The story of William Benjamin Chaffey – W.B or ‘Boss’ to the locals – and his brother George Chaffey is a remarkable one. These Canadian raised brothers first gained their Australian connection through Sir Alfred Deakin. The then Victorian Minister for Water Supply (later to become three times Prime Minister of Australia) met the pair in 1885 while enquiring into US irrigation strategies. Two years earlier Mildura, then a sheep station, had fallen into liquidation following a drought and rabbit plague but Sir Alfred recognised potential in the region if waters flowing down the Murray could be harnessed.
The Chaffey brothers had complimentary qualities that made them a formidable combination for such an onerous civic project. W.B had extensive knowledge of horticulture and town planning while George had family experience with engineering bridges and ships. Deakin’s description of Victoria and Mildura inspired George to visit. On arrival he immediately set to work designing pumps for elevating water from the murray onto higher plains for agriculture and telegrammed his brother to come at once.
The Spanish inspired Rio Vista House (reflecting the Californian background of W.B) was built in 1889 and occupied by the Chaffey family from 1891 to 1950. Two impressions struck me when entering the house; (a) the beautifully restored detail of the building and its contents and (b) the curvature and lustre of the dark, chocolatey reds found in the wood comprised primarily of Western Australian Jarrah, Red Gum and Blackwood. The tour of the house took 1.5hours to complete. It could be done in 10-minutes but I was fascinated by so many elements in the house; the Gramophone, wood carvings, the study oozing masculinity from its walls, the kids mini-piano at the top of the stairs and the intricate, stained window entrance to name a few. There’s a documentary playing in the breakfast room which is well worth watching. Though on first glance a basic looking production it tells the Chaffey story well with great insight from elderly connections who knew the family.
In a similar vein to the conservation of Beechworth’s heritage, Rio Vista House has been saved by good fortune rather than clever foresight. During the 1890’s a worldwide depression struck, creating havoc with the new Australian colonies economy. To compound matters a promised Railway project to Mildura was postponed, making it impossible to get the produce of the irrigation project to market and the cursed rabbit once more bred a strong colony of its own. Chaffey Brothers Ltd went into liquidation in December 1895, causing Rio Vista to deteriorate. W.B was quoted as stating in despair; “I’ve got this house because I couldn’t sell it. It was offered for a little over £1,000, but nobody wanted it.” Rio Vista was sold in 1950 for £18,000 and converted to an art gallery by the Mildura City Council, according to local accounts this conversion saved it from probable demolition and subdivision.
The Chaffey story is well worth celebrating and congratulations should be offered to successive Mildura councils who have sort to preserve and promote their legacy. A leisurely tour of the Rio Vista House is a definite highlight of The Chaffey Trail. My only disappoint was the cellar is an arts exhibition rather than a preservation of its original past – cellar storage and a ballroom with fireplace. However the council are continuing works with restoration efforts and this small blip certainly doesn’t detract from the overall immersion into this famous man’s 19th century home life.