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Located in Central New South Wales, the land that would become Cowra was originally inhabited by the Wiradjuri Aboriginal people and Cowra takes its name from a Wiradjuri word meaning 'rocks'. An expedition led by George Evans in 1815 into the Lachlan Valley had the area named Oxley Flats after the Surveyor General John Oxley, and the arid area was deemed unfit for white settlement. Despite this poor review of the land by Evans, graziers and squatters moved into the region shortly afterwards, and by the 1840s a township was beginning to develop.
With successful grain crops leading to the construction of a flour mill in the 1860s, the decades to follow were a boom time for Cowra. Schools and churches were built to service the growing farming community and a railway line was extended through the town with the Cowra railway station opening in 1886. Along with cattle farming and agricultural crops, vineyards established in the 1860s were starting to produce noteworthy wines. Wine making remains an important part of the Cowra economy today, with the region supplying premium quality grapes to wineries around the country. Long established grapevines in Cowra vineyards produce some of the best Chardonnay in the country, and tours of the wineries and cellar doors have proven a lucrative tourist attraction.
Following World War II, Cowra was home to several prisoner of War camps including one for Japanese soldiers who staged an escape attempt now referred to as the Cowra breakout in 1944. In total 231 Japanese soldiers died during the breakout and Australia’s only Japanese war cemetery has since been established, holding both those prisoners who died in Cowra and those soldiers who died during the Darwin air raids. In an effort to commemorate this tragic event and celebrate Cowra's historical link with Japan, an extensive Japanese Garden was opened in 1979. In 1992 Cowra's tireless work to promote peace between Australia and Japan in spite of the events which occurred in 1944 saw the town awarded a replica of the World Peace Bell which is one of 20 located around the world to symbolise the extension of peace between once warring countries.