Several weeks ago this column shone the spotlight on Retford House, the sprawling Southern Highlands country estate of the late James Fairfax which was recently gifted to the National Trust. Today, your Akubra-clad columnist visits Calthorpes' House, a less extravagant bungalow built in the mid-1920s in suburban Canberra for Harry Calthorpe (a Gallipoli veteran and stock agent) and his wife Della, and uncovers the mystery of just how it ended up being one of our city's most-loved museums.
With a sense of nervousness, I sit quietly at the kitchen table, waiting patiently for Dawn Waterhouse (nee Calthorpe); it's not every day you meet a 95-year-old living treasure.
But I needn't have been anxious, for within minutes of striding into her old home, Dawn makes me feel at ease, charming me with stories of her Canberra childhood.
"Some adults sent from other cities struggled with the challenges of 1920s Canberra, but I don't think you'd find a happier, more fun place to grow up as a kid," asserts Dawn, who remembers the very day as a wide eyed four-year-old in 1927, she arrived at number 24 Mugga Way, Red Hill.
"Mum was already there having put a casserole in the oven and I arrived with dad, my older sister Del, our pet canary, Tiddles the cat and Johnson our cattle dog," she recalls, with clarity as if it was yesterday.
"Those early years here were some of the happiest days of my life - playing hopscotch on the back porch, skipping in the garden, collecting wild flowers from Red Hill and catching yabbies in the Molonglo River," recalls Dawn, who especially enjoyed making mud pies from the clay in the ditch at the back of the yard. What kid wouldn't?
"We had to be careful with those pies as mum would rouse on us if we trampled red mud into the house," muses Dawn.
As one of the first houses built on Mugga Way, Dawn explains the views in the 1920s were a bit different to today's leafy vistas. "From the top of the swing on the tree at the back of our yard you could see St John's Church in Reid in one direction and the roofs of Queanbeyan in the other," recalls Dawn.
But it wasn't just the open spaces that Dawn recollects so fondly. "Inside the house, the hallways were always filled with laughter and the sound of the pianola spilled out onto the veranda, it was a time when we children made our own fun," she says with a look of contentment written all over her smiling face.
However, that all changed on September 3, 1939, with prime minister Robert Menzies' radio broadcast announcing that Australia was at war with Germany.
"We were all huddled around the radio," recalls Dawn, who, 80 years on, can distinctly remember her parent's reaction. "The fear in mum's face was quite remarkable and dad was absolutely devastated," says Dawn, explaining, "he'd fought the war that was supposed to end all wars and just couldn't believe it was happening again."
The declaration of war had a profound effect on Dawn. "The next morning I rode my bike the Kingston to do some shopping and I remember thinking how long will it be before we're going to be all killed," she reflects.
A couple of years into World War II, and with the threat of Japanese invasion, Harry was appointed as an Air Raid Warden. "Having witnessed first-hand the horrors of war, it was a role dad took very seriously," explains Dawn, adding "we were one of the first houses to have blackout blinds installed and also to have an air raid shelter".
Thankfully, the shelter was never used for its intended purpose and three years later the war was over. "On returning from a night at the movies, I drove up Flinders Way and saw the house with every curtain opened and every light on,", recalls Dawn, adding, "dad opened up a bottle of wine to celebrate and the next night we all drove to the top of Mt Ainslie so we could see the lights of Canberra which had never shone so brightly."
When Dawn's father died in 1950, her mother "could think of no place more desirable than her own restful home" in which to spend the remainder of her life. "Although she was tempted to modernise the house, she was a great procrastinator so never did," explains Dawn.
Following Della's death in 1979 and with concerns about the loss of Canberra's heritage, the Federal Government requested first offer on the house. "Because of mum's procrastination to renovate it hadn't been changed structurally in any way since it was built in the 1920s, so they saw it as a time capsule," recalls Dawn, who after much deliberation, along with her sister, eventually agreed to sell to the government.
One of the few laments Dawn has since her family home opened as 'Calthorpes' House' in 1986 is that as part of conservation works, a tiny smudge on the roof of her sister's bedroom was painted over. "That mark was a result of Del throwing a throwdown at the ceiling during the lead-up to a bonfire night, mum and dad never found it and it was always our little secret," chuckles Dawn.
Sure, it may not boast the opulence of Retford Park, but the stories behind every single object at Calthorpes' House, from the paper brownout blinds still hanging in the breakfast room to the dolls and miniature tea set in Dawn's bedroom, all help tell the remarkable story of what would otherwise be a forgotten era in our city's colourful past.
Calthorpes' House Open Day: Saturday June 22, 10am - 4pm. Celebrate the re-opening of this Canberra landmark which was closed for several months to allow for extensive conservation works following a major water leak in a tank in the roof, with free entry, family activities and special house tours. 24 Mugga Way, Red Hill. Limited numbers per tour, book your spot by Wednesday June 19 here.
Expect: To hear the pianola playing and tuck into a hot scone baked in the original wood oven. Yum. Kids can also build a cubby house on the lawn and make their own wrapping paper using stamps by Megan Hinton and inspired by the Calthorpe Collection.
Don't Miss: A one-off 'Behind the Scenes' tour at 12.30pm where you can hear about the recent conservation works which involved packing up the entire contents of the house and returning them several months later to their original locations.
Curious Cubby: Originally one of the many huts built as temporary accommodation for Canberra's early construction workers, this wooden cabin was bought by Harry for his children soon after they moved into the house in 1927. It even boasts its own pot belly stove. Perfect for those cold winter days.
Air Raid Shelter: After the war, on more than one occasion Dawn's mum discovered a number of Canberra Boys Grammar students (the school is just around the corner) secretly smoking in its hidden confines.
Prophecy: While mulling over whether to sell the house to the government as a museum, Dawn visited her father's country in Norfolk, England. On a memorial she read the following quote from James Calthorpe, engraved in 1637. Give what thou hast while yet thou hast the power; When death has called Tis thine no more to give. "It also happened to be dad's birthday and I took the quote as being prophetic and soon after, along with my sister we agreed to sell the house to the government," reveals Dawn.
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WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Cryptic Clue: I wonder if Grant has been here.
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Greg Phillipson of Aranda who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo (below) sent in by David Osmond of Dickson as a footbridge that spans the ditch behind Campbell High School near the Remembrance Nature Park and the Australian War Memorial. Greg just beat Beatrice Guppy and Shane Cleary of Reid to the coveted prize.
Meanwhile, Simon Spinetti of Kaleen recognised the leafy location from his time as a science teacher at Campbell High. "That bridge was frequently crossed by my classes as we explored Mt Ainslie Nature Reserve to look at rocks, search out scorpions, moss, orchids and centipedes or just have a calming walk in the bush after lunch to hear the birds and smell the bush." Heck, that's not how I remember my science classes - they were more about dissecting rats and exploding test tubes. How times have changed.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday June 15, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
While much of the Snowy Mountains is now coated in winter splendour, during a walk from Mt Twynam to Guthega just before the first big snow falls of the season, this rock stopped David Wardle of Mawson in his tracks.
"I couldn't believe it, there nestled in the grass well away from its familiar environs was this whale looking up at us quizzically," reports David.
Meanwhile, many of this column's south coast correspondents report increased sightings of the real-life marine mammals on the 'humpback highway' as thousands of humpback whales migrate north to warmer climes for winter. Have you spotted any?