|The Cloudehill Story
Cloudehill is made out of a historic 'working garden' pioneered by the Woolrich family in the 1890's. George Woolrich cleared the original 10 acre block of its tree ferns, five metre high wire grass and one hundred metre plus high mountain ash, and for a few years he grew cherries and raspberries. In the years following WW1, his son Ted Woolrich established the Rangeview Nursery, using the lower half of the 10 acres for the retail area of the business. The Rangeview Nursery was more-or-less the first ornamental plant nursery to be located on top of the Dandenongs. A considerable number of similar nurseries were established over subsequent years and the Olinda-Monbulk district became the leading production area for ornamental plants in Victoria and Australia.
During those first years it was still a simple matter to import plants. Thus, propagation stock was largely sourced from overseas, from England and Japan and, later, bulbs from Holland. Many of these historic plants are still growing on both Cloudehill and Rangeview.
Ted's younger brother, Jim established a 'cut flower and foliage farm' in the late 20's on the top half of the10 acres. He grew a very wide range of plants, the one criteria being that everything must produce either flowers or foliage suitable for cutting and bunching for the florist trade. During the 30's, both Jim and Ted bought further surrounding properties so that by the out break of the WW11 they owned close to 80 acres. The two brothers were very close; the land was almost entirely used in common. Both florist plants and nursery stock were grown throughout the 80 acres according to where each plant might be most happy. All was worked by hand and the brothers established something of a tradition for employing many of the Dutch nursery families when they first arrived in Australia. (It was certainly fun for us to meet many of these old timers who came to see what we might be doing as we ourselves commenced work here nearly 50 years later in 1992.)
Both Ted and Jim prospered and this ridgeline and surrounding land presented a fairly dramatic sight from the 30's through to the 60's, especially with a further seven or eight nurseries all producing rhododendrons, camellias, maples, etc nearby. However, devastating bush fires swept through the area in 1962. The brothers managed to save their houses, but nursery stock was made unsaleable. For Ted especially, this was devastating and he never recovered from the setback. He died in 1968 and the old nursery closed soon after. The Rangeview section of the property was sold on to Keith Purves in 1980 and Keith set about creating a woodland garden out of the regrowth he found on the old nursery site.
Jim Woolrich carried on with his florist supply business to a degree, but by the 70's he was retired and caring for his wife, Bessie, who suffered ill health for many years. Certainly, by the time I first saw the old flower farm very little had been done in nearly 20 years.
I clearly remember my first visit to Jim's farm in the spring of 1990. A neighbour suggested I have a chat in my quest to find land suitable for garden making and , although Jim was by then in his 90's and had been more-or-less blind for several years, I was told he would still be one of the useful people to discuss the matter with. The one proviso was not to bring up the sale of his own place. Many had coveted the property over a very long time and, at 91, Jim had no intention of selling and was very tired of been pestered.
I had never noticed Jim's garden despite my driving past it many times. It was larger than most, but entirely surrounded by a very tall and dense screen of beech trees, various conifers, photinia and cherry laurel. These were woven together with blackberry and ivy and with underlying colonies of viciously prickly holly seedlings.
I walked through an inconspicuous gap in that huge and impenetrable hedge and into another world. At a glance I could see any number of rhododendrons, azaleas, pieris, cherries, all flowering brilliantly in that morning's sunshine, with narrow paths winding backwards and forwards and plunging into dark thickets of blackberries and out again into tiny meadows massed with late spring daffodils. The garden stood high on the shoulder of the ridge with a panoramic view over the trees below to the Warburton ranges and the hazy blue Southern Alps beyond. Near the top of the slope stood a little wooden house, its terra-cotta tiled roof covered in a dense layer of pale green lichen and weather board walls from which the paint had faded and peeled many years earlier.
I went to the door and rang a raucous bell. A good minute later a small elderly gentleman opened the door and peered approximately in my direction. He stood barely five feet high, but his shoulders were broad and he looked able to whip down a small tree with an axe if he could just be sure where to swing. He asked who I was, apologizing as he did so, "my eyes are not too good nowadays" and squinting at me affably , he invited me in.
This was the first of a number of visits I made to Jim Woolrich. He seemed a fascinating individual and I suspect I learnt more from him about the nursery industry than any other single person. He may have been 90 and almost blind, but his mind was clear as a bell. In fact, his recollection of the history of the hills and the nursery trade in the 20's and 30's was almost outweighed by his grasp of current gossip.
Jim died in the spring of 1991, Several months later his niece rang me to say that, after much discussion, no one in the family wanted to take the old place on, and might I be interested?