, seeing the potential that the Great Southern Railway would bring to the area, designed a mobile store to follow the railway’s construction. It is wonderfully appropriate that the railway, which was being constructed from both Perth and Albany, met only 5.5 km from the present site of Katanning. The point where the two railways met is marked by a cairn west of town.
The beginnings of Katanning can be described specifically because in May 1888 Piesse had three wagon-loads of goods unloaded near Elijah Quartermaine’s house and a heap of sandalwood was dumped beside the railway. This was the beginning of F & C Piesse’s store which eventually became the town of Katanning.
In 1891 Piesse and his brother Charles, built the Roller Flour Mill which encouraged farmers to grow wheat and was very much at the heart of the town’s early economic success. The building is located on the corner of Clive Street and Austral Terrace. The machinery is still intact and the museum has a number of interesting displays recalling the early history of the town. A statue of Piesse, beside the railway line in Austral Terrace, was erected in 1916. To appreciate the importance Piesse had on the early development of Katanning it is worth noting virtually every building between the mill and his statue was either created by him or built using bricks from his brick-works.
This includes the Katanning Unit Hotel built in 1889 and the King George Hostel. The Hostel, on the corner of Albion Street and Austral Terrace, was originally built for Piesse’s son in 1913 and used to house mill workers. Piesse donated 10,000 bricks towards the construction of Katanning Town Hall, which was completed in 1896. Its ornate plaster ceilings are well worth a closer inspection. Around the corner in Amabel Street is St Andrews Church which was opened by Mrs Piesse in 1898 after her husband had donated 40,000 bricks. Surprisingly, for an area where timber is plentiful, the pews are made from New Zealand kauri. Also in Amabel Street, is the town’s museum, which was once the home of Katanning’s first government school.
No journey to Katanning is complete without a visit to Piesse’s imposing family mansion Kobeelya, which he built in 1902. Katanning was just 14-years-old when this seven-bedroom mansion, with hot and cold running water, a billiard room, a ballroom, tennis courts and a croquet field, was finished. It is now owned by the Baptist Union of WA. To arrange a visit, phone (08) 9821 1922.
The Piesse family also owned a winery, built 1904 to process grapes from their vineyards. After it closed, many of its casks and wine making tools were sold to the monks at the New Norcia Mission, 192km north of Perth. The castle-like ruins of the winery are still visible.
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Katanning Roller Flour Mill
With the success of their store and the establishment of the railway in Katanning, the Piesse brothers decided to build a flour mill. The York firm of Thorne, Bower and Stewart erected the mill in 1891 and it was equipped with machinery supplied by Otto Schumacher of Melbourne. Head miller Charles Quigley carried out the installation of the machinery. It was officially being opened on 1st May 1891.
The mill was to become the most dominant in the Great Southern region, having its production capacity doubled by 1909 and extensive alterations and additions in 1912. Upon the death of F H Piesse in 1912 his son Frederick took over the management of the mill. Further improvements were made, which included gantries, electric elevators and conveyors, and a storehouse capable of holding 1,500 tons. In 1915 the mill also erected five silos for wheat storage.
The importance of the mill to the town was heightened when it became the sole supplier of electricity to the town in the early 1900s, thanks to an act of Parliament introduced by F Piesse who was the member for Katanning at the time.
After much debate and friction within the community, mainly due to the higher than average charges the mill levied, the electricity supply was taken over by the SEC in 1961.
There were many factors that contributed to the eventual demise of the Piesse family’s commercial dominance in Katanning and of the mill itself. The first was the death of Frederick Piesse in 1925, after which the running of the family company became lax. The second was the eventual poor trading position of the milling industry in 1927, primarily due to poor quality wheat, the relocation of poultry farms closer to Perth and the phasing out of horses. Then there was the extravagant lifestyle of the Piesse family, which resulted in major financial difficulties, even though they had already sold off their Kobeelya estate. The then WA Bank decided to clear up the Piesse estate and sell the mill.
The 1927 a group of local farmers and business people formed the Katanning Flour Milling Co., and bought the mill for £25,000, with the Piesse family retaining a major shareholding interest in the new company. A new generator was installed, more export markets were established and the product continued to be used by all local bakers. The new company, which had adopted the name “Swan Flour” for the product, ran the mill until 1970, when the mill had become unprofitable and was going to be closed.
It was projected that the site would be developed as a major retail-shopping complex, but this was prevented when a local company was formed and the mill purchased by them for $70,000. The mill then continued until 1979. The mill was then acquired by the Shire of Katanning and converted into a museum through the efforts of the Katanning Historical Society. In 1988 the Austral Terrace shop was removed and the verandah was replaced.
To appreciate the importance that Piesse had on the early development of the town it is worth noting that virtually every building between the Mill and Piesse’s statue was either built by Piesse or built using bricks from Piesse’s brickworks. The man’s hand is on everything in the town. The Piesse Complex in Austral Terrace, now a modern shopping centre, was built in 1901 as a kind of department store. The Katanning Unit Hotel was built in 1889 using bricks from Piesse’s brickworks and the King George Hostel, on the corner of Albion Street and Austral Terrace, was built for Piesse’s son in 1913 and originally used to house mill workers.
The Town Hall has been the centre of many important institutions in Katanning, such as the Mechanics’ Institute, the Roads Board and the Agricultural Committee, as well as providing an important social venue for the local community. Although it has undergone many modifications and changes, the original hall building is still the main feature and has significant architectural value.
The foundation stone for the Katanning Town Hall was laid on 22nd August 1896 by the Hon F H Piesse, MLA. with a casket containing town records, a copy of the West Australian of August 21st, and of the Australian Advertiser of August 22nd, together with all the silver coins of the realm sealed and securely cemented at the back of the foundation stone. The building was made possible through the donation of 10,000 bricks by F & C Piesse, government subsidy and voluntary labour to cart the bricks, sand and lime.
The agricultural hall cost £3000 to build with the contractor being Mr George Thomas and the contractor for the woodwork Mr Andrew Stewart. It was officially opened in 1897.
In 1899 it became known as the Mechanics’ Institute and Public Hall after it was decided at a public meeting to amalgamate the Mechanics’ Institute and the Agricultural Hall committee. Improvements were carried out to the hall at this time, giving the Mechanics’ Institute members permanent quarters. By 1903 some ill feeling had developed between the institute members and the agriculturalists over the suggestion to change the name to the more simple “Mechanics’ Institute (inc,)”. The Roads Board also leased a room in the hall for their office.
In 1907 a new Mechanic’s Hall was erected next to the old one, which was by now in a state of disrepair and included “four shops, a main entrance, a spacious cloakroom, a ticket office, a large stage and dressing rooms”. Elaborate wrought iron gates (made by B Makutz), scenic stage backdrops designed by P Goatcher and a panelled ceiling, the work of a Mr Tindale – all well-known Perth contractors were also added.The intricate electric light system was personally supervised by F T R Piesse. The architect for this work was J Herbert Eales and the contractor was Alex Thomson.
The existing hall was also renovated at the same time, using brick partitioning and incorporated a reading room and library as well as a billiards room and caretakers quarters. Not long after this work, the Roads Board offices were also refurbished.
Extensive additions and alterations were completed in 1928, which included the addition of the second storey. The architects were Eales & Cohen of Perth, the contractor was Alex Thomson and the contract price was £6495. With the completion of these additions and alterations, the building was now more commonly referred to as the Town Hall. Inside the hall was housed the Road Board offices and meeting room, and a large modern hall with a gallery. A library was added in 1944. The building is rendered in a mannered classical mode. In 1979 additions and alterations were carried out in a Post-war Functionalist style. The architects were Henderson and Thompson, and the supervisor was V C Philpott.
St Andrews Church was opened by Mrs Piesse in 1898 after her husband had donated 40 000 bricks. Surprisingly, for an area where timber is plentiful, the pews are made from imported New Zealand kauri.
Kobeelya is the grand family mansion which F. H. Piesse built in 1902. Given that Katanning was only 14 years old at the time it is a remarkably urbane building. It must have seemed incongruous in a small country town to have had a seven-bedroom mansion with a billiard room, hot and cold running water, a ballroom, tennis courts and a croquet field. It is a fitting monument to the man who created the town. It is now owned by the Baptist Union of WA, however it is possible to visit this remarkable mansion by contacting (08) 9821 1922.
The Katanning Museum, which is located in the town’s first Government School, is in Amabel Street. Open by appointment, the Museum houses an interesting collection of memorabilia and artifacts relating to the early history of the town. Contact Katanning Tourist Information Centre, Austral Terrace, Telephone: (08) 9821 2634
The mosque was built in 1980 by the local Islamic community who arrived in Katanning in 1974 after moving from Christmas Island. The community has continued to grow with relatives from the Cocos Islands and other Muslim countries moving to Katanning.
With many families settling in the town, the children were in need of a local educational facility. As a result, school classes opened in 1890 under the supervision of Mary Bell. The classes were held in the former kitchen for the railway station, which was one of the first buildings constructed by the WA Land Company for the Beverly to Albany line. The classes did move from there to Piesse’s Hall for a brief period, until 1894 when the first purpose build government school was erected in Amabel Street.
The Piesse family had established vineyards on their property as early as the 1890s. It was not until 1902 that the family employed a winemaker, Carl Bungert. The original winery was erected in 1904 using bricks from the Piesse brickworks. A brick distillery with a basement cellar was added in 1910 and this is the only remaining structure. The tower housed four water tanks.
The wine was very successful and not only was supplied to surrounding districts, but was also sold overseas. Wine exhibited at the Perth Agricultural Society’s Show in 1904 was awarded the Ferguson Challenge Cup and, in 1908, the winery received a gold medal at the Franco-British Exhibition in London.
Although the wine was to win many other awards, the death of F H Piesse in 1912 and eventful family mismanagement caused the Piesse family to sell off much of its property in the early 1920s. The wine cellar casks and tools were sold to New Norcia and to South Australia.
It is believed that the vines contracted a disease not uncommon to wine producing vines. The family had a number of circumstances to contend with after the death of FH Piesse and it appeared they lost interest in the affairs of the business. The situation may have been beyond their control at the time.
In 2004 the Historical Society of Katanning decided to sell the Winery. It was bought by A and M.E. Fritz, descendants of the Piesse family.
Notes of Interest:
Katanning lays claim to several “firsts”…
- The first electric street lights in WA
- The first purpose built inland swimming pool
- The first free public lending library service in WA
- The first country Historical Society
- The first country house with hot & cold running water (Kobeelya)
- The first Roller Flour Mill in WA
Some Katanning highlights:
- Katanning also has the largest sheep sale turnover in the southern hemisphere
- The largest undercover sheep selling complex in the Southern Hemisphere
- The historic Wake’s Garage houses Western Australia’s first orbital engine, invented in Katanning by local engineers.
- Katanning has the only purpose built “B” class art gallery in country WA, which hosts international, national, state and local art exhibitions.
- The largest indoor recreation complex in rural Australia
- The best rural golf course in 2014 – playable all year round
- Katanning has the most diverse multi-cultural community in country WA