Local Guide to Braidwood: John Stahel of Braidwood Museum

The Queanbeyan-Palerang region is home to a diverse set of distinctively unique towns and villages. To give you an insider’s look into the hidden gems the region has to offer, we’ve enlisted the help of our trusty locals who will share their stories and local loves from the towns they call home.

This time, Braidwood local John Stahel shares his story which took him from Newtown to the heritage listed town of Braidwood where he volunteers at the Braidwood Museum.

John Stahel

From city to country

It has been 26 years since John decided to buy a historic building in the gorgeous rural town of Braidwood. First bought with the intention of simply renovating the place, it ended up being the reason John and his family moved from Newtown to Braidwood.

“I’m a very urban creature, really, so I never imagined moving to a small country town,” John says. When it came down to decision time on whether to stay in Sydney or move to Braidwood, the latter turned out to be the surprise winner. “At that stage, we’d been coming to Braidwood for 19 years. What I realise now is that for all those years, I came here as a tourist, bringing in my Sydney friends and family, and life, really. So, although we were in the country, we weren’t part of the community. Although I knew lots of people, I didn’t realise how different the community actually was,” he continues, and adds, “Once we decided to give it a go, we just loved it here and felt welcomed, which made the decision to stay very simple. Since then leaving hasn’t even crossed our minds.”

Many locals and visitors alike would be familiar with John through his volunteer work at Braidwood Museum, where he shares his knowledge and passion of local heritage and history. “I was actually tricked into working at the museum,” John chuckles, “I said I could lend a hand, thinking I would mow the lawn or clean the gutters or something, and the next thing I knew, I was helping to run the place with Peter Smith, the President of the Braidwood & District Historical Society. I knew nothing about running a museum, but we thought we’d better learn, so I took some courses and utilised my background in management to make it work”.

“I got into it by mistake, but I very quickly learned that the heritage and the history of the town was not only fascinating but also what binds the community together. It has been a great way to become a part of the community,” he goes on to add.

After six years of volunteering at the museum, John is now largely considered the go-to person in town for information about Braidwood’s history. “I do town tours and people often come to me for more information on particular buildings in town and so on. I’m not for a second putting myself out there as an expert as there are people here, who have lived in the area all their lives, with a lot more knowledge than I have, but I guess you could say that the museum is a custodian of all these local stories and I’m the public face of the museum,” he explains.

Stories of the past

“Braidwood gives visitors quite an easy way to engage with the past and the Australian heritage,” John points out. “It has fascinating Indigenous history, which we are learning more about every day, but it also has convict history, the first land grants, squatters, and the discovery of gold which changed the region very quickly. It has seen the immigration of the Chinese and the Irish, the bushrangers, as well as the decline that followed once the gold started petering out in the late 19th century,” John lists. “Although that kind of a decline is common to see in many small rural towns, Braidwood also went through a rebirth of sorts in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the creative community started relocating to the area for the landscape and cheap prices. I think that decline and rebirth is a very interesting story and people can really get a sense of it all when they visit Braidwood.”

When asked about the town’s state heritage status, John explains it has more to do with the town’s layout and shape than people often realise. “The town is heritage listed, and it’s for a reason. The fabric of the buildings is so well preserved, as is the layout of the town. When you drive into town, you drive from the pastures straight into the streetscape, there is no urban development, such as food outlets or industrial areas on your way into town. It’s that layout of the town that’s actually state heritage listed, rather than the buildings, although we have a few state heritage listed buildings here as well, including the museum,” he explains.

“Braidwood is often known simply as a pitstop on your way to the coast but really it should be known for its rich history. For instance, the Chinese history of the town is stunning. Historians are very interested in studying it because it is so unusual, and I’m very fond of it myself,” John explains. “Braidwood was a town that didn’t have the same sort of conflict between the Europeans and the Chinese that some other places had, and there are lots of reasons behind that, but one of them was probably a man called Quong Tart. He came here as a boy from China and was taken in by a Scottish family. He became a wealthy merchant after having been given a share of a gold mine and he was a very charismatic man who had a foot in both camps of both the Europeans and the Chinese – he acted as a bridge between the two cultures and was an important character. Later in life, he ended up in Sydney, running tea rooms, and made his mark with his socially progressive ways. He was a pretty extraordinary man. At the museum, we have a terrific Chinese collection for those looking to find out more.”

“We want to bring the history of the town out from the museum and into every corner of Braidwood, so you won’t have to come to the museum to see parts of the town’s history, you’ll be able to see these things all over town.”

John has plenty more stories to share thanks to the six years he has spent volunteering at the museum, including those of the early days of European settlement in Braidwood. “Another important local story is that of Dr Thomas Braidwood Wilson. He was a surgeon on convict ships and made eight or nine different voyages to Australia. He had a reputation for being a very kindly gentleman and having tremendous success in keeping disease-free ships. He got shipwrecked twice on those voyages but survived, and ended up owning a farm in the area, which he named Braidwood Farm, and that is where the town got its name from.”

For those eager to find out more, the museum acts as the central coordinating point for information on the town’s multifaceted history. The museum is currently in the process of being transformed into the Braidwood Heritage Centre, bringing into life the tales of the people who have made the community what it is today, and upgrading the site to include an artisans’ precinct, a shop, accommodation units and a cafe all in one. “Once our new Heritage Centre opens, we’ll be open seven days a week which is very exciting as then we’ll be able to really bring these stories to the forefront,” John says.

“We want to bring the history of the town out from the museum and into every corner of Braidwood, so you won’t have to come to the museum to see parts of the town’s history, you’ll be able to see these things all over town. The first thing we’ve done is put out this big gold crusher which has now been placed in Ryrie Park, but there’s also a plan to place archives around town, too. For instance, we’ll have archives from the old chemist shop of the 1880s at the current chemist, bank records from the gold rush days at the local bank, postal records in the post office, and so on. This way, everywhere you go, outside or inside, you’ll keep coming across these displays and the story of Braidwood, so the whole town becomes the museum. Our town tours will incorporate all of that as well,” John explains. “By making the whole town into a museum, we can actually tell the stories of the town, including those quirky personal stories we all love to listen to.”

Local loves

It comes as no surprise that the first things John would recommend to anyone visiting the heritage town is a good old-fashioned town tour. “I think the thing that people seem to react to when they visit Braidwood is that you can feel that it’s a creative place – there are lots of musicians and writers, sculptors and blacksmiths, and artists and artisans. It’s small enough that you can walk around town and interact with all these different things, which I think is great,” John states and adds, “What Braidwood has to offer is this sense of exploring the laneways – going up and down the main street and drifting off to the little alleyways and spaces that are created between the old sheds and so on”.

When it comes to experiencing more of the vibrant arts community of the town, John recommends paying a visit to local galleries and workshops. “I would encourage any visitors to go visit the Braidwood Regional Arts Gallery (BRAG). The members of BRAG are extraordinary artists, who are well known and commercially successful, so you can see some really amazing works. Their members’ show each year is worth traveling for,” John recommends. “There are also a few commercial galleries in town as well, such as Fyre Gallery, as well as quirky little businesses that are selling their own wares, such as William Verdon Manufacturing Jeweller’s. He’ll sit down with you and design your jewellery with you, throwing ideas around and drawing it all out right in front of you, so you’ll end up with a really special, personal piece of jewellery.”

Finally, John credits the great outdoors of the region as a must-see for anyone visiting the area. “What you can also really engage with here is the amazing landscape – the open rolling pastures and the state forest and national parks we are surrounded by,” John says, adding he likes to take visiting friends and family down to Deua National Parks Big Hole for a bushwalk and a swim in the Shoalhaven River. “It’s just a great place to explore the natural world.”

John Stahel's guide to Braidwood.

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