Most country towns are resilient and tough; able to expand and contract; adjust and re-invent. That is if they don’t disappear entirely. Buildings in country towns are also like that.
You might have noticed one building in Angus Avenue has had a face-lift. For years it had the sign “Dollars and Cents” and more recently was Kandos Community Shop. It is now the rich red colour of Central Australian desert sand, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it will soon be an Aboriginal Cultural Centre.
Arguably perhaps, this building has a more diverse history than any other building in Kandos – in its time a shop, hall, factory, garage, taxi outlet and, soon to be, gallery.
Our rare twentieth century town, besides being full of miners, quarrymen and cement workers, was also full of entrepreneurs, and one was John Bennet Simpkins, known fondly as JB. He was a man who wore many hats, donning and doffing them as often as an old-style politician. His shingle read: Builder, Undertaker, Auctioneer, Insurance Agent, Real Estate Agent and Valuer. But he was also a councillor, shire president, mason, and presider or member of numerous committees and working bees.
He was also a collector and hoarder of building materials. One stack of 100,000 bricks, which he procured when the Vulcan Shale Works closed, soon formed the structure of the above-mentioned building, which he completed in early 1930. JB always envisaged a dance hall and for a time it was known as the Palais Dance Hall. But times are tough in a depression and when Mr Beale of Katoomba decided to open a branch furniture store at Kandos, JB saw an opportunity. It traded for five years and the Kandos Co-op Cash & Carry branch store followed it, after JB had made some additions and alterations. It only had a short run.
The building didn’t sparkle again till 1940. It was wartime. The town yearned for distraction. What could be more mood-altering than a dance hall that suggested a glittering French palace. The Crystal Palais opened on Empire night 24th May, a reminder of what the war was about. The Town Band entertained the crowd until 8.30, and then led the bevy of glamorous dancers into the hall with a triumphant march. Speeches, ribbon-cutting, more speeches, a dance program, a sit-down supper and, when the doors closed at 2am, it was a triumph for JB and a financial coup for the Kandos Hospital Auxiliary.
For three and a half years the Crystal Palais hosted much of the entertainment in this war-worried town: balls, dances and euchre parties; wedding and communion breakfasts; luncheons, auction sales, and fairs. Digger events were regular, including Anzac lunches and soldier farewells. One that took my fancy was a ball described as a “Diggers Revel” with the proposed supper “a la hotdog buffet style and tiffin curry (if any)”. That, I think, says something about war rationing.
There’s nothing like a war to focus a government. It is a catalyst for re-invention. The Deputy Controller of Clothing’s dilemma was how to clothe an army, navy and air force, as well as allied forces and the civilian population, when city factory workers had enlisted; and 10,000 machines were idle throughout the country. The Sun newspaper, 7 November 1943, gave the answer: “Thirteen new clothing factories will be operating in NSW country towns by the end of next month”. Kandos was the first town west of the Blue Mountains to open a factory, thanks to the efforts of chemist Les Gillett, who arranged the building, and Constable Robert Luxton, who located willing workers. The Deputy Controller found a city factory owner, Mr M J Browne, who was willing to bring his machines to Kandos.
The Honorable Billy Dunn, popular local member (Labor of course), opened the factory and explained the government’s vision: to offer employment to young women in country towns, to open many more factories employing local women, and to establish post-war industry throughout country areas. It was an early attempt at decentralisation. Which Failed. Mr Browne retired for health reasons in September 1947. E Sorroff and T Janevitch took over. The girls went on strike. And the factory closed in December. There followed tantalising suggestions in the Mudgee Guardian that it would soon re-open. But no. The Crystal Palais was re-born in March 1948 – for dances, balls, wedding receptions, twenty-firsts, re-unions, flower shows, auctions and dinners.
As post-war enthusiasm and prosperity took hold, Kandos was becoming motorised. And perhaps for JB the sparkle had gone out of the Crystal Palais. In any case it seemed just the right time for the Cohen brothers to install new and modern equipment and offer the best of service in their new garage. They celebrated with the sales of two new Vanguards to Mr Richards of Glen Davis and Mr Ivan Farrar of Glen Alice, as well as a Ferguson tractor to Yates Bros of Kandos. You would think their business would have lasted longer than eighteen months. Ray Williams was more successful and there followed a series of motor-related businesses including a taxi outlet. At one time it was run by John Solod, the first New Australian to hold a taxi license in NSW. However, you probably know more about the last forty years than I do. By the time Terry and I landed in town in 2003 it was a very useful hardware outlet.
So, why are buildings important, and in particular this one? It is solid and functional, despite being 90 years old. It sits well in the architectural landscape of our twentieth century town and embeds the economic and social life of our community. It reminds us we have a past, not just a present and future.