Local Legends: Alan Dash

As curator of Sunshine and District Historical Society, it’s no surprise that Alan Dash has a wealth of local stories to share. We chat to him about the rich history of the suburb he calls home.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in the Strathbogie Ranges on a farm that had no electricity and no hot water. I’m the youngest in the family and, unlike my siblings, I was able to get an education. My sisters worked in various jobs before marriage. I was one of two brothers in the family; my older brother became a farmer while I went on to teach. 

I went to teachers’ college where I met Betty, my wife. She came from Orbost in East Gippsland, so we’re both country kids. You weren’t allowed to get married at teachers’ college at all, so we had to wait until after graduation. Where do two young married teachers go? Well, people didn’t seem to want to go to the western suburbs at that time as teaching in multicultural schools was seen as challenging. We thought, ‘no one is going there, so we will’. We rented a house in North Sunshine which we planned to stay in for one year. Well, we are still living in the same house today. Why? Because we love the place, community and people.

I am involved in community work in Brimbank and in rural areas, and recently travelled to drought-affected Hillston in New South Wales. As they say: you can take the boy out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the boy. 

Alan-Dash
Alan Dash, Curator of Sunshine and District Historical Society

What does the Sunshine and District Historical Society do?

In 1974, the Sunshine and District Historical Society was set up. I was a supporter but did not become active as curator until 2011. Basically, we collect stuff. Importantly, it’s not stuff we’re interested in. It’s the providence or the story the stuff tells. I would say, a community without heritage has no soul. The historical society is providing the soul of this part of Brimbank and Sunshine. My personal goal is to keep adding to what we have to make the heritage richer for future generations. 

Tell us about the role you play as curator.

It’s probably a few different roles. Number one — we’ve had some marvelous writers come out here and we’ve helped them write their books. We provide materials and research and generally, we try to answer questions people have. I recently got an enquiry asking whether Spalding made the first cricket bats. We might not know, but we can provide the information we have so people can make their minds up about what they believed happened. 

The second thing is to try to make history relevant to schools. While the curriculum largely focuses on literacy and numeracy, history and enjoying learning are very important. So we do a few things in this space. Thirdly, we put on displays and assist the City of Brimbank with all things related to heritage. 

We understand you’ve been recognised by City of Brimbank for your work in the community and as an educator. 

It was the Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Brimbank. I knew I’d been nominated for something but didn’t know what for. When they announced my name, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. If you’re passionate about education and passionate about your community, you do lots of things in lots of ways. I don’t think there was an individual event that resulted in the award. Perhaps it was lots of them built up. Merging the three schools — Sunvale, Braybrook and Sunshine East — into a place that is recognised by the education department today as a school of excellence was perhaps a big part of it. For a multicultural community, the school is kicking well above our expected NAPLAN scores. I also chaired the Brimbank Learning and Employment Steering Committee (BLESC) which became so successful I became redundant! I also work with the Smith Family and on youth employment through the bard of YouthNow and Learn Local.

In your opinion, what makes Sunshine such a historically significant suburb of Melbourne?

First of all, Kororoit Creek, Stony Creek and Jones Creek make it significant to our First Nations people, the Wurundjeri people. It was a rich country and the Wurundjeri people knew how to live in harmony with it. The number of artefacts that you can spot with a trained eye as well as the knowledge that’s just starting to emerge, make it a highly significant area. Things like disease and gold out in Ballarat and Bendigo changed this very quickly. 

On the other hand, there’s the history of HV McKay. Because of the flat country here, he wanted to improve white settlement with a commodity you could sell and load on boats to make a profit; he decided grain was it. He saw the need for the harvester and invented it. He came to Sunshine, which was outside of the metropolitan area, so the covenants for factories didn’t apply because it was a rural area. It was a great place to build his harvester works. So, he became the Henry Ford of harvester making. Of course, he sold those harvesters around the world and Sunshine was then known after the Sunshine Harvester.

HV was a pragmatist when it came to getting things done. He had a vision for an industrial city out here. He saw the importance of having things that workers and communities would need — churches, scout groups, gardens, sporting clubs — and he supported them. This brings me to my real hero Justice Higgins, who was President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court for his work on the ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ award. He used HV McKay’s Sunshine Harvester as a test case. 

Kororoit-Creek
Kororoit Creek, Sunshine

Tell us about Sunshine Harvester Works, the HV McKay Memorial Gardens and the other significant historic sites in the area.

Unfortunately, there’s very little left of the Sunshine Harvester Works except for the Visy Youth Services Centre. We can show people what the factory was like though. The Friends of McKay Gardens group have worked hard to restore the gardens to their former glory, and I hope it becomes a place we use as a community more. Full credit to the Friends of McKay Gardens. 

Come on one of the tours the historical society runs — there’s so much history hiding around every corner and there’s plenty of interpretive signage around. Sunshine is a real hidden gem. If you get off at Sunshine Station, you can talk about the railway disaster that happened there which was the worst train crashes in Australian history. You can look down McDonalds Lane that has the most significant murals including one of John Monash. Walk up the street and you’ll find John Kelly’s Man Lifting Cow sculpture. You can go up to the Brimbank Council Chambers inside a beautiful building with a beautiful library — a real asset to the community. It’s also home to an impressive art collection. You can look at the old Harvester Works and imagine what it was like in its heyday. Then, have a look at the McKay Memorial Gardens. Get in touch with the historical society and we’d be happy to do a tour that caters to your interests. 

What kind of items are in the Sunshine and District Historical Society’s collection?

First of all, we can’t collect a lot of things particularly because we only have a four-bedroom cottage to store everything in. But, we have boxes of material on HV McKay and a collection on Drayton’s Pottery Works. We have a collection of material on a local artist who has now passed away: Iris Noble. She was an eggshell artist who wasn’t well known in Australia. She would fly to the United Kingdom though, to present workshops to eggshell in the UK, so she was recognised outside of Australia. We have bits and pieces like this. 

Our criteria for people submitting artefacts or documents is that it has to tell a story. Anything that meets this and can fit into a cottage, we will have. 

How can locals and visitors view the collection?

We’re open Tuesdays 10am to 2pm or by appointment. We will attempt to answer any question but what we have in the collection is open to interpretation. Depending on the need, or what someone is trying to find out, we’ll do our best to get the information. 

As a longtime resident of Sunshine, tell us about how it has evolved over the years. 

Sunshine is the best-kept secret in Melbourne because we’re nice and close to the city. It’s also a great place to live because it’s close to the country, although the country is getting further and further away. The big change that I’ve seen is that it’s gone from an industrial area to on that’s full of boutique enterprises. There’s one in the area that’s able to make any gearbox for any vehicle in the world using three-dimensional equipment, from T-Model Fords to unusual trucks. They are innovating in boutique ways and it‘s great. Also, there’s a diverse range of nationalities involved with many of these enterprises. 

What do you love about living in Sunshine?

The people are multicultural and friendly. We’ve seen people from all over the world come through. It’s a wonderful and rich mix and they are all genuine people. 

Hv-Mckay-Gardens-Sunshine
HV McKay Memorial Gardens, Sunshine

Your favourite local… 

Place to eat: You can go to any of the Vietnamese restaurants in Sunshine’s main street and have a great meal. The food there is remarkable and very cheap. In terms of cafes, I like the newly emerged Sadie Black [31 Perth Avenue, Albion] — it’s my favourite at the moment. It’s a wonderful community cafe.

Place to shop: Sunshine Marketplace [80 Harvester Road, Sunshine] is very convenient

View: This is a real challenge. But along Kororoit Creek, upstream from the old swimming pool, there’s a rock cliff that has great views. You can peer down to the water and get a sense of what it was like when the First Nations people were here. 

Nature spot: The Organ Pipes National Park is a magnificent geological structure over in Keilor North.

Historic site: The Quarter Mile Railway Bridge. It was built with the same hot-driven rivets as were used in Sydney Harbour Bridge that came from HV McKay’s factory. It’s a magnificent steel structure — humongous trains still go over it today. It was built in the late 1920s and is a real engineering marvel.

Local business: I can’t name one, but it would be great to see a good bookshop in the area again. 

Sunshine-Alley-Art
Sunshine

All information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication.
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