Jeparit’s great claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Sir Robert Menzies, prime minister of Australia from 1939-1941 and 1949-1966. A small and tidy town of some 500 people, it is located by the Wimmera River, 370 km north-west of Melbourne and 35 km north of Dimboola in an area given over to the production of wheat, wool, barley and oats.
Prior to white settlement the area was occupied by the Gromiluk, a branch of the Wotjobaluk tribe. The first European in the immediate vicinity was explorer Edward Eyre who camped at nearby Lake Hindmarsh in 1838 while searching for an overland route from Melbourne to Adelaide. The area which includes the Jeparit townsite was taken up by Robert von Stieglitz in 1846 while, just to the north, was ‘Halbacutya’, established in the same year by John Coppock. Bushranger Dan Morgan held up the latter station in 1868. A rabbit plague struck the area in the late 1870s.
Closer settlement proceeded when selectors, many of them German Lutherans from South Australia, arrived in the 1880s. They changed the course of land usage from grazing to wheat-growing. A village began to develop at this time, leading to a survey in 1883. The town was gazetted in 1889 as ‘Jeparit’, from an Aboriginal word said to mean ‘home of small birds’.
During the great drought of 1901-1903, emus apparently wandered the streets of Jeparit in search of food. Another local curiosity was the discovery, in 1916, of a subterranean chamber with a hidden entranceway. Inside were German newspapers dating back to 1914. It was assumed to be the refuge of escapees from the POW camp at Langwarrin. Jeparit also received some notoriety when it was used as the setting for Peter Carey’s 1985 novel Illywhacker.
The town’s Beach Carnival is held at Lake Hindmarsh in January and the Agricultural Show in October.