Fryerstown: Going old school

Wendy Williams looks at how the old Fryerstown School was transformed

PICTURE GALLERY: Dropping a bombshell at the Fryerstown Antique Fair

IT WAS a run-down old building with broken windows, holes in the floor, termite damage and asbestos after being left vacant for nearly a decade.

Fast forward three years and the old Fryerstown State School has become the heart and soul of the small community of less than 400 people.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the locals, a new community hub has been built out of the derelict shell of the former Fryerstown State School No. 252.

This weekend is the annual Fryerstown Antique Fair weekend which is the school’s major fundraising event for the year.

More than 80 volunteers are helping at the three-day event to lend some of the community spirit that has brought the school back to life.

Fryerstown School facilities co-ordinator Denise Button said the school was all about bringing people together.

“It has been a very inclusive project,” she said.

“We are out in the sticks. There is nothing here - no pubs, no shops - and we are quite dispersed so we wanted to provide a community hub.

 “The school had been vacant for seven years. It just sat there and the community was really concerned we would lose this piece of history.

 “We got involved to preserve this fantastic building, and the school has become a drop-in point for people to connect.

“Some people have lived here for 15 or 20 years and they wouldn’t have met otherwise. We have drawn people out.

“It is a really valuable resource.”

The original school building was built in 1915 to house 450 students in the booming gold-mining town. 

“I think it was because the then director of education Frank Tate was a former pupil of the school,” Ms Button said.

“It is bizarre when you think about it, it was war time and we got a fancy new school.”

But by 1967 the school only had three students left and the doors were closed.

From 1973 it was used as a school camp by Gardenvale Central School but in 2003 asbestos was found and it was closed down and remained vacant until a management committee intervened in 2010.

The whole community soon got behind the project and spent three years carrying out a complete restoration job.

With the help of a $200,000 government grant, hundreds of hours of volunteer labour, and donations by local businesses, the school was transformed into a gallery space and community centre to be used for workshops, functions, events and a drop-in night on Friday's.

Local photographer Julie Hough was one of the last students to go to the school and the first artist to exhibit her work there since the renovation.

“I was there between 1960 and 1965,” she said.

“My siblings all went to that school as well as my dad. I have fantastic memories of it.

​“There were probably between six and 10 pupils at any one time, it was always small.

“We all sat in one classroom with school desks with the flip-up lids and our work on the big blackboard in front of us. We used to sneak a look at next year’s work and think, ‘wow doesn’t that look hard’.

“There was just one teacher and you had a close relationship with the other children. They were your school buddies and best mates.

“When I left in 1965 we knew it wasn’t far off from closing.”

Mrs Hough said for a long time the school sat there empty, but now it is a great community space.

“It is very different from what I remember but it is great they have retained the big long blackboard along the wall in the classroom," she said.

“They have added this beautiful art space and I held the first exhibition there last year.

“In 2008 I started a photographic project at the fair and each year I would photograph four to six stall holders behind their stalls and I accumulated quite a lot of portraits.

“I displayed 30 works and it was really well received.

“This year Fryerstown will also be part of the Castlemaine arts open.

“The school has been doing fabulous things. I it is a community hub now.”

Ms Button said community was key to the project.

“I would love to tell you a juicy story of the battle for the school but we have had great support,” said Ms Button.

“We have been very fortunate and had key people on board from very early including Heritage Victoria and the Mount Alexander Shire Council.

“The whole community is behind this.

“There was a lot of termite damage and a lot of work to be done, not least of all the asbestos removal.

 “But with the help of the local community of less than 400 people the entire refurbishment was done.

“If you work out the volunteer hours there was $60,000 worth of in-kind labour.”

We are out in the sticks. There is nothing here, no pubs, no shops, and we are quite dispersed so we wanted to provide a community hub. - Denise Button

Member for Northern Victoria Region Damian Drum officially opened the refurbished school in April 2013.

But the Fryerstown Community Reserve committee of management still has big plans.

“It is really only phase one that has been completed,” Ms Button said.

“When we have the funds; the next stage is the ground work outside.

“At the moment it is like a lovely little house on really dry and dreadful surrounds, so we need to do the landscaping.

“Ultimately we would like to have a historic children’s play area.

“The antique fair is our major fundraiser.

“It is a massive event for the town - there are around 10,000 people. It has been growing each year; our target is to raise $3000 to 4000.”

 ‘Trina Bruce, who has a long connection to Fryerstown, has been helping with the preparations for the antique fair.

“It is a great community thing,” she said.

“We have just spent four hours making plum jam and rich fruit chutney for the fair. My mother always helped out making scones and now I have carried on.

 “My great grandfather settled in Fryerstown in the early 1850s and was the last magistrate in the old court.

“My grandfather and his brothers went to the school. They weren’t allowed to be kept behind as my great grandfather was the postmaster and the boys did the delivery.

“The school was still open when I was a child.

 “We don’t have a post office or a milk bar or a pub; I remember when I was a little girl the butcher and baker would come and all the ladies would walk down to meet them. Now the school is a great place to come.

“It is something to share.

“It is the place to go in Fryerstown.”

The annual Fryerstown Antique Fair takes place this weekend.

Visitors are invited to visit the school and enjoy lunch or afternoon tea.

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