We all like to be in good repair and look our best for a birthday. Yass Soldiers’ Memorial Hall is about to celebrate its 100th birthday, but age has caught up with it.
In 1920, William Henry Crago, a local flour mill proprietor, was the driving force behind the idea to build a memorial hall to the young men from the Yass district who enlisted in World War I.
Mr Crago had lost his own son, and in the letter he pens his passion is obvious.
“A large and handsome building, having at the front entrance a spacious vestibule … and on the walls for this and future generations to see the names of our boys, our dear ones, who went across the seas to fight for us and liberty; those who were slain and those who came back, boys of every faith and condition of life,” he wrote.
Suggestions were made, and rivalries and doubts overcome. Town and country were asked to pull together, and suddenly this community that was struggling with the sorrow and trauma of the war had a worthy project.
A flurry of fundraising ensued, and by 4 October, 1920, £2500 had been raised of the £10,000 needed. By 1 November, 1920, the £5000 mark had been achieved.
Methods employed for fundraising showed imagination and enterprise. Carnivals, guessing competitions, processions and a three-way Queen competition got underway.
Ms George Crommelin amassed half of her goal of a mile of pennies by 11 November, 1920. Young Henry Harmer who had seen his friends leave for the war but only one come back “sends 5/- for Herb Corey’s sake” and promises he will give “a shilling of our pocket money each month”.
Landowners with deep pockets contributed generously. By 25 November, 1920, plans were called for.
By 18 July, 1921, the hall’s committee reported: “It will be a spacious edifice with a memorial vestibule; soldiers club, including writing and billiard rooms; hall with gallery to seat 600; two cloak rooms; a stage, 28 x 20 feet with dressing rooms; two spacious offices fronting Cooma Street; supper room, 21 x 82 feet; a large room for library; and a reading room.”
Less than two years after the plans were announced, the foundation stone was laid by Governor General Lord Foster in May 1922, and officially opened on 5 March 1923. The building went on to include rooms upstairs for the Returned Servicemen’s club, and a side room for the municipal library. A projection room for movies was installed. Later, council had offices upstairs.
Yass Soldiers’ Memorial Hall has long been the centre of the district’s community life.
In the Yass and District Historical Society’s magazine, Boongaroon, Dr Richard Reid wrote: “What we glimpse in all those pieces from the local papers about the hall is something special, the unfolding history of a 20th century Australian rural community. What other building in Yass radiates so much of the town’s joys, sorrows, everyday experiences, memories of war and peace?”
Locals recall vivid memories of parties, dances, weddings, concerts, debutante balls, auctions, public meetings and milestones in family life all held at Yass Soldiers’ Memorial Hall.
Thanks to the voices who have been prepared to speak up, maintenance and refurbishment of the hall is now very much on the Yass Valley Council radar.
A preliminary council survey lists multiple issues with the hall. A full engineers’ report has been delivered, and it is a report the community needs to see. Knowing the extent of the problem means the community can continue to press for funds to be allocated to fix it.
But it won’t be cheap. However, what better time to ensure this matter stays a hot topic than with the Yass Valley Council election in December 2021.
Sometimes all it takes is vision, leadership and a lot of hard work. The people in 1920 knew they wanted to commemorate, grieve and heal but someone also had a vision that Yass could be more than it was.
Currently, the development of a new civic precinct for Yass is underway. It has taken some brave forward thinking, even a bit of risk taking, to propose an iconic complex that welcomes the community, reflects the rural feeling of Yass and attracts visitors.
And, of course, it in no way detracts from the Yass Soldiers’ Memorial Hall.
Would anyone have doubted that the £10,000 spent when the hall was built wasn’t money well spent?
Judith Davidson is a local historian, uncovering the stories of the Yass Shire.