Wandong, The Place to be.
Wandong was certainly the place to be from 1974 when the inaugural Country Music Festival was held. Instigated by the Wandong/ Wallan Lions Club the festival grew to be an enormous sucess and was given official Moomba Event Status.
Wandong locals John Knox and Ross Smith approached Barbara Dowling, the editor of a monthly County and Western magazine, with the intention of inviting a country and western band to entertain at a Lions Club Barbeque. This was the be the seed for what grew to become known Australia wide as the “Biggest Country and Western Music show in the Southern Hemisphere”.
The first festival held at the LB Davern reserve attracted a crowd of 1800 people, including twenty-one carloads of police! Festivals in those days were synonymous with Sunbury, which meant kids, sex, drugs booze and all sorts of terrible things. The police found themselves instead at a musical family day out. They played with the children, chatted to parents and wondered what on earth they were doing there. Future events were to attract a divvy van from Kilmore, doing a drive through at different times of the day.
By 1974, the third festival saw the crowd attending grow to around 11,000, the Lions club had installed a toilet block, a new stage and a barbeque to improve the facilities at the reserve. Prize money was on offer for the bands attending, in 1974 it was Promised Land who took the first prize.
The fourth festival in 1974 was now designated an official Moomba event and drew a crowd of 15,000, the population of Wandong at this time was just 120. Special guest was Slim Dusty, along with The Hawking Brothers and Eureka Smith. The headlines of the Melbourne newspapers reported,” The pub with no beer comes to the Town with no pub” The city papers were amazed that so many people would attend a place most had never heard of. Slim Dusty, his wife and daughter chose not to camp amongst the hordes at the oval and instead approached local Laurie Davern about renting Angus McDonalds old farmhouse which stood on property owned by Laurie. The old weather board four roomed cottage had been vacant for some time and was in a sad state of repair. On seeing the cottage Slim was reported to have commented “It’s a bloody palace” they stayed a week!
The festival continued to grow over the years, in 1979 a two-record set was produced with the proceeds of the sales going directly to UNICF. Renowned artists contributed for free, with the likes of Tex Morton, The Hawking Brothers, Cash Backman, Ray Kernaghan, John Mc Sweeney, the Wandong History Group hold some copies of the album. James “Jazzer” Smith, editor of “Across Country Australia” wrote on the cover of the album, “Wonderful Wandong- with its hustle and bustle, sweat and heat, its hot dogs, pies and coke cola, toilet queues and honky tonk blues, berets and beanies, smilers and meanies, braless girls, and topless blokes and truckies telling dirty jokes. Grinning grannies and crackling trannies, tapping feet, sizzling heat and a county beat”.
It was the ultimate experience for professional and amateur country music entertainers in Australia. An outstanding feature of the festivals was each of the past winning bands had gone onto become starts in their own right. Wandong made music history.
The growth and success of the festival was to become its ultimate demise, the town was just big enough or had enough infrastructure to support the large crowds, and eventually the festival was moved to Wallan, however it was unsuccessful there and then moved again to Kilmore but now is just another part of history