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Cultivating a family legacy

Tony Gallasch remembers the Verdun school bell was rung at midday. If it was any other time then it was an emergency.

As he treads through his Verdun front yard, Tony Gallasch points at a brass house bell sticking out of a large oak tree to show off his family’s “treasures”.

The bell, he says, is one of his favourite artefacts.

“When I was a kid, my memory says the bell was rung at midday, but if it was any other time then it was an emergency,” he says.

“The Verdun school would use our bell as their timepiece – they knew it was midday when they heard it.”

So well known was the Gallasch family’s midday house bell that even nature wanted it for itself.

“It must have been the real early days, I’ve seen a photo somewhere of the bell sitting out on a couple of posts and one was leaning one way and the other one looked pretty wonky,” Tony says.

“So they moved the bell and put it in the fork of the oak tree, but then eventually the tree completely enclosed it.”

For most of the 20th century, the bell lay entombed in the oak. But in 2016, Tony’s wife Coral says “an almighty crack” woke them in the middle of the night and, when they ran into the yard, they were greeted by the sight of their beloved oak tree, split in two.

“There was a weak point in the tree,” Tony says.

“The trunk never quite sealed properly around the bell, eventually the pressure was too much and it just split.”

Emerging from the oak tree like a time capsule, the bell is just one small piece of Gallasch family history, which is deeply entrenched in Verdun and the surrounding areas.

In 1838, Tony’s great-great grandfather Johann J. Gallasch and his wife Veronika fled religious persecution and economic hardship in Poland to seek a new life abroad, arriving in Port Misery – now West Lakes – on ship called the Catharina.

They shifted from place to place, relocating further and further east of Adelaide until reaching the Adelaide Hills in 1841.

Living out of crude mud slab huts and giving up his trade as a weaver to pursue farming, Johann bought more than 30ha of land in a section of Grünthal – now Verdun – in 1847.

Today, his descendants still live on that farm, which is thought to be among the oldest working farms in the Adelaide Hills.

Over 176 years, seven generations of the Gallasch family have farmed that land and called it home.

Today Tony and Coral still live in a heritage-listed white stone house, called The Pines, which was built in 1875 by Johann’s son Eduard.

The stone used to build it was sourced from a quarry still located on the property – the same quarry used to source stone for the original Hahndorf Town Band Rotunda and for the studio of famed Adelaide Hills painter Sir Hans Heysen.

Eduard raised his 14 children at The Pines, which Coral says explains “why it’s such a big house”.

“Before they built this house, they lived in stone buildings which you can see today arranged in a sort of semi-circle, in the style of a traditional German farm yard,” she says.

“They were built in the 1850s, before corrugated iron was available in Australia.”

Holding the roofs of the old stone huts in place are shingles made from the wood of stringybark trees – which Tony says was especially innovative.

“Stringybark is not known to be good for building with because it shrinks as it dries out,” he says.

“But stringybark’s easy to work with when it’s green, which it was when they put it in, so then when it shrunk it pulled everything so tight that it’s still just as tight today.”

So strong are the stringybark shingles that Tony says builders he hired over the years were all amazed.

“They say you can run a train across them,” he says with a laugh.

Over the years Tony and Coral have faced changing consumer behaviours and the threat of climate change, which have forced them to adapt and change their farm’s output time and time again.

But Tony says that’s just what farmers do if they want to survive.

“Each year the seasons are different and there’s climate change and whatever else, so you’ve got to always think about what comes next and how you’re going to tackle it,” he says.

Formerly one of the region’s many dairy farmers, Tony says he “saw the writing on the wall” for the local dairy industry in the 1990s.

“It was pretty obvious that dairying was not going to be a long term thing in the Hills anymore,” Tony says.

“The pollution and the run off from dairies became more and more visible, so the media grabbed a hold of it.

“It was a nightmare for any dairy in the winter time that ended up with its photo in The Courier.”

The Gallasch farm began growing cherries, shifting its output away from dairy farming while continuing to produce beef and fodder.

They eventually rebranded as Cherries At Verdun.

“I thought ‘well, we’ll put some cherries in, they taste nice’,” Tony says with a shrug, playfully suggesting his fateful decision was motivated by an element of whimsy.

Finding humour and a reason to smile, even in dark or uncertain times, has been something Tony and Coral have had to master, for reasons that go beyond the inconvenience of adapting to shifting market forces.

Their most affecting struggle has been their tireless battle to help their beloved daughter, Amy, who, in 2014, was only the second Australian to be diagnosed with beta-propeller protein associated neurodegeneration (BPAN).

BPAN was first discovered in 2012 and is an extremely rare disorder estimated to affect between 500 and 2000 people worldwide.

Triggered by specific gene mutations, BPAN causes progressive damage to the nervous system and there is no chance of recovery.

“For the first 30 years of her life, we didn’t know why she was like she was,” Coral says.

“She wasn’t meeting any of her benchmarks and we taught her everything – how to crawl, walk, all of that stuff, because she couldn’t figure it out herself the way other babies do.”

Tony says he remembers how as a baby and toddler, Amy had so little energy or strength that she’d lie on the floor and drift in and out of sleep.

“She’d wake up and look around, but wouldn’t move,” he says.

“One time there was a toy that she reached for and, because she couldn’t reach it, she just turned and ignored it and stayed where she was.”

The diagnosis took years to uncover as they helped her manage many intellectual and physical disabilities.

But when they finally got answers, it didn’t get any easier to deal with, given how little is still known about BPAN and the absence of meaningful treatments or cures.

But instead of allowing the uncertainty to paralyse them, Tony and Coral raised money for BPAN research at the Melbourne-based Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, from entry fees for their ‘pick your own cherries’ experience.

So supportive was the public that last year they raised $21,000.

“At first people were annoyed they had to pay a fee, but once they knew what it was for, they’d come up to us with $50 or $100 notes,” Tony says incredulously, like he still can’t fathom how people can be so kind.

But sometimes kindness comes to kind people.


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