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Australia Transforming 160yo Moyhall Homestead back to life a labour of love, time and money

06:15  28 november  2020
06:15  28 november  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a large green field with trees in the background: Moyhall Homestead near Naracoorte, south-east South Australia. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham) © Provided by ABC NEWS Moyhall Homestead near Naracoorte, south-east South Australia. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)

Anna Robinson's story is much like a fairytale. A fairytale set in the Australian bush with a run-down homestead in lieu of a castle and guinea fowls instead of horses.

When the then-Melburnian fell in love with a farmer from South Australia's south-east, she had no idea the relationship would come with a 160-year-old homestead. Or the responsibility of restoring it.

"He told me that he would look after the outside and I had to look after the inside," Ms Robinson said.

A few months before meeting Anna at his brother's wedding in 2008, Andrew 'Robbo' Robinson had bought the 3,800-acre site with his family for farming purposes.

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"It was all about the land here … finding a place for him to start farming his own place," Ms Robinson said.

"The fact that it's a beautiful old house was a bonus."

In the 10 years of living there and starting a family, the Robinsons have piece-by-piece invested in their 'labour of love', restoring the once-pristine Moyhall Homestead, and the many buildings connected to it, back to its former glory.

The homestead

Despite always loving old things and the stories behind them, Anna Robinson promises she didn't marry Robbo for the homestead.

"I didn't know if I was going to end up living here because we were just swinging hands back then," Ms Robinson said.

Besides, restoring it was a huge task. Not just a house property — it was home to a secondary cottage, woolshed, shearers' quarters and 10 or so sheds.

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Not intended for one person, the homestead once employed several staff, including two gardeners. One managed the garden while the other, a Chinese gardener, oversaw the vegetables.

The homestead took many years to build and will take many years to restore.

"We didn't really realise what we were getting into until it was too late," Ms Robinson said.

With few records to document the building plans, the Robinsons have learnt about the foundations as they go.

"Two of the rooms had a piece of carpet with a bit of tar in the middle with another layer of tar and another layer of carpet," Ms Robinson said.

Other things have been more rewarding to find.

"When we did the kitchen, we ripped up the lino and it had old jarrah floorboards [underneath] in just amazing condition," Ms Robinson said.

"That's a day I'll remember for a long, long time."

Slowly chipping away at it as time and money allows

The Robinsons have tried to do most of the restorations themselves in a bid to save money.

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The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, typically called a homestead .

"One little job is never easy but it's all part of it," Ms Robinson said.

One of the first things Ms Robinson did when they moved in was get rid of all the heavy curtains everywhere and paint most of the rooms white.

"It's a crying shame not to have the light flooding in and [to be able to see] the views," Ms Robinson said.

"You can make a big transformation without much money if you're willing to do the hard yards."

Over the years they have painted over the purple bathroom and green kitchen, scrubbed off wallpaper, stripped floors and renovated the shearers' quarters with a new roof, ceiling, and floor.

They have plans to extend the upstairs balcony but have been told there are a few things that need to happen first.

"The next project will be to replace the roof and all the windows and all the surrounds and all the fly screens," Ms Robinson said.

"And then after that the kitchen."

"And then, hopefully, by the time it's all finished it will be time to hand it over to the kids.

"That's a long time [then], isn't it?"

Finding fragments of history as they go

For Anna Robinson restoring the homestead has been a lifestyle, not a chore.

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"You're prepared to put in lots of hours to improve it all the time because it's very satisfying," she said.

Midway through peeling back the wallpaper in one of the kid's rooms she hit gold.

"I got to that last section where I just could have screamed [because] I was so over it," Ms Robinson said.

On the last little panel, she saw the words "John 1907".

"Most people would find it a bit pathetic getting excited over those things but to me all those little [things are] fragments of history."

Just metres from the upstairs master bedroom is an old lift installed more than 100 years ago.

One of the early inhabitants of the house, Annie Robertson, was paralysed in a horse-riding accident.

"So, they imported some materials [from overseas] for a lift to be made so that she could get up to her bedroom on the top floor," Ms Robinson said.

These stories have been passed down to Ms Robinson from local historians. It is from them she learnt about the three-day party that was held when the home was finally finished in the mid-19th century. She knows it involved wallaby coursing, whiskey, and the then Governor of South Australia.

"If these walls could talk, I would love to hear what they had to say," Ms Robinson said.

Preserving that history

The Robinsons insist on keeping as much of the original elements of the house as possible.

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"In order to do that you have to put a lot of time, effort and finance into keeping it restored and the way that it should be kept," Ms Robinson said.

They upcycle where possible to avoid things going to landfill.

"Older things can last a long time … they made things well back then," Ms Robinson said.

Some things she has not been able to save. Like the old Cyprus trees they had to rip out because they were getting too dangerous and hard to remove.

"Sometimes you've got to take off your sentimental boots and put on your realistic and your practical ones," she said.

While the lift may have an incredible story, they plan to remove it. It is not an original part of the house after all.

A love for the country

While life with two children, a half-renovated mansion, a new online business, and a hard-working husband keep life in constant motion, Ms Robinson would not have it any other way.

"I just think living on a farm is the best lifestyle you could hope to have," she said.

"People thought it was strange that I'd spend 10 years in Melbourne and then fit right in here, but I just have."

Not just her but her children.

"They love the city lights when they go there but we always love coming home," Ms Robinson said.

"How lucky are we to have this as a playground?"

She is not sure if the house will ever be finished but intends to keep chipping away in the meantime.

"You really want it to be standing for another 160 years or more," Ms Robinson said.

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