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Oakbank House

Today Oakbank House remains a symbol of the history of the town and of the legacy of the Johnston brothers who founded it.

Passing through Oakbank, it’s impossible to miss the long eucalypt-lined drive leading to one of the area’s oldest stately homes.

For decades the estate, known as Oakbank House, has been an icon of the horse racing town, drawing locals and visitors with a magnetic pull.

But to Jill Francis and her family, Oakbank House is more than an historic landmark – it’s a home that has been lovingly preserved over the past decade true to its 1800s roots.

Arguably the most recognisable home in Oakbank, the house was completed in the late 1860s for James Johnston, who, with his brother William, founded one of SA’s earliest breweries – the Oakbank Brewery.

It’s one of two surviving stately homes built for the Johnstons at Oakbank – the other, Dalintober, was built for James’ brother, Andrew.

“We’d like to be able to say we’ve got the oldest stone building here, but we’re not sure,” Jill says.

“The books suggest that this is the oldest stone building, but some people have said that Dalintober is, but it was all within the same nine months.”

Across a history spanning almost 160 years, the home has only been in the hands of three families.

Charles “Leo” Mattner – the brother of South Australian Senator Ted Mattner – bought the property from the Johnstons in the 1920s and his wife Madge lived there until she was 99.

The Johnston family briefly held the property again in the 2000s, until selling to Jill and her husband in 2013.

Today Oakbank House is still a central part of the community, complete with its own folklore and swirling with rumours.

“If you go down to the Oakbank pub, everyone tells you everything about the house,” Jill says.

“Some of it’s accurate, but some of it’s just not accurate.

“… A story that I’ve heard is that this giant cast-iron bath used to be out the back and the whole Onkaparinga Valley football team – when they’d finish their game on a Saturday night – would come down here and have a bath in the outdoor bath.

“Now I don’t think that’s very likely, but they’re all adamant – that’s where the footy team used to have their bath after the game, outside out the back here.”

Jill laughs off other slightly more intriguing rumours – one that the house is haunted and another that there’s a shotgun hidden below the floorboards.

“I have heard the rumour that the house might be haunted,” she says.

“Madge Mattner’s two daughters lived here and unfortunately the eldest one died before Madge did and the younger one, Jill, also died before Madge in a horrific accident.

“So I assume that links into the haunted rumours, because the two sisters never had children, so that would probably carry a bit of intrigue with it.

“Everyone tells me that there’s a shotgun under the floorboards in my daughter’s room upstairs.

“Now, I’m sure when the electrician rewired he would have told me if there was a shotgun there, so I don’t think there is.”

Jill and her husband aren’t strangers to historic homes, having previously owned and restored an 1845 converted stone barn at Fullarton, called Barn Abbey.

But it was the open rural space and design of the home that drew them to Oakbank House, and Jill says they have strived to maintain its original character over the past decade.

“What we wanted to do with this house was keep it historically accurate, but make it a functional home,” Jill says.

While Madge made several changes to the house, including converting the former gentlemen’s smoking room into a kitchen, converting the verandahs into sunrooms and installing a green Terrazzo bathroom in the 1940s, much of the home remains the way it was in the 1800s.

“If you go into that central stairwell, it’s got the original 1800s wallpaper in there,” Jill says.

“There’s really only two sets of features – the original features and when Madge came into some money in the ’40s.

“We’ve made everything functional for today’s living, without it detracting from the historical aspects of everything that we’ve retained.

“Each room has these beautiful slate fireplaces – every one is different with marbled painting on it.

“The ceiling roses, they’ve still got the original paint on them, and the painted wallpaper on the ceiling in my husband’s study is original.”

The estate’s former entrance – about 200 metres up Onkaparinga Valley Road from the existing driveway – is now rolling pasture – weathered gates and a grove of old trees are the only remnants of the original stately landscaped approach and sweeping drive.

But the couple, who took up raising cattle when they bought the 23 acre property, have since gone to great pains to rehabilitate the soil and revegetate the banks of the Onkaparinga River which runs through the property.

“One of the reasons that we came here was for the rural lifestyle,” Jill says.

“My husband wanted land and for the children, having the cattle and the menagerie of animals gives them that rural living only 18 minutes from the Toll Gate, so you get the best of both worlds.”

Today Oakbank House remains a symbol of the history of the town and of the legacy of the Johnston brothers who founded it – and that significance is not lost on Jill.

“It is regarded as an iconic image of Oakbank, so it’s very much something that the locals feel a degree of ownership of, because they’ve all got a story associated with it – their grandma or grandpa did work for the owners,” she says.

“I’d like it to remain an iconic image of Oakbank. “I think we’ve stayed true to it and done right by the township.”

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