How the small town in west-central New South Wales, Woodstock, looks to its past to reinvent itself

At 95, Betty Dennis remembers when the car and television arrived in Woodstock, in mid-west New South Wales.

The television was on display in one of the four department stores in the village.

“Woodstock was truly a great city in its own right,” Ms. Dennis said.

“You can get it all here.

“There were also big balls every Saturday. It was a wonderful place to live.

Nestled in the hills between Carcoar and Cowra, Woodstock began life as a gold rush camp before entering modernity with the advent of the railroad in 1888.

By the turn of the last century, large quantities of grain and livestock were leaving the frantic station of Woodstock for the markets of Sydney every week, requiring thousands of man-hours to harvest, gather and load loads.

During this time, the city’s population increased to 8,000.

Trappers lined up at Woodstock station with their catch of rabbits in 1906, destined for processing at Cowra.(Provided: Instagram @Woodstockvillage)

But as life on the land became more mechanized, jobs dried up and Woodstock’s population began to decline.

The arrival of the automobile saw larger centers such as Cowra flourish as business became more centralized.

The construction of the nearby Wyangala Dam in the early 1930s and its modernization in 1971 kept Woodstock’s head above water.

But when the last train left Woodstock station in 1987, the town’s population was 267, where it has been hovering ever since.

Put the city back on the map

For current Woodstock Progress Association president Alison Rutledge, seeing the once bustling rail town slowly retreating into itself was unbearable.

Ms Rutledge felt the town needed a morale boost, but something that also gave passing traffic a reason to stop.

Two woman talking in a kitchen
Betty Dennis and Alison Rutledge discuss the future of Woodstock over a cup of tea in Betty’s kitchen.(ABC Central West: Micaela Hambrett)

“The idea I took when I took on the job is to make Woodstock look and feel good. “

His rationale was to restore the remains of Woodstock’s commercial signage, still visible on many of the city’s heritage buildings.

“It obviously depends on the funding, so we started with the signs we were confident in.

“It’s just our way of starting to kick things off and improve the aesthetic of the village.”

Layers of history

Sharon Fensom is a nearby de Young classically trained writer who specializes in Colonial and turn-of-the-century signage.

Wide shot of woman on scaffolding painting wall.
Sharon Fensom working on the restoration of the second panel, a 1930s stock and station agent.(ABC Central West: Luke Wong)

“I am always interested in being involved in this kind of work,” Ms. Fensom said.

The process of reestablishing signs, which dates back to the early 1930s, sparked Woodstock’s imagination and rekindled long-lost bonds.

As Ms Fensom painstakingly scraped off the layers of paint and with that, the story, the community rallied to remember what the signs previously said.

“You might see an M or an S and think, ‘What does that belong to? “” said Ms Fensom.

“It has become a big topic of discussion in the community.”

Letters drawn on a brick wall.
Fresh, hand drawn lettering photographed during the restoration process.(Provided: Sharon Fensom)

As more road signs were discovered, Alison Rutledge took to social media for clues.

“Facebook was a great tool to get the message out. People started to dig into things.

“We got calls from everywhere, people who had a grandfather there or had a business and sent us pictures.

“At the moment, we have just created the Hills Cafe, which was an active cafe in the 1940s and 1950s. We discovered that it was also a cafe before that.”

Betty Dennis was one of the locals who answered the call for clues, digging up a bottle of boracic acid (used as an antiseptic) dating from the 1930s to prove the existence of a chemist on Main Street.

She also found a cup of tea at home in the earlier Hills Cafe, proof that it was once called The Gumnut Cafe.

An old can and a ceramic teacup are lying on a table.
Objects from two of Woodstock’s old shops, dating from the 1930s, found in Betty Dennis’ house.(ABC Center-Ouest: Micaela Hambrett)

The future is lifestyle

Woodstock is one of many villages scattered throughout west-central New South Wales that face evolution in order to survive.

“Agriculture is no longer the backbone of Woodstock now,” Ms. Rutledge said

“We’re never going to employ hundreds of men. There won’t be a factory.

“The future is the way of life.”

Ms. Rutledge believes villages like Woodstock need to be proactive about what they can offer people.

“We just have to think outside the box.”

Villages such as Woodstock are also at the end of a multigenerational changing of the guard, meaning the city’s social fabric is almost on the verge of a fresh start.

A woman holds an old photo from a wedding party.
Betty Dennis on her wedding day in 1960.(ABC Center-Ouest: Micaela Hambrett)

“This revelation came to me at a funeral Betty and I were at the other week,” Ms. Rutledge said.

“All of a sudden, I realized that there were very few original families left.

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