A museum dedicated to the man who invented Vegemite has opened in the regional Victorian town of Beaufort 100 years after its invention.
It’s an Australian cultural icon, has been to war, survived a pandemic and this year celebrates its centenary.
The salty spread Vegemite is found in 8 out of 10 Australian pantries (or fridges) and in the hearts and minds of many.
Despite this, the story of its invention remains largely unknown.
The man behind its rise to fame is food scientist Cyril Callister, who grew up in the small country Victorian town of Chute in the Pyrenees region, along with his 8 siblings.
He attended the Ballarat School of Mines and went on to complete a Doctorate of Science through a scholarship, before becoming the chief chemist at the Fred Walker Company in South Melbourne. The factory would be later known as Kraft.
It was here in 1923 that he was tasked with creating a product that would rival the English product Marmite. Using brewer’s yeast from the Carlton Brewery, Cyril cracked the code and Vegemite was born.
100 years on, his grandson Jamie Callister is hoping to share his story and the history of Vegemite with a museum dedicated to Cyril and his invention.
Jamie grew up in Melbourne and says it wasn’t until his father grew older that he become intrigued to learn more about Cyril and how he turned a failure into an Australian icon through resilience and perseverance.
‘I realised talking to dad in his final years that I really didn't know the story. So, I went looking for it. Through the boxes of letters that I've carried around for years and through interviewing and talking to people, I uncovered this incredible story.’
Jamie was surprised to learn that when his grandfather first invented Vegemite, it was a complete failure and didn’t move from the factory floor. It took the invention of the toaster and Kraft cheese for it to become a pantry staple.
‘Fred Walker, ever the entrepreneur, he decided, well, if we can't sell Vegemite, let's just give a small jar of it away with every block of cheese,’ Jamie says.
‘The cheese was enormously popular and eventually it started to get a foothold.’
Vegemite then went on to become a ration for soldiers during the Second World War and was marketed as a healthy and nutritious food product during the post-war era.
‘I just love telling the story as people are really engaged - it’s not just my story, it’s your story and everyone has their own stories about Vegemite,’ Jamie says.
It’s a story that piqued the interest of Liza Robinson, who moved to Beaufort, 10 minutes from Chute.
‘We were driving around the region getting to know it, and we saw the signs on the road that said the man who invented Vegemite was born here.’
‘I thought, wow, I never knew that. I never knew there was an inventor. I never even knew he was from Victoria,’ Liza adds.
Liza contacted Jamie and together they formed the Cyril Callister Foundation in 2019.
Determined to put the town on the map and to spread the story behind the sandwich spread, Liza started a ‘pop-up’ museum in the back of a former 1950s service station in the heart of Beaufort.
With support from the Victorian Government and the Beaufort Progress Association Inc, the museum has moved into the shop front - creating a destination for locals and visitors.
‘Half of the museum at the moment is set up with Vegemite memorabilia, which is donated by Vegemite lovers all around the country,’ Liza says.
‘I keep a list and there's a little tag on each thing that says such-and-such donated these items, so everyone who has donated items feels very invested in this project too’.
Liza and Jamie have both been blown away with the support. The museum now has tours, talks, and events for visitors of all ages. Visitors learn about the history with photos, memorabilia and a gift shop which celebrates all things Vegemite and the story of Cyril Callister.
‘This project is very community driven, the thing that surprised me is that everyone that comes in has a story and a connection to Vegemite,’ Liza says.
‘Everybody has a baseline story. They say ah, I remember I used to go out and see my nanny and every time we had Vegemite sandwiches. And then someone else will say that they remember living through the depression and being so poor that they grew up eating Vegemite soup for dinner with a piece of bread.’
Jamie and Liza believe the museum is not just for reminiscing, but that it also inspires the next round of happy little Vegemites about the importance of science and learning - particularly for kids growing up in the country like Cyril did.
Their aim is for the Cyril Callister Foundation to launch its own Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) scholarship program for regional kids.
‘I would like to see a lasting legacy and I think the museum is a great start, because it’s interesting, its educational and it really ticks a lot of the boxes,’ Jamie says.
‘It’s not just Vegemite but it’s also Australian history - it certainly can provide a valuable contribution to all of Australia.’
To find out more about the Cyril Callister Museum, visit: Spreading the story of Vegemite in Beaufort.
The museum is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 2pm.