The town of Yass lies 78kms west of Goulburn and 60kms north of Canberra on the main southern highway to Victoria and the west of NSW.
Situated on the river of the same name (an upper tributary of the Murrumbidgee) it is surrounded by fertile undulating country (not actually 'plains") and centre of one of the finest wool growing areas in Australia.
The earliest European discovery was made by Hamilton Hume (with George Barber and William Broughton) in 1821, who quickly set up expeditions after the discovery of good land around Lake George by Throsby and Meehan (1820).
Hume established a pastoral station at nearby Gunning and Broughton was one of the first settlers in the Boorowa area.
The origin of the name Yass remains a mystery - attributed in one anecdote where a member of Hume's party climbed a tree to survey the plains, and when asked whether it was good for grazing replied 'yass'; or in another to "yharr" - an aboriginal word for the river, said to mean 'running water'.
Although Hume had good relations with the aboriginal people in his travels, and often gave aboriginal names to places he discovered, there seems no real evidence for either version.
Whereas Yass lies within the vast area inhabited by the Wiradjuri tribe and on the edges of the Ngunawal, there seems not to have been even a semi-permanent settlement by them in the area (until later, when Hume encouraged them to camp regularly by the river on the property he bought at Yass): the main Wiradjuri camping grounds were further south on the Murrumbidgee, and north on the Lachlan and Boorowa rivers.
Sadly, the last of the Lachlan tribe were rounded up and herded on to a government reservation near Yass in the late 19th century and just 117 were living there in the 1930s. What were left in the 1950s were removed to Brungle.
Cooma Cottage (1835)
Hume & Hovell's expedition of discovery to Port Phillip Bay (1824) left from near Yass, and when rewarded by the Governor for his pioneering work, Hume chose to live here and in 1839 bought Cooma Cottage (built by pioneer Henry O'Brien in 1835) and 100 acres - later extended to 5000 acres. Today it is his museum under the auspices of the National Trust.
One of Yass's founding civic fathers, Hume over the years was generous in his donations to local development, and played an active role in the life of the town. Adventurous when young, modest in the face of public accolades in his maturity, he received a fitting tribute when the main highway from Sydney to Melbourne was named in his honour.
Although at the limit of permitted settlement the area around Yass was quickly taken up as freehold and leasehold by land hungry settlers, including squatters who depastured their flocks further south and west.
The pioneers of Yass were largely instrumental in development of the merino industry (Hume himself bred merinos.) George Merriman (Ravensworth stud 1865) and others were to help make Yass today the centre of fine wool growing in Australia.
The first Yass Agricultural Show was held in 1863. The first sheep show was held in 1876 and featured fine wool sheep - fleeces having been exported to Britain for many years. The Showground (1902) still hosts an annual show.
Yass was also a centre of wheat growing and had its first steam powered flour mill in 1842 (built for Hamilton Hume - the machinery and mill gear was supplied and erected by Sydney engineer William Orr). Mills here and nearby (Crago Bros. - 1882 - were a well known name) processed wheat for shipment to Sydney and export overseas. Major wheat growing was overtaken by wool in the 1920s and milling operations lasted until 1950.
Local enterprise withstood drought, recession and depression (a boiling down works in the 1840s turned unwanted sheep into wool, hides and tallow for the European market; a freezing works exported sheep meat in the 1880s and 90s, and rabbits during the plague of the late C19th). The coming of the railway gave opportunity for local farmers to export fruit and vegetables to the Sydney market - a trade that lasted until WW1.
Fine wool growing today is still the major industry of Yass.
The first village at Yass was located on the south side of the river, but later grew (1830) on the north side, the first government survey in 1834. This was close to the river, but settlement was moved further uphill after floods in 1836.
In those days settlers were mostly self-sufficient (land grants came with convict labourers and artisans) so activity in the village was mostly devoted to administration (a government pound keeper for lost stock in 1833; a court,1834 and magistrate 1837; post office 1862) - hospitality and services (first store 1838; Rose Inn 1837 - oldest building in Yass, next to courthouse; White Hart Inn 1839; Yass Inn 1846; a hospital in 1847) - and 'pastoral care' (a Catholic mission 1837, visits by Presbyterian and Anglican ministers 1837 on).
In 1837 the population was just 37, 141 in 1841 (half ex-convicts, and many Irish, which helps explain the Benedictine missionary works) and in 1848, 270 people.
The Robertson Land Acts of 1861 and the Carruthers Act of 1874 opened up large sheep runs to closer settlement and this helped lead to the further development of the town.
By this stage Yass (declared a District Council in 1843) was already a major rural centre with a large number of hotels (including The Old Globe Inn, 1847 - now a B&B), flour mills, bank (1864), gaol (1861), Mechanics Institute (1869 - with reading room), a public school (1879 - earlier private schools had been established by churches, including Mt. Carmel College, 1875), and churches (original St. Augustines, 1837; St. Clements Church of England, 1850 - an Edmund Blackett building; Presbyterian Church 1858). Most of these buildings can still be seen on a heritage walk around the town today.
Yass has always been an important administrative centre (as the imposing new Court House, 1880 attests). Its troopers and magistrates policed the heady days of gold rush as far away as Young and it was a major rural centre of SW NSW. Declared a Municipality in 1873, merged with Gooradgibee Shire to form Yass Shire Council in 1980, it was consolidated in 2004 as Yass Valley Council.
Entrusted with public works, including maintenance of the road to Goulburn (in 1863 there was a toll gate on the Cullerin Range to raise funds), the council built a suitable bridge over the river, brought gas works to the town in 1892, electric light and a water supply in 1927, sewerage in 1939, an Olympic swimming pool in 1965. In 1953 it was the first municipality in Australia to introduce fluoridation into the town water supply.
Town beautification has always been a priority - not always successful: traditional verandahs in the main street were removed in the 1930s in deference to bad motor car drivers. Tree plantings in the 1960s and attempts to preserve historic buildings were countered by ad hoc development of businesses to serve the highway trade (first motel 1960, transport relay station in 1970).
Many people will have fond memories of Yass as a refuelling and refreshment stop on the great south road. It has been, in fact, a centre of travel and communication since its earliest days.
Hume set off in 1824 from here to travel to what was to be Victoria. Thousands of others in subsequent years have used Yass as a jumping-off point since.
The coach mail first arrived in Yass in 1835 over a track from Goulburn; faster American coaches came from Sydney in 1859, soon to travel on to Binalong, Murrumburah and Lambing Flat. Cobb & Co. travelled as far as Melbourne in 1865.
In 1858 the telegraph reached Yass connecting it and surrounding villages with the outside world (it played a vital role in the Lambing Flat riots), and in 1876 the railway.
Geography (and cost) had the station placed several miles away (Yass Junction). Not to be daunted locals had a tramway line opened from the station to the centre of town in 1892, which operated until 1958 and was finally closed in 1988. The town station and bridge can still be seen today.
Similarly, attempts to get a railway link from Yass to Boorowa, and later to Canberra were unsuccessful. Yass's future was later to be linked to the motor car.
The rough road over the Cullerin Range from Goulburn, largely bypassed by the railway, came into importance again in the 1920s with the advent of the motor car (in 1929 there were estimated to be 800 cars in the Yass district). In 1925 the responsibility of major roads was passed over to the Main Roads Board; in 1928 this important route was named the Hume Highway and mostly tarred by 1940.
By the 1960s cars and trucks thundered up and down this highway. A string of petrol stations beckoned visitors, and motels offered beds for weary travellers.
In 1994 a major bypass was built - removing Yass from the highway.
Luckily this has given it, like other towns, a new lease of life. The main street is no longer crammed with trucks and traffic.
Yass today has beautified streetscapes. Fast food cafes have been replaced by interesting shops and boutiques. It attracts people who have the time and interest to explore its historic charm. And, like many others once 'short-listed' as the site of the national capital, Yass today ironically enjoys an influx of Canberra workers as residents who enjoy its rural charm over the bustle of the city.
Like many other towns on the highway of life, Yass affords the visitor an interesting and worthwhile deviation where you can explore its history and heritage, and discover at leisure its many local attractions.