The first European to pass through the Grifith area was John Oxley who explored the district in 1817. He was unimpressed with what he saw describing 'the soil a light red sand parched with drought, a perfect level plain overrun with acacia scrub...there is a uniformity of barren desolation of this country which wearies one more than I am able to express...I am the first white man to see it and I think I will be undoubtedly the last.'
Charles Sturt passed through leaving similarly negative reports concerning: 'the dreariness of the view ... the plains are open to the horizon, but here and there a stunted gum tree or a gloomy cypress seems placed by Nature as mourners over the surrounding desolation. Neither bird nor beast inhabits this lonely and inhospitable region, over which the silence of the grave seems to reign.'
Inhabiting the area at the time were the Wiradjuri peoples. They regarded the white presence as threatening and unwelcome and killed one of Oxley's party. Their fears proved well-founded. Smallpox quickly wiped out around 60 per cent of the population and traditional food sources were soon displaced by European stock. Increasingly harassed they appear to have decided to make an all-out effort to drive the invaders away in 1839. A war ensued in which massacres and atrocities occurred.
Samuel McCaughey's successfully developed an irrigation system at Yanco which convinced the government to undertake the construction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in 1906, which transformed the barren plains into a fertile agricultural oasis. It is now the richest tract of agricultural country in Australia.
The waters of the Murrumbidgee are harnessed by the Burrinjuck Dam, near Yass, and Blowering Dam, on the Tumut River. The two have a combined storage capacity of 2,654,000 megalitres. The water passes through Berembed Weir and is diverted into the main canal, which is 159 km long with a flow capacity of 6500 megalitres per day. Altogether there are 2010 km of supply channels which operate by gravity flow, and another 1391 km of drainage channels servicing some 2500 farms in an area that covers 182 000 ha.
Local settlement started with makeshift accommodation for the men who were building the canal 5 km south-east of the present townsite. This site became known as 'Bagtown', after the old canvas cement bags which were used for the workers' tents. Facilities were soon added. There was a general store, a co-op, an eating house, a barber, butcher, baker and blacksmith.
Tango Joe's cordials had a sign outside saying 'Free Drinks Tomorrow'. Of course, tomorrow never comes. However, according to legend, a man came along and insisted his name was Morrow and Tango kept his word, furnishing him with free drinks.
Griffith was designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin according to a radial design, with wide, tree-lined streets, ring roads and parks, although the plan was not strictly adhered to.
Shopkeepers shunned the three concentric circles he laid down for the city centre and set up premises along the present main street, largely due to the fact that these blocks were cheaper and closer to the railway station.
The town was proclaimed in 1916, the year the railway arrived, and named after Arthur Griffith, then state minister of public works.
The first farms were made available in 1912. Many of the workers were among the first settlers. The residents of Bagtown were initially reluctant to move. However, after World War I, many returned servicemen settled on the new farms and there were many Italian migrants, attracted by the similarity of the landscape to that of their home country. They brought with them their traditions of viticulture and market gardening to the immense benefit of the district. They capitalised on and greatly enhanced a winemaking industry which began in 1913 when J.J. McWilliam planted 40 000 grape cuttings on his block at Hanwood. He built the Hanwood Barrel Winery in 1917 to process his grapes.
Today the surrounding wineries produce 80 per cent of NSW's and 25 per cent of Australia's wine grapes. 110 000 tonnes were harvested by 500 growers in 1996, with semillon and shiraz accounting for the bulk of the production.
The rice industry was founded in 1924. A milling co-op was formed in 1950 as local producers were unhappy with the returns from private millers. There are now six mills in the Riverina. The three irrigation areas of NSW produce about 1.4 million tonnes of rice a year which is virtually the entire Australian output, most of which (around 90 per cent) is exported.
Citrus fruit is the other major local product. 230 000 tonnes are harvested in the MIA each year, with valencia oranges the largest crop. Stone fruits, vegetables, wheat, cotton, sheep, wool, eggs and canola are also produced in quantity. All of the gherkins used by McDonald's are also grown here. There is, moreover, an engineering works, a cannery, a rice mill, a distillery, a brickworks, fruit and vegetable packing, the production of fruit juice and Australia's largest egg and poultry plant, with 60 000 hens being processed each week.
In 2016, we celebrate the history of Griffith - come celebrate with us!