|Towns and villages of:|
Population: 1586 (2006 census)
Town Centre - The Oaks
Looking at the rolling green hills around The Oaks, it is hard to imagine this land was once noted for the dense open forest which covered it and from which it gets its name (of Australian Casuarinas, "she -oaks", not the English Oak).
The area was once part of the traditional land of the Tharawal peoples, whose territory stretched from Botany Bay in Sydney down to Jervis Bay on the south coast, and in to Burragorang in the ranges.
The area first came to the notice of Europeans in search of cattle which had escaped from the government herds at Parramatta. These cattle had "gone bush" and thrived in the rich pastures of this area.
Visited by Governor Hunter in 1795 (from whom nearby Mt. Hunter gets its name) who appreciated the country as excellent for cultivation, it was however forbidden to European settlers by successive governors up to 1822.
The area became known as 'Cowpastures', which extended from the Nepean River at Camden to Burragorang Valley and south to Bargo.
Explored by George Caley first in 1802, the area around the present village was named by him 'The Oaks'.
In 1815 Governor Macquarie established cattle yards at Cawdor (half way between Camden and Picton), The Oaks, and Brownlow Hill and later at Stonequarry Creek (Picton) to which wild cattle were taken to be reclaimed for the government herds.
After the removal of the government herds to Bathurst in 1822, the first grants were made at The Oaks to T.C. Harrington and John Wild.
Other grants followed over the next 10 years, the government abandoning its Cowpastures holdings in 1826, and agricultural development of The Oaks region began.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to its history was John Wild (a former soldier), on whose property 'Vanderville' on the banks of Werriberri Creek his widow established the 'private village of Vanderville' in 1858.
One of the first buildings was a hotel which stood alongside the road to Burragorang which crossed the river here (present William Street), but the village soon moved further up the hill to drier ground and this is where the main centre of The Oaks is today.
When a post office was opened in 1858 it was named The Oaks rather than Vanderville, and this name was to prevail.
Lots were advertised for sale in Sydney and by 1860 there were some 8 houses, 2 blacksmith shops, a wine saloon, school and the hotel in the village.
People moved into the area to take up farming and pastoral leases, but the village itself grew slowly, most of the original lots remaining unsold for many years.
The Oaks was the main village west of Camden, serving also travellers on the road to Burragorang Valley which was also being opened up for agriculture at the time.
The Roman Catholic Church (St. Aloysius) in 1865 joined the earlier St. Mathews Anglican Church built on land donated by John Wild in 1838 - still standing (restored in 1983), and one of the earliest of its type in Australia - to serve the spiritual needs of the residents. (St. Luke's dates from 1892).
An early schoolhouse was run by Wild and neighbour Major Russell on their land. A later denominational school near the Catholic church, was replaced by a state school in 1885 (opposite the present school, built in 1929 after a bush fire burnt down the original.)
Early industry at The Oaks included a flour mill, where wheat from as far as Burragorang Valley was processed, two brickworks, and timber mills which served the district as the land was cleared, demand increasing with the building of the railways.
The Oaks Hotel (1863) was for a century a way station for travellers on the Burragorang Road, and later a famous Sanatorium for patients recovering from tuberculosis, the relative high altitude of The Oaks considered conducive to their health. Famous in its early days, it boasted gardens, tennis courts, skating rink, and a billiards room as attractions.
Part of the original buildings remain behind the present hotel (built in 1939 when the hotel burnt down) but not the extensive grounds.
The social life of the village was catered for by the building of a School of Arts in 1891, a famous race track which attracted visitors up until the 1930s, and a tennis club. Thousands of visitors also passed through each year on the way to the lookouts and picnic grounds near Silverdale, overlooking the Burragorang Valley.
Although the population of The Oaks slowly increased over the first 40 years, the village did not become a major country town due to the closeness of Picton and Camden.
Traffic increased after 1890 when silver was discovered at Yerranderie. Roads were improved, early bullock drays giving way to horse and carts, allowing regular mail and coach services to Picton and Camden - later replaced by the first trucking services.
Local wheat growing was wiped out by rust in the 1890s, agriculture over the next 30 years turning more to horticulture as smaller allotments were taken up by settlers.
In 1895 also, coal was first mined at Burragorang, but it was to be over 30 years before this became an important local industry.
In the early 1900s the government was lobbied to build an extension of the railway from Camden, which it was hoped would open up the area for further development. However, the project was shelved as being not cost efficient.
Another attempt was made by local residents to attract the railway in the 1920s. This time the bid was for a connection between Rooty Hill on the line west of Parramatta to Tahmoor on the new south line through Theresa Park, Orrangeville and The Oaks.
A far-sighted project, it also included plans to open another 30,000 acres of land for small holdings with a scheme to irrigate them from the new Warragamba Dam.
This plan too, came to nothing and it was not until the 1930s that The Oaks' fortunes turned around.
By 1924 some 22,000 acres of land in the area was being farmed. Most farms were small holdings (less than 40 acres) taken up in recent years by soldier settlers and immigrants who engaged in growing oranges, apples and other fruit, vegetables, and dairying.
Despite the closeness to Sydney, isolation due to poor roads and transport to the railheads meant that costs to producers put them at a disadvantage in the Sydney markets and this contributed to preventing further growth of intensive horticulture and dairying in The Oaks area.
By the 1950s there was a real decline in the rural population and small scale agriculture.
Another primary industry, however, was to shape the history of The Oaks area at a crucial time in its history.
In 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression, the coalfields of the Burragorang Valley were opened to large scale production.
The collieries not only provided work for locals, but led to an influx of miners who contributed to the growth and development of Silverdale, Oakdale and The Oaks itself.
The millions of tons extracted did not unfortunately attract the railway which might have contributed to greater development of the area, and the fortunes of The Oaks were largely dependent on those of the mines over the next 60 years. (The last, Oakdale Colliery, closed in the 1990s.)
In the early 1900s the civic development of The Oaks itself proceeded apace.
A police station was opened in 1901, and the increase in population warranted a new school - a convent school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph - which opened in 1902.
In 1906 Wollondilly Shire Council opened offices in Burragorang Road, which operated there until it merged with Picton Municipality in 1944.
A local telephone exchange opened in 1911, and electricity was connected in 1946.
Today The Oaks is largely an outer Sydney residential area surrounded by peaceful farms and countryside, now only an hour's distance from the city by new freeways.
A drive through the countryside to discover the heritage of The Oaks and 'Cowpastures' is a pleasant way to spend a day.