Almost every Australian town, district or suburb has at least one prominent war memorial to those who served and those who lost their lives in the Great War. Many also have memorials to other wars in which locals were involved, including the Boer War, World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these “sacred” sites consist of statues, cenotaphs, crosses of remembrance or memorial buildings.
However, in a few locations you may find war memorials of a quite different kind. One of the best known examples is the War Memorial Community Centre at Nuriootpa, my home town in the heart of South Australia’s picturesque Barossa Valley.
In the aftermath of the Great War, the 2,000 residents of Nuriootpa, many descended from Pastor Kavel’s German refugee fleets of the 1840s, decided that its memorial should promote peace and community reconciliation. So they started on the creation of an enduring public institution to provide services and facilities for the entire community – and thus the Nuriootpa War Memorial Community Centre Inc. (NWMCC) came into being. A brief excursion into the social history of those times might help to put that momentous decision into context.
As Australia sank rapidly into economic depression in the late 1920s and through the 1930s, there was a revival of interest in localised consumer and producer cooperatives, especially in rural areas. These were largely based on the principles established within the Rochdale cooperative movement in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. Without going into too much detail, the principles included a commitment to open membership, equal and democratic decision making, cash trading and fair distribution of surpluses based on members’ contributions.
As the depression deepened, many rural communities established such cooperatives in a flurry of enthusiasm – or perhaps it was desperation – to ameliorate the havoc wrought by the global economic collapse. Some of these new cooperatives succeeded and prospered, while others withered away as economic times slowly improved. A few grew into large economic players, especially those which were based on individual rural activities such as wine grape growing, citrus production and dairying. The majority of these producer/consumer cooperatives have now been bought out by multinational firms and few survive today.
The Nuriootpa War Memorial Community Centre is a notable exception, as today it is probably stronger than ever. Perhaps this is because it was founded on a slightly different basis from those cooperatives which have gone out of business. As well as the common economic goals, the Centre was created as an ongoing tangible war memorial but also a beacon of peace lighting the way to a better future. As well, there were some fortunate coincidences which gave it greater financial strength and resilience.
In 1937, the Nuriootpa community collectively invested in the purchase of the largest hotel and accommodation venue in the town. Now known as the Vine Inn, it continues to provide hotel services and has comprehensive function facilities, a range of high-quality restaurants, 47 modern suites, a large swimming pool and a spa. Its website proudly proclaims: “As a community owned business, all hotel profits are returned to the region through sponsorship and donations to local sporting and service clubs, schools, kindergartens and community projects.” Revenues from the Vine Inn funded the initial projects of the Centre, which for almost 80 years has prospered and gradually added to the wide range of projects and services which it provides.
The first big project resulted in the creation of a large and popular community swimming centre. Its main Olympic Pool has a distinctive fan shape, based on a design by prominent Adelaide architect Louis Laybourne-Smith. All of the earthworks and the digging of the actual pool were completed in the 1950s by voluntary labour, including the efforts of many local schoolchildren (among whom my older sisters were willing volunteers).
Over subsequent years, the NWMCC also built and operated a modern kindergarten (now a preschool and early childhood education centre); a memorial hall, ballroom, theatre and library; a community park with sportsfields, playing courts and caravan/camping grounds; the Barossa Valley Senior Citizens Homes and nursing home; an arboretum and a range of sporting and social facilities around the town and district.
The town still lacks the traditional “war memorial” statue or cenotaph although there is a modest park area with small plaques and a flagpole adjoining the high school, where remembrance ceremonies are held. However, it has wonderful community-owned facilities which collectively serve as its memorial to those who have served the local area and the nation in war and peace.
Since the establishment of the NWMCC in 1937, Nuriootpa has become noted as a model for community participation and productive joint local investment. As long ago as 1944, the progressive Adelaide movement Common Cause arranged a visit by future Prime Minister Ben Chifley to Nuriootpa. Inspired by the town’s approach, he championed it as a model for community cooperation around the entire nation.
Also in 1944, a new opportunity presented itself to the community, when a well-established family department store in the town was listed for sale. Sufficient additional funds were raised by residents and the Nuriootpa Community Store came into existence, selling a wide range of goods including food, furniture, clothing, hardware and housewares. The “Co-op Store” has grown into a significant Barossa Valley institution, incorporating a large independent supermarket and significant national franchises in areas including insurance, hardware, electrical goods and floor coverings.
The Co-op Store now employs more than 250 staff, turns over more than $60 million a year and has 12,000 members who receive discounts and annual dividends. The store is not specifically a part of the NWMCC, but its continuing success illustrates the extent to which this small town has embraced the ethos and principles of community cooperatives.
As well, the people of this close-knit community have created a model of a productive and creative peace memorial, which has helped to unite citizens by ploughing its revenues into a wide range of worthwhile facilities and services.
This stands in stark relief against the hundreds of communities which have built ostentatious “war memorials”, some of them gothic monstrosities that older citizens regard with reverence but which are increasingly irrelevant to younger generations. Worse, they continue to encourage a dewy-eyed nostalgia for non-existent past military glories and a destructive enthusiasm for more interventions in foreign conflicts at the cost of young Australian lives and adding to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.
As a nation, we need much less Anzackery and many fewer memorials glorifying war. I’m proud to have come from Nuriootpa, with its enlightened and successful model of a memorial based on collective action leading the way to peace and social cohesion.