Coming past the Blackall cattle yards readying for sale are the buildings and grounds of the Blackall Wool Scour. It is striking. It is simple, functional and elegant. It represents the opportunities and optimism of the wool industry over a century ago. Those who sought to realise this potential had at their core service and adding value to a developing industry as it was then.
In some ways, standing in the grounds of the Blackall Wool Scour felt like I was looking at an investment ahead of its time. It was also a poignant example of the spirit, determination and dedication that helped build Australia’s wool industry.
As the modern wool industry continues to change, and with that, moving away from locally based early stage processing, the Blackall Wool Scour offers a living history and reference. The intention of the Scour was to connect growers further into the supply chain with higher value goods where the provenance of the wool was known. These aims echo efforts of today where the industry is seeking to connect at all stages of the supply chain, capturing the growing demand for responsible products and building closer relationships between growers and consumers.
The Blackall Wool Scour operated between 1908 and 1978. It provided commissioned shearing, wool handling and scouring. The environment in which the Scour operated washed wool with yields (the amount of usable wool from a fleece) at around 60% in the driest of times. The combined ingredients of wool in close proximity and the abundance of hot water from the Artesian Basin enabled a viable business. Having the early stage processing done closest to its source meant that the goods transported were all usable, no wastage. In its time, the Blackall Wool Scour provided services to the many great stations, including Alice Downs, where the now famous Jackie Howe blade-shore 321 sheep in a day.
Having worked in early stage processing facilities in the late 1980s to the mid 1990s with the benefits of air conditioning and space and also in shearing sheds of a similar vintage, I am sure the Blackall Wool Scour would have been hot, cold, noisy, smelly and hard. No longer viable due to a variety of reasons within and beyond its control, it closed in 1978. Despite this, the community, reflecting the spirit that saw the Blackall Wool Scour come to fruition, made a choice.
Testament to the passion of the Blackall community, the grounds and buildings of the Wool Scour still stand proud. Along with its shearing shed and other infrastructure, it is a wonderful asset. Walking through the buildings I was saddened, reflecting on the past glory of Australia’s wool industry and wondering what might have been. It reminded me a little of France’s silk industry in Lyon and the radical change it undertook in order to survive. A diversification from woven silk to nanotechnology for the space industry can’t have been easy. What it did do was enable skills, investment and a lifestyle to continue and flourish.
While such a comparison is unfair because of population, geography and alternate markets, the Blackall community did take charge. Through local investment and the dedication of its volunteers, a tour brings this history to light. It educates and it informs. It leaves a lasting impression of the community’s commitment in the face of adversity to create a positive future. At the Wool Scour, it comes nicely packaged in this purpose built and well formed example of pioneering vision.