Harcourt Valley's abundant fertility and temperate climate have provided food, shelter and water for the locals for over 40,000 years. This country was traditionally occupied by the Liarga Balug or Galdal Gundidj clans of the Dja Dja Wurrung language group of Aborigines.
Major Mitchell traversed the area in 1836 and named Mount Alexander in September of that year (it was called Langanook by the Aborigines). The first white settlement was in the mid 1840's when the squatter, Dr William Barker, took up a sheep run in Harcourt. Dr Barker was abruptly interrupted in 1851 when gold was discovered in nearby Specimen Gully, which fed the largest gold rush anywhere in the world to this very day, and resulted in a huge influx of population to the Mt Alexander diggings.
Some of those early settlers recognised that the fertile granite soils and hill-country climate were ideally suited to fruit growing and market gardening, and the Harcourt orchard industry was born, with Harcourt growers supplying fresh produce to the burgeoning towns of Bendigo and Castlemaine.
William Eagle, William and Henry Ely were from an apple-growing village, Cowlinge in Suffolk. Together they came to the Forest Creek diggings, and in 1859, having cleared 36 acres of land, they brought apple trees in quantity from Greensborough and planted the first orchards. Many other families followed suit, clearing land and planting orchards while working part-time on the diggings or at the railway construction. At the same time they were milking their cows and growing vegetables in commercial quantities. In the early 1860s, the first apples came into bearing.
In 1885, Henry Ely sent a trial consignment of fruit to London. In the next season, 1886, James Lang sent samples of his apples to the Royal Horticultural Society in England. The apples, wrapped in tissue paper and then in cotton wool, were consigned by ship on 19th March, and on 13th May a cablegram was published in the Argus stating that Mr Lang's apples had been awarded a silver medal. Gavin Lang continues to grow apples on the Lang family orchard in Harcourt.
By this time the miners of Specimen Gully had been successful in bringing a branch channel from the Coliban to the sluicers. This channel was diverted into the orchards of James Lang and George Milford. This was the spur the industry needed and after some negotiation the 'Harcourt Gardens' channel was dug to bring irrigation water into the valley proper.
One of Henry Eagles' descendents, Eb Eagle and his brothers all had extensive acreage of orchard in the early 1900's. Eb Eagle was a kind and practical man who, from 1915 to 1919 planted and tended the orchards of the serving men who were away fighting WWI. Four years of voluntary effort by Eb Eagle and his friends set several young orchardists on their feet. There were over 2200 acres of fruit trees in Harcourt at this time.
The export business was suspended during WWII; the fruit was left to rot on the trees, as there was no shipping. 146 orchardists in Harcourt at that time were paid under a Federal Government scheme of tree-measurement.
Exports and interstate markets were major outlets until the 1960s when Britain joined the European Common Market. This was a severe blow to the industry. Meanwhile the forces of innovation were continuing. Lawrie Dann was the first to experiment with the no-plough sod culture and with overhead irrigation in the orchard. His concept of efficient bulk handling of fruit pioneered the transition from the use of bushel cases to bulk bins in Harcourt orchards.
Donald McLean and Dave Chaplin were the first private orchardists to put into practice the intensive planting techniques now commonly to be seen throughout the Harcourt Valley. Donald travelled to the Yakima Valley in Washing State USA to study pruning and growing methods. Donald was the first to install a Quality Control System to ISO9000. McLean Bros Glencoe Orchards pioneered the use of comparator charts for testing the sugar testing of fruit so as to determine when it should be picked.
Over the last several decades the number of fruit growers has declined to the current number of 21, with more orchardists planning to leave in the near future. However in that time the quality of fruit has continued to improve.
The major apple varieties grown in Harcourt are Granny Smith, Gala, Cripps Pink (sold as Pink Lady™), Fuji and Cripps Red (sold as Sundowner™). Pear varieties are Packham, Williams (WBC) and Beurre Bosc.
Harcourt Co-operative Coolstores Pty Ltd
Harcourt Co-operative Cool Stores Pty Ltd was registered in 1919 and provided centralised cool storage and packing facilities to the growers of Harcourt ever since. Initially the growers purchased shares which entitled them to store a set amount of fruit. Today there are 73 shareholders but only 21 growers, with some large growers being neither shareholders nor users.
During the 1960s many orchardists erected their own cool stores on their orchards. A fire in 1958 destroyed part of the premises. In 2001 another fire occurred at time when most of the crop was in store. Insurance proceeds permitted the survival of the growers and the rebuilding of the cool rooms. The Co-operative has invested $1.7M in plant, buildings and fruit-grading equipment, having a glycol-based cooling system. Total capacity is 5,200 bins, however the crop stored in the facility has been well below capacity in the last few years due to severe water restrictions, low rainfall and a variety of other environmental factors.