Family's historic Kiah hut lost, but new connections formed for owners of Earl's Farm

The new workshop build is in progress and the vegetables are growing, brighter days for Jesse and Jo Graham. Photo: Leah Szanto
The new workshop build is in progress and the vegetables are growing, brighter days for Jesse and Jo Graham. Photo: Leah Szanto

For more than 10 years, well-regarded sculptor Jesse Graham and wife Jo proudly took up residence in a historically significant hut on the north-western foreshore of the Kiah River.

A holiday place for Jesse since birth, his father's godfather, Roger Seaward, gifted the property to the Grahams and they relocated from Nimmitibel to Kiah permanently in 2009.

Ms Graham said the call of bellbirds was deafening in the early days of their tenure.

"Strange how the human ear can filter such loud and constant sound with the toll of familiarity," she said.

They renovated and extended the off-grid home, and although it wasn't heritage listed, Mr Graham said it probably should have been.

"We wanted to maintain its integrity as much as possible while making it more livable," he said.

A painting of the original house at Earl's Farm, gifted to the Graham's earlier this year, who say they've been told many stories about the house by locals.

A painting of the original house at Earl's Farm, gifted to the Graham's earlier this year, who say they've been told many stories about the house by locals.

Ms Graham said when they first moved into it, their home was just a square box made from big timber slabs.

"Our house had once brought up 10 children whose family had resorted to hunting rabbits for their soft, furry pelts in the depression years. Where did all those children sleep?" she mused.

Tragically, the hut was obliterated when the Border Fire came though, which spared only a few possessions, including an excavator and an old jeep belonging to Mr Graham's father.

The spectacular setting of Earl's Farm in Kiah. Photo: Phill Small Photography.

The spectacular setting of Earl's Farm in Kiah. Photo: Phill Small Photography.

"It was completely wallpapered with our artwork, that was the biggest thing, losing 10 years' worth of work."

Ms Graham said it was quite surreal on the day leading up to the bushfire disaster.

"About 2.30pm smoke began to tendril in and the situation became real, by 4pm complete darkness descended," she said.

The couple left the property and waited it out.

After the fire front had passed, their neighbour Neil Rankin sent a friend to the property to see whether or not the much-loved hut had survived, but confirmed it had been lost.

"Our perception of what fire is and was has completely changed," Ms Graham said.

Having had plans to generate some extra income from providing accommodation, the couple had completed construction of a tiny house on the property immediately before the fire.

"It was literally just finished, we put every cent we had in to building it," Mr Graham said.

The driveway is lined with sculptures by Jesse Graham, whose entire family are artists. Photo: Leah Szanto

The driveway is lined with sculptures by Jesse Graham, whose entire family are artists. Photo: Leah Szanto

Ms Graham said it was disorienting when they returned to their land.

"The unfamiliarity of the bush all around was a shock, I thought to myself, 'I don't even know this place'," she said.

The couple had been used to "roughing it" on the block, having lived with a very simple setup off-grid for 10 years, and believe that has likely contributed to them faring better than some in the aftermath of the catastrophic summer.

Family from Melbourne sent up two shipping containers full of building materials to help them get going again, which in addition to grants from multiple relief organisations, has equipped the couple to move forward with recovery and begin to reshape their surrounds.

"Without that we'd be stuffed, I've got nothing bad to say about the charities," Mr Graham said.

They have built a new workshop and vegetable garden and much time is spent on management of rudimentary infrastructure.

The couple continue to live in a loaned caravan and work on plans for a new house, for which assistance from the NSW government has been promised.

"The good-naturedness of those all around us in the community meant so much, we came to the attention of the entire world, and all those thoughts and prayers really worked," Ms Graham said.

"It's easy to feel sorry for us, but we feel embarrassed and a bit weird about all the help we've had," Mr Graham said.

"Now we know all the neighbours we hadn't ever met," he said with a smile.

"Yes, it's a real positive that has come of it all," added Ms Graham.

Nearly a year on, the couple report a slow return of the insects, lizards, lyrebirds, wallabies and wombats, but notably absent is the bellbird song.

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