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Deputy Government surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell would pass through the land of the Wiradjuri tribe in 1835 on one of four explorations of the state's north west making note in his diaries of the fertile land he found. Although squatting was illegal, the promise of rich grazing land at Parkes had graziers drive their cattle through the land as early as the 1836, yet it wouldn't be until the Land Act of 1847 that allowed squatters to officially occupy the land and would have a village start to develop.
The first grain crop would be planted in the land around Parkes in 1865 and when harvested had a higher yield than grain farms in Orange, considered at the time as the state's grain heartland. Although a successful agricultural area, it would be the discovery of payable gold at nearby Currajong in 1862 that would truly transform the town, and for the following decade the gold mines and all associated industry flourished. Referred to at the times as Bushman's Lead, Parkes would not be officially named until 1873 when a petition would be sent to the governor requesting that Bushman's Lead be properly surveyed for a town and officially named. Following a visit by Governor Sir Henry Parkes in 1873, the town was named in his honour and a government surveyor would submit his plans for the town. Parkes continued to succeed long after the gold rush would subside, relying on its agricultural successes and with a thriving infrastructure the town would establish itself as the primary service centre for the states heartland.
Following a decade of negotiation between CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory staff, the Australian Government and key American Scientific institutions, Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, enough money was raised to fund the construction of Australia's first radio telescope in Parkes. Completed in 1961, the telescope would be integral to the Apollo moon landing in 1969 with images of the historic landing collected by the telescope for broadcast around the world. This landmark event for the telescope would be immortalised in the 2003 Australian film The Dish. Undergoing a series of improvements over the years, the Parkes telescope and observatory continue to play an important role in Australia's astronomy science and research fields, and remains the most popular attraction in the region, with the image of 'the dish' becoming synonymous with the town. Parkes was the ideal location to view Halley's Comet in 1986.
In a bid to boost tourism to the region, Parkes would host the inaugural Elvis Presley Festival in 1993. The festival was conceived by a group of local Elvis Presley enthusiasts and business owners who recognised that Presley’s birthday coincided with the slowest period of the year for local tourism. Their festival continues to be a roaring success attracting over 7500 visitors every year and in 2006 won the Festival & Events Category of the Inland New South Wales Tourism Awards.