Boolarra lies in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges, 20 km south-west of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley, Gippsland. The area was first visited by Europeans in 1840 when the explorer Strzelecki passed nearby. The terrain was so rough the party abandoned their horses and equipment and continued on foot, reaching Western Port Bay three weeks later.
Settlers did not access the forests in this area until the late 1870s. When the railway line from Morwell to Mirboo North was constructed in the early 1880s, a camp and station were established at the 12 mile peg from Morwell. A township was surveyed in 1884 and named Boolarra, an Aboriginal word meaning plenty.
There were high hopes for the area, the Victorian municipal directory recording Boolarra being surrounded by a rich belt of country and destined to be a very important town in 1888 with any town allotments fetched £50 a quarter acre. Coal seams were being opened up for mining. Some black and brown coal was mined, but never on a large scale. The discovery of larger deposits elsewhere caused production to cease. Timber cutting became the most important industry. Several sawmills operated in the area and paling splitting was also an important occupation. The palings and blackwood logs were transported by the railway (1885) which ran between Morwell and Yinnar.
Clearing the forest for farming progressed slowly at first. Red Wednesday, the bushfire of 1898, while ruining some selectors, aided others by burning the scrub and leaving an ash bed for rapid growth of grass. The establishment of a creamery, allowing more efficient separation of milk, assisted the growth of a dairying industry. In 1900 a butter factory was set up in Boolarra by Heymans. In 1903 Boolarra was described in the Australian handbook:
In the early days, tracks were rough and winding, muddy in winter. Gradual improvements in roads reduced the isolation of the settlers and the isolation of Boolarra itself.
There were three hotels, three general stores, bakers, butchers and other stores, blacksmiths, bootmakers, a tinsmith and a coachbuilder. Swimming baths were constructed in 1914 and a recreation reserve, Memorial Park, was opened in 1924. There was a strong community life with sports meetings, woodchops, horse races, dances and a newspaper. Boolarra was a service centre for a wide district, supporting the dairy and timber industries. The monthly cattle sale especially brought people into town.
Boolarra suffered a setback in 1937 when a hotel and many shops in the main street burned down.
Population declined until the 1970s, as improvements in farming technology required fewer workers and there was a general drift of population to the cities.
However from the 1970s people were attracted back to the area by the rural lifestyle. There was substantial residential building and subdivision of small farmlets and small properties in the hills overlooking the town. This produced little increase in business and services because with modern cars and better roads people used the larger provincial centre. In contrast there has been an increase in local community activities such as service clubs and sporting and social organisations: the community organised the removal of a building from Yallourn to house an infant welfare service, playgroup and other community groups. A community newspaper was started in 1982. There are two halls, Anglican and Catholic churches, a police station, sports facilities (including a bowls club), a hotel and a primary school (76 pupils, 2014). The former railway line is a rail trail. Boolarra has an annual folk festival and the former school building is a history museum.
Farming, and some dairying is mainly at Boolarra South and the butter factory closed in the late 1950s. Milk was taken to Yinnar until that factory was taken over by a large company in 1974. The last cattle sale was held in 1982. A fish farm was started in the 1950s. It has 30 to 40 acres of ponds and breeds five different species of goldfish, sending them all over Australia.
Boolarra’s census populations have been:
R.M. Carstairs, ‘The twelve mile peg’, Boolarra: a short history of Boolarra and district 1884-1984, 1984
S.M. Legg, Heart of the valley: a history of the Morwell municipality, Morwell 1992