There have been two towns bearing the name Tarpeena, nearly three miles apart. In the 1860s there was sufficient population to support a hotel, a store, a blacksmith, a school and a post office. Over the next two decades the District lost these services, and for half a century Tarpeena was little more than the name of a locality. Harvesting and milling of pines signalled the recovery of the town and population levels and development took place shortly after the first thinning of the pines.
The history of Tarpeena begins, like that of the most south-east region of South Australia, with the establishment of sheep stations in the 1840s. The pastoralists rented vast areas of the land and ran sheep principally for wool. Many came from Victoria. By the early 1840s, most of western Victoria's sheep runs had been taken up in a wave of settlement that ran continuously from Melbourne. The pastoralists simply continued westwards establishing new stations.
One of the first areas in the south-east to be subdivided into farming sections and offered for sale on freehold title was located a few miles west of the present day Tarpeena town. However, the attempts by the Government to establish small farms was thwarted; pastoralists who had been running their sheep on rented land bought up the freehold sections intended for mixed farming and continued to run their sheep. The only difference was that they now had the security of freehold ownership of the land instead of a lease for a fixed number of years.
The first building in the Government-survey town of Tarpeena (the southern part of the present day town) was erected in 1865-1866. When the new main road between Mount Gambier and Penola was open, new Tarpeena quickly took over from old Tarpeena. Tarpeena town was small but significant while the coaches ran along the road, but lost its role and its importance when the railway to Mount Gambier was opened in 1887.
The half-century between 1890 and 1940 was a very quiet time in the history of Tarpeena and District. Almost all of the surrounding country was in big sheep stations, there was one occupied dwelling on the whole of the surveyed town and a handful of families were battling to make a living on the small blocks. The town had lost its role as a stopping place on the coach route and had not yet been given its new role as a support town for the timber industry. In 1936 the Surveyor General decided that, because the town population was not likely to grow the land tentatively reserved as parklands could be sold to private owners.
Planning of pine plantations and the establishment of sown pastures, which would carry large numbers of sheep and cattle, transformed the District. The pine industry had the greater impact on the town.
The planting of pines began in the mid-1920s, although it was not until the harvesting began nearly 15 years later that there was any impact on the town. South Australian Perpetual Forests Ltd, one of the largest private sector companies in the pine industry, chose Tarpeena for its regional headquarters. The first pine plantation was planted by Perpetual Forests (Mount Gambier) Pty Ltd, South Australian Perpetual Forests (SAPFOR), Mr John Livingston (who later formed the Penola Timber Milling Company Pty Ltd) and Softwood Holdings Ltd (which was later purchases by CSR Ltd).
The decision to locate the administrative headquarters and the main milling and processing plant of SAPFOR's successor company, Auspine Ltd, located at the northern end of Tarpeena, had a major impact on the growth of the town. SAPFOR's first association with Tarpeena began with the purchase of 42 acres in 1934. The chief forester moved into a large timber-framed weatherboard house in early 1937 and used the front room on the northern side as his office. The Tarpeena telephone exchange opened in the office in April 1937 and the bodies of several former Melbourne cable cars were set up south of the house as quarters for single male employees.
In or soon after 1946, the first stage of a timber-framed and asbestos office building was erected not far from the forester's residence. The forestry office moved out of the house, which then became solely a private residence. This office building was extended a number of times. In 1960 the office complex was connected to ETSA power and water from a bore was pumped into elevated tanks behind the forester's house and supplied the office, the workshops and the northern houses.
SAPFOR began erecting houses, initially for rental to employees and contractors, in around 1947. In July 1949, SAPFOR established a building trust with the principal objective being to provide and assist in providing land and building of all kinds for the proper accommodation, housing, comfort, convenience and recreation of SA Perpetual Forests Limited, SAPFOR Timber Mills Limited, persons employed by or associated in business or otherwise with the SED companies or this company.
The building trust continued until the early 1970s and it enabled employees to purchase timber-framed houses of modern designs at prices not possible under any other conditions.
The Tarpeena Mill is currently owned and operated by Timberlink. As can be seen, the growth and development of Tarpeena is inextricably linked to the timber milling operations of the town.