For thousands of years the Yuin Aboriginal people lived on country that includes what we now call the town of Merimbula. A nomadic people, they moved between the Monaro and the High Country, where they feasted on the Bogong moths during winter and the coast during summer. Around the lagoons you will find many middens, created by the Aboriginals as they fished for oysters and made their tools.
During the 1800s white settlers moved into the area, gradually displacing the indigenous inhabitants. The first to arrive were pastoralists who used the land to graze cattle. The Imlay brothers were succeeded by the Walker brothers, who in turn sold their leases to the Twofold Bay Pastoral Association. Jetties built around the lake provided facilities for shipping local produce including such as wool.
Following the Robertson Land Act of 1861 small farmers took the opportunity of purchasing blocks of land that previously had been held by the squatter-pastoralists. However Merimbula remained a privately owned village for many years to come.
Realising that corn grew successfully on the land around Merimbula, Matthew Munn, a Scottish migrant, took over an existing flour mill on the side of the lake and created a business milling cornflour, which he called “Munn’s Maizena.” He began production in 1867 and soon became wealthy enough to buy up many of the land allotments and small holdings in the area. [The publication, When the Mill came to Merimbula by Beatrice Gallo and Ray Barnett, describes the full story of Munn’s corn flour production and is on sale at the Old School Museum.]
In 1873 Munn built “Courunga”, known today as the Tower House, as a wedding present for his son, Armstrong. Later that year Matthew Munn died, leaving his business and substantial holdings, such as shops, employees’ homes and small farms, to his son.
The Maizena remained Merimbula’s primary employer for 50 years and with the increase in population came an increase in children who needed schooling. Armstrong Munn oversaw the construction of a school using locally quarried stone, and the first students occupied it in 1875. The school building, along with ”Courunga”, are the only buildings dating from the 1870s that still exist in Merimbula today. [Today the Old School Museum occupies the school building and houses a collection of objects, photographs and archives significant to the history of the area.]
The business began to decline when Armstrong stopped Sunday overtime, allowing competitors to enter their market. Also Munn faced litigation from America over the name ‘Maizena’, which cost him dearly, and he lost much of the family fortune through unwise investments in the Pambula goldfields. The Maizena finally closed its doors in 1917.
In 1922 the cornflour mill was converted to a bacon factory, the pigs brought into town by farmers and slaughtered behind the factory. The factory produced high quality bacon, hams and smallgoods for many years, much of which was shipped to Sydney.
When the volume of goods became too great for the jetties around the lake to handle, the Government built a deep water wharf just outside the lake in 1902. The Illawarra & South Coast Steam Navigation Company used the wharf to transport people and goods up and down the coast until 1952 when the service came to an end.
Merimbula, with its beautiful beaches and surrounding forests, became a popular tourist destination in the 1960s and remains so today. Oyster farming, begun in earnest after World War I, is also a thriving industry. Recreational fishing, golf, whale-watching and beachside activities are popular tourist occupations.
Visit the Old School Museum in Main Street, opposite the RSL and discover more about the compelling history of Merimbula.