7 October 2022

Looking back at Griffith's Waterwheel Festival

| Oliver Jacques
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Moira Milton on a float.

Princess candidate Moira Milton on a float at the 1960 Waterwheel Festival. Photo: Griffith Genealogical and Historical Society.

By the early 1950s, Griffith was well established as an agricultural hub, feeding the nation and exporting its produce all over the world. But there was one thing the town was missing.

Businessman Bill Mackay, older brother of legendary politician Don Mackay, came up with the idea of holding an annual festival to celebrate the town’s irrigation roots and raise money for charity.

In 1955, he took his idea to the Griffith Chamber of Commerce and local council, who lapped it up. A festival committee was then formed, and conducted a competition among schools to come up with a name for the event.

Then 16-year-old student Stuart Cochrane devised the winning entry – “the water wheel festival”, which was launched in 1956. A waterwheel was the common name given to the Dethridge wheel, a revolving wheel invented by John Stewart Dethridge in 1910 to measure water levels in irrigation canals as the water passed over land.

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“Sometimes, travelling across these areas, a flash, or rather a glint, can be discerned in the sunlight. No, it’s not a mirage. You are entering an irrigation area,” the Griffith Waterwheel Festival souvenir program stated.

“Such a reflection could be symbolical of the light and vigour that this measuring device has imparted into this area.”

Former Griffith councillor Tom Marriott recalls attending the inaugural 1956 festival.

“It was very successful … we had a big parade along the main street with a lot of floats. So many people came along to watch.”

Many schools, large businesses and wineries participated in the event, hosting floats and raising money for charity.

“I remember McWilliam [Winery] had a semi-trailer full of wine, people were able to just go and help themselves to a free drink,” Mr Marriott said.

“I don’t think they had it there again the next year.

“Griffith was going through a boom at the time, as we are now. It would be great for Griffith to do something similar now, [but] the regulations have spoiled all the fun.”

Three waterwheel queens

Lena Ballestrin, Wilma Biggart and Phyllis Forscutt were the three candidates for Queen of the Waterwheel in 1956. Photo: Griffith City Library.

In the 1970s the event was turned into a vintage festival, which also featured a parade along the main street. History buff John Robinson said it would be difficult to re-create something like that today.

“Back then, the street was just full of people. I think most of the town would attend … but nowadays you would need to have a barrier and there’d be restrictions on open vehicles,” he said.

“It really was the event of the year.”

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Every 1950s festival needed a queen. Lena Ballestrin, Wilma Biggart and Phyllis Forscutt were the three candidates for Queen of the Water wheel in 1956. They each raised money for charity, rode on the back of a float and their photo appeared in the souvenir program, which was sold for two shillings and sixpence (about 25 cents in today’s money, adjusted for inflation).

“No event yet staged in the town of Griffith has aroused more public interest than the Waterwheel Festival,” the souvenir program stated.

Further information on the festival can be found at Griffith City Library.

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