History Society

It’s important to treat your town like you’re a tourist, to not only notice its idiosyncrasies but to pull over and look at them, check them out, find out about them.

This statue stands in the main street and I drive past it every school day. It was time for me to be a tourist.

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The statue, titled “Spirit of Lightning Ridge”, is of Charlie Nettleton, “prospector & miner, founder of the black opal industry, 1903”. It was sculpted by Brett “Mon” Garling in 2013. Them’s the bare facts. Want to know more?

Charlie stands outside a ramshackle old building that’s the home to the Lightning Ridge History Society. The society’s open on Sunday morning as there’s a flow-on effect from the market. I went in and got talking to woman behind the counter, Barb Moritz. Turns out we have a mutual friend from Alice Springs who worked on the prawn trawlers with Barb back in the early Seventies! Small towns, huh?

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A couple of young women came in after me, prac students from the school. Barb took us on a personalised tour through the various rooms of this higgledy-piggledy little shack.

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As is often the way of such places it was packed to the gills with stuff. And I mean packed. A little display told the story of its various inhabitants over the decades. There’d been a few alterations to walls and floors but it’s still very much in an “as found” state.

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There are back rooms that you don’t see from the street, equally packed with … well, stuff. Some of its the generically olden times stuff of domestic life, other stuff has a distinctly Ridge connection.

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Here’s the sign from the Diggers Rest. If you look carefully you can see the singe marks from where it was rescued from the fire that burnt the pub down!

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There are what I can only describe as “interesting and arresting displays” (I’m guessing from their faces that the prac students were equally arrested).

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I missed the part of the tour where the significance of this bloke and his teddy was explained. But if you went in and asked, Barb could tell you. The phrase “encyclopaedic knowledge” does not begin to touch the sides of what Barb knows about the Ridge. Every item, every dusty pot or yellowed scrap of paper had a story to it that led to another bent stick or piece of bush furniture or sepia photograph that went on to tell a hundred other stories.

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The History Society is a very rich fruit cake that you can’t fully digest or absorb in one go. Barb is running the place single-handed: tour guide, administrator, fundraiser (I saw her a few weeks later selling raffle tickets at the Opal Show).

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It’s a remarkable little place. At the end of the tour I bought a copy of Ion Idriess’s Lightning Ridge – a facsimile edition published by the History Society – and a copy of a brochure on migrant opal miners (compiled and edited, inevitably, by Barb).

I left with an indescribable feeling; maybe the Japanese or the Germans have a word for it. It was a kind of contentment, knowing that the place existed and was so well loved and cared for, mixed with a gnawing anxiety that it was all due to the energy of one person, and that this one person was a vessel for so much knowledge. But was only one person.

I’ll be back for another slice of fruit cake soon.

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