License: Creative Commons - Attribution-No Derivatives Author: denisbin
At the time of European settlements Mount Barker had around 300 Aboriginal people from the Peramargk tribe living in the township area but by 1884 they were reported as being extinct. They had suffered from their loss of land, their food supplies and their cultural spiritual base as well as from European diseases. Some moved away to live on missions. The first European to sight Mount Barker was Captain Charles Sturt on his epic voyage down the Murray in February 1830. He mistook Mt Barker for Mt Lofty sighted and named in 1802 by Captain Matthew Flinders. This mistake was corrected by the explorations of Captain Collet Barker in April 1831 when he officially recorded the error in his journals. Captain Sturt changed to name of the mountain to Barker after Barker’s unfortunate death and disappearance near Encounter Bay. By 1838 herds of livestock began to arrive at Mt Barker from NSW on their way to Adelaide. Mt Barker was an ideal place for stock to recover their condition after their long walk from Sydney as there was ample grass and water there. By the end of 1838 settlers were attempting squat on the land with no legal claim to it but this was averted by the Special Surveys Act of 1838 which allowed the wealthy to pay £4,000 for a survey of 4,000 acres in a site of their choosing. Consequently the first Special Survey in SA was the Mt Barker survey of January 1839 for Dutton, Finniss and MacFarlane. These three envisaged an absentee landlord system like in England with tenant farmers on the land growing wheat. That system continued in parts of Mt Barker until around 1880. From the start wheat was a viable crop with tenant, and freehold farmers who had purchased some of the government sections, sold in 80 acre lots. By early 1840 Mt Barker township was laid out by the owners of the Special Survey and some of their 4,000 acres was also put up for sale. By 1845 Mt Barker had a Courthouse, police station, a steam flourmill run by John Dunn, an inn and some houses. By 1851 it had a second hotel, a Presbyterian and a Wesleyan church from 1850. Other churches followed in later years including the current Dunn Memorial Methodist Church in 1883, the Catholic Church from 1911( there had been an earlier one from 1850 on the other side of the railway line), and the Anglican Church from 1856 with its rectory from 1901. Robert Barr Smith of Auchendarroch had contributed to the cost of the rectory in 1901. Other significant structures in the growing town were the second Courthouse built in 1865, the original Post Office built in 1860, Daw’s Butcher Shop erected in 1884 and the early National Bank built in 1866.
In the 1850s Mt Barker established its own district council, 1853, and the Courier newspaper in 1880, a brewery, two local iron works and foundries for agricultural equipment and wrought iron lace work, and a tannery which processed skins from as far away as Broken Hill. Then after 1889 when Amos Howard discovered subterranean clover at Blakiston and a way of extracting the seeds the local agriculture shifted from wheat growing to pasture improvement for dairy cattle. Mt Barker began producing butter. Into the twentieth century the town also had smallgoods works, and a small industry round the subterranean clover seeds and machines to extract the seeds. One local “industrialists” became the social and political leader of Mt Barker and that was John Dunn the flourmill. He had his mansion the Laurels built around 1860on a rise overlooking the town. The mansion even had its own chapel plus extensive gardens and servants’ quarters. Today it is used for a retirement village. At the other end of town Robert Barr Smith of Torrens Park house bought the old Oakfield Hotel site in 1878 and created his summer retreat there which he gave a good Scottish name to - Auchendarroch. The new house cost £10,200 and was designed by architect John Grainger. Joanna Barr Smith another fortune decorating the house especially with William Morris fabrics and wallpapers. In 1922 the Trustees of the Memorial Hospital in North Adelaide purchased the house as a convalescent hospital. During World War Two the Red Cross used it for the same purpose. More recently it has been converted into a cinema complex and function centre by Wallis Cinemas. It is still a grand house in the French Empire style with many classical features and Victorian architectural exuberance.