Australia has a woolly past and there is no better place to learn about it than at Shear Outback in Hay.
For the vast majority of our history, Australia’s number one export was wool, leading to the saying that as a nation we were “riding on the sheep’s back”. Shear Outback is a museum that celebrates the lives of the men and women who worked long days in the sweltering heat of outback shearing sheds to get the wool off the sheep’s back and onto the steamers that used to ply the inland rivers.
Staffed mainly by passionate volunteers, this museum is full of character and a must-visit for anyone passing through Hay.
“Sheep numbers are down at the moment round here,” says Billy Garner, Shear Outback’s shed manager. “We used to have two million but now we’re down around a million.”
If you consider that the entire Riverina district has a population just shy of 256,000 people that means there are still a fair few more sheep than humans in this part of the world, and still a fair few shearers around to rid them of their wool.
The best and most famous of these shearers, past and present, are celebrated in Shear Outback’s first room – the Shearer’s Hall of Fame. Here you can find pictures and stories about shearer’s like Jackie Howe, who had hands the size of tennis racquets and who still holds the record he set in 1892 for blade shearing 321 sheep in a day. It was Jackie Howe who pioneered the blue singlet as the shearer’s classic fashion item, after finding he preferred to work in a shirt without sleeves so as to give his sizeable biceps more room to move.
Next up is a fascinating interactive museum that contains information and relics about the industry. No aspect of daily life around the shearing shed has been left out. All the different jobs are described; from the rouseabout who used to sharpen the shearer’s blades to the cooks who keep the hungry workers fed. The meaning of a shearer’s colourful jargon is cleared up too: so that you don’t mistake a gun (an extremely fast shearer) for a weapon, or a wigging (cutting the wool from the sheep’s eyes) for a rebuke.
Your kid’s favourite thing in here will most likely be the wall filled with little doors, behind each of which is an individual aroma. Combined, these smells make up the pleasantly unique smellscape of the shearing shed, but with individual odours such as ‘sheep urine’ on offer you might witness some crumpled noses.
The most interesting thing you’ll see at Shear Outback is, unsurprisingly, out the back in the historic Murray Downs shed that was moved here especially for shearing demonstrations and shearer training. There’s nothing quite like seeing the confident hands of a gun like Billy Garner soothing a flighty merino while peeling it like a banana.
In this shed you will also see a display of the bigger paraphernalia that goes along with the job, such as the beautiful grading table where the fleece gets thrown out like a doona after removal.
Shear Outback also has an impressively well stocked gift shop and café for visitors, as well as a lovely homestead garden out the front featuring some of the region’s most popular plants.
If you happen to be passing by at Easter time don’t miss the spookily-named Festival of the Blades, where there is a working dog competition, blade shearing demonstration, and when new inductees to the Shearer’s Hall of Fame are honoured.
“The merino dominates the bush, and gives to Australian literature its melancholy tinge, its despairing pathos… A man who could write anything cheerful after a day in the drafting yards would be a freak of nature.” - Banjo Patterson, 'The Merino Sheep'
Shear Outback is located on the corner of the Cobb Hwy and the Sturt Hwy, Hay, NSW. Click here for more information.