Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store

Response

The Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store is the only remaining emergency grain store built during World War II. Its design is reflective of a regional community that used their local knowledge and lived experience to adapt the materials and resources available, in order to overcome a complex engineering problem.

Courtesy of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

It is not widely known that during World War II Australia was facing a significant wheat surplus. By the 1930s the wheat industry was producing between 150 and 160 million bushels per year, with 100 million for export. However, from 1939 normal trading routes had been significantly disrupted and export demand had plummeted. While some planning and expansion of bulk wheat storage had been undertaken prior to the war, by 1941 the storage deficit had become an emergency. Under the National Security Act 1939, the Australian Wheat Board purchased all the nation’s wheat and established a national network of 22 emergency wheat stores.

A colour photograph of a large corrugated iron shed in the shape of a pyramid extends into the distance. It is flanked by eucalyptus trees and a dirt road. Murtoa No. 1 Grain store. Courtesy of the Murtoa Stick Shed Committee of Management.

Murtoa was selected as a storage site due to its location in the Wimmera, a key transport hub and growing region for the Victorian wheat industry. Construction of Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store began in late 1941, and due to a shortage of steel, only raw, local and recycled materials could be used. As a result, the store was built with nearly 600 hand-cut mountain ash poles erected straight into the ground. The builders secured the poles by adapting a common bush technique used for fencing, which reduced the need for nails and accounted for the variability of the unseasoned wood, using traditional building techniques to solve a difficult and large-scale engineering problem.

A colour photograph of the interior of the Murtoa Grain Store features rows of tall slender timber polls set into the ground. The number and height of the polls create a tunnelling effect. Timber trusses set atop the polls hold the roof with the occasional skylight illuminating the interior. The Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store today, affectionately known as the “Cathedral of the Wimmera”. Courtesy of Leigh Hammerton. A worn beige and black printed card feature the text, Tea and Butter Ration Card, Name, Address, Holders name and address must be inserted immediately upon receipt of card. If this Card is found it must be returned at once for the Deputy Director of Rationing, Melbourne. The bottom of the card has attached two tear away tabs for butter. Ration card for tea and butter, 1949. Source: Museums Victoria.

Construction of the store was completed in only a few months using all manual labour. Once completed, the structure stood at 280m long, 60m wide and 19m high, with the capacity to store 3.4 million bushels of wheat. Its dramatic and cathedral-like poled interior earned it the affectionate names “Cathedral of the Wimmera” and the “Murtoa Stick Shed”.

The wheat glut in regional Victoria was in stark contrast to the rationing occurring in Melbourne and the rest of Australia, which became a fact of life for citizens throughout World War II. From June 1942, strict rationing of food and clothing was introduced to manage shortages, control civilian consumption, and curb inflation. This was regulated through the issue of coupons to ensure that each citizen received equal and adequate amounts of essential items such as flour and milk. While the policy curbed inflation and kept the economy stable, there was some civilian backlash. Fights broke out in grocery stores, and a black market for popular items emerged. Australia's rationing policies were heavily influenced by Britain, as Imperial ties between our countries remained strong and there was an expectation that Australia must save money where possible to assist in the repayment of Britain’s significant war debts. In On the Home Front, historian Kate Darian Smith observed:

The crisis in the Pacific precipitated the adoption of a new practical and mental approach on the civilian front. The 'Austerity' lifestyle was personified by Curtin himself as the only appropriate, and therefore patriotic, mode of existence for civilians in war time. The concept of 'Austerity' demanded cooperation and blind acceptance of government decisions, even though such directives caused hardship or inconvenience. Civilian self-denial implied both emotional and economic support of the fighting forces.
A black and white photograph of the interior of a storage shed. A large pile of grain fills most of the space and almost touches the roof. A man stands at the bottom of the pile. Wheat inside the Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store, 1985. Source: Wimmera Mail-Times.

The Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store is the only remaining emergency grain store built during World War II. Its design and longevity are symbolic of the regional Victorian community who built it using innovative and creative solutions in the face of domestic wartime pressures.

The building is recognised on the National Heritage List, and more information about the site’s history is available through the Stick Shed Committee of Management.

Located on the lands of the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk peoples.