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February 9, 2011

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Small cottages housing grand Australian history

My passion for historical buildings was stoked during my recent holiday in Australia where I found two old cottages worthy of note. The properties may be small and simple but they are linked to important figures in Australian history.

Guided by a local tourism brochure, I drove around Lake Wendouree in Ballarat, a former gold rush town northwest of Melbourne in the state of Victoria, to find the former residence of famous Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. It was perching inside the lovely Ballarat Botanical Garden.

The small cottage painted in a creamy yellow tone was hidden in lush green and fortunately was still open when I arrived late in the afternoon.

The one-story cottage features a small hall and two medium-sized bedrooms, hardly spacious, even for the poet's modest-sized family. A rainbow of lovely handmade products are showcased in the two bedrooms. Gordon's poems and life story are the centerpieces among the sea of colorful handicrafts in the main bedroom.

Born in the Azores, an archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean, in 1833, Gordon was educated in England and sent by his father to Adelaide in Australia to start a new life in 1853, where he tried jobs including police officer, poet, horse breaker, parliamentarian and businessman. Gordon got married in 1862 and began publishing his writings including a ballad entitled "The Feud" with an inheritance from his mother.

His interest in steeplechase racing brought him to Ballarat where the poet lived in this small cottage from 1867 to 1868 with his wife and daughter. Next door was the livery stables from which he earned his living.

Ballarat was and still is a very picturesque town. But the shy, sensitive poet did not enjoy a fortunate life here. In 1868, a horse smashed his head against a gatepost and he was never the same man again after the injury.

Subsequent misfortune including the premature death of his daughter and increasing financial difficulties aggravated his condition. The low-spirited poet left Ballarat for Melbourne where he ended his life with a rifle in 1870.

Although the tragic poet passed away, his Ballarat cottage had been preserved and was moved from its original location to the Botanical Garden in 1934. People believe some of Gordon's poems were written in this cottage.

The Crafts Council of Ballarat has operated the house as an outlet for local crafts since 1992 on a non-profit basis. The staff are all middle-aged local volunteers, who told me some of Gordon's descendants, who are now mostly living in South Australia, visited the property some years ago.

Among the exhibits at the cottage is a black-and-white photograph from a newspaper which vividly shows the official opening ceremony for this simple, story-rich residence in 1934.

The same year, a much more famous house, Captain Cook's Cottage, was opened to the public at Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne.

This two-story, gray-tile building has a modest country style. Thick green ivies climb all over the period walls made of orange and charcoal bricks.

During my visit, the attendant, a middle-aged local woman in 18th-century attire, proudly told me "it is the oldest building in Australia."

However, this isn't technically true since this "oldest building" was constructed in 1755, but not in Australia. It was actually built in the English village of Great Ayton by the parents of James Cook. It was shipped to Melbourne in crates and barrels for re-erection to commemorate Captain Cook, who in 1770 mapped the east coast of Australia.

The cottage sits in a breathtaking green environment and has a beautiful, aromatic English-style garden, featuring a variety of herbs used in Cook's time. The interior exhibits old furniture displaying how simple life was during the 18th century in Cook's home village, only 15 years before he landed in Australia.

The staff told me they received a special guest named Ivy Simpson in 2000. The woman was born in 1922 and spent seven years of her childhood in the cottage. She shared some of her fond, warm memories of living in Cook's Cottage during her visit.

On the way back from Cook's Cottage, I saw a copper sculpture of poet Gordon on Spring Street. The tall, handsome poet made a touching silhouette against Melbourne's bright blue sky.

On the base of the sculpture an engraving reads: "He sang the first great songs these lands can claim to be their own."

Thanks for the yellow cottage to have housed Gordon to write those great "songs" and to remain there today, reminding visitors of the poet's life.


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