August and Paulina Schwerkolt migrated to Victoria from Germany as newlyweds in 1849 and lived for a time in Northcote. In 1861, seeking more land to provide for a growing family, they purchased 63 acres in Mitcham including what is now the Schwerkolt Cottage.
The Schwerkolt Family
Paulina and August Schwerkolt had eight sons and one daughter, although only five sons survived infancy.
In 1884, Paulina died, leaving behind a grown family. The following year August, now 62, married Wilhelmina Oppel, a German widow with three daughters.
Together, August and Wilhelmina had three children: twins Johan (John) and Bertha in 1885 and later a daughter, Mary, in 1887. Tragically, Bertha died at two weeks of age.
The industrious August carried out charcoal burning on his property and transformed the cleared land into a farm with fruit trees, vines, dairying, poultry, beehives, wine-making and a stone quarry, generating income for the family.
August built the stone cottage from materials mostly on site. The stones came from a nearby quarry while the rafters and verandah posts were cut from young trees on the property. The doors and window frames were adzed from logs and slabs that were later replaced by sawn timber fittings.
The cottage has a kitchen and living room and two bedrooms, surrounded by a verandah. The fireplace was made from stone, clay and mud and used for cooking, heating and boiling water. There are no interior doors and the original earthen floor has been replaced with tiles. The general plan and appearance of the cottage is similar to houses built by German settlers in the Barossa Valley, South Australia.
An outside well was lined with stone and fitted with a hand pump. Water supply was from a well located north of the cottage that was later fitted with pipes and taps.
August died in 1887 with an estate valued at £956. His will specified that his widow and children be left the stone cottage, the 5.5 acres surrounding it, a property in Northcote, half his cow herd, beehives, quarried stone and all the contents of the wine cellar. August left 82.5 acres of land to his eldest son Louis on the condition that he paid Wilhelmina 10 shillings a week for life.
Wilhelmina continued to live in the stone cottage with her children John and Mary as well as her mother, Dorothea Kruse. In 1900, after the death of her mother, Wilhelmina left Melbourne with her children to join her brother John Kruse in the United States.
Louis Schwerkolt and his wife Cissie continued to manage the property. When Louis died in 1935 the sole responsibility for the property passed to Cissie who remained living in the timber cottage. Cissie died in 1946. The stone cottage was rented for many years and gradually fell into disrepair.
By the early 1960s the stone cottage was threatened with a demolition order issued by the Housing Commission. Due to a lack of appropriate toilet and washing facilities, the premises were declared unfit for habitation. The roof of August’s wine cellar had collapsed, and various additions made to the cottage over the years had become dilapidated as a result of neglect.
In 1963, following considerable community interest, the former City of Nunawading obtained a stay of proceedings while negotiations took place with August and Wilhelmina’s daughter Mary Schwerkolt Jackschowsky to purchase the now 5.5 acre property.
Once purchased, the Council – with a working party of local residents – restored the building to its original condition. The cottage was officially opened by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Rohan Delacombe, on 17 November 1965 and stands as a reminder of the pioneers in the district.
Historical Museum and Surrounds
After the cottage was restored, work then began on restoring the various outbuildings that once stood on site as well as a new museum to house the local historical society.
Built in 1977 and extended in 2011, the museum holds the Whitehorse Historical Society’s collection of documents, photographs and artefacts that record the development of the area from early settlement to the present day.
After watching a visual display depicting local history, visitors can view the extensive collection including a range of domestic, agricultural and industrial artefacts, some of which date back to the 1800s.
Antique costumes, jewellery, lace and needlework provide a valuable insight into the changing fashion and use of leisure time, while methods of washing, mending and pressing clothes reveal how arduous domestic life could be.
The collection includes a wide range of locally-made clay and tile products manufactured by the many brick and tile works that were established in the area in the early 1900s. These can be seen inside the museum and in the outdoor display area.