Maryborough: Ringing in the Ages
Never let a chance go by. That’s how I felt on a weekend in late September.
It was one of those moments when you just stop and think, why not?
A Saturday in mid-spring and the chance to take a step back in time, revisit the romance of early European settlement in Australia.
Yet also experience some of the hardships the people went through in the century or so since it was established the mid 1800s.
Maryborough is a city caught in time. About three hours drive north of Brisbane, it is near the mouth of the Mary River as it empties into Wide Bay near Fraser Island at River Head.
First settled in 1847 by Europeans, it is one of Queensland’s oldest cities.
It started out as a wool port and served as the Fraser Coast immigration port in the early days of Australian settlement.
As such, it was second only to Sydney as an eastern seaboard port for free settlers.
With that in mind – and that it was the birthplace of Mary Poppins author PL Travers – it was enough to take me to the Maryborough Open House program.
Now in its seventh year, with September 22 and 23 marked down as the dates for 2018, it is a way of exploring some of the city’s most treasured landmarks and heritage.
Backed by the National Trust, Queensland Heritage Council and Fraser Coast Regional Council, the weekend of events showcases the built environment and some stunning gardens.
At any time of the year in Maryborough you can discover living history in all shapes and forms, whether streets filled with architectural delights, public art, museums and private collections capturing the spirit of pioneers.
Unlike many other towns and cities, it remains largely untouched from its days as a thriving river port.
With that background came industry, agriculture and grand buildings.
Maryborough was known for its coal mining, timber, sugar cane, cattle and sheep yet also its maritime industries and steel works.
Trade and commerce later benefitted from the Gympie gold rush.
Maryborough, with its fine old Queenslander houses and heritage public buildings, is something of a living museum with its remnants of early days in and around the Wharf Street.
Within the city centre grand buildings of different architectural styles date back to the 1860s. Colonial era hotels and stores have been restored and reinvented into galleries, boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
My starting point for the 2017 Open House tour was the information centre in the heritage-listed town hall in Kent Street.
There I gather maps and guide books then, with bottled water and muesli bar in a small backpack, and iPad in hand, I set out for a day of adventure.
Opposite was the equally impressive School of Arts Building that dates back to 1887-88 and beside it the ubiquitous sausage sizzle.
There, under the keystone of the moulding surrounding the central archway, is a plaster moulded bust of Minerva, goddess of the city and protector of civilised life.
Yet it was not just the buildings I discovered, the parks to rest in and the sense of history, the surprise perhaps was the people I met along the way.
Tony and Trevor were selling sausages for $2 each, with fried onions and choice of sauces as well as mustard.
A warm, sunny day. The kind where the breeze is dry and the grass crackles under your foot. It’s the same with the trees, with seed pods and dry leaves swaying in the breeze and sounding like an exotic Latin American percussion instrument.
Heading for the railway station I am surprised by the sound of church bells.
St Pauls Anglican Church is part of the Open Homes program but I had put that to one side of my mind as the railway yards had been recommended to me.
Yet the pealing of the bells called to me and stepping inside the bell tower, steeped in the history of the settlement, I found that not only could I look over the building but also get a chance to ring the bells.
Pam explained the history of the church and the bell-ringing – campanology is its correct name.
She then directed a group of six up the steep stairs to the first landing of what is a four-level tower.
There we were met by Ruth who explained how the bells work and the way we could work together to ring the bells to a tune.
The timing still needs some work but I can now add bell-ringing to my CV.
Across the street is the old Maryborough railway station with weatherboard buildings dating back to between 1878 and the 1930s.
The rusted railway lines, empty platforms, closed ticket booth and waiting room are silent reminders of those years.
The main North Coast Railway and the Bruce Highway now bypass the city but it is still a service centre for the area and a popular retirement haven.
Under the railway station clock I meet Gerald, who is also interested in seeing the goods shed and displays dating back to steam engines.
Born in England, Gerald got away from post-war Britain by first moving to New Zealand then Sydney.
After 24 years he headed north and settled in Maryborough then promptly walked to Hervey Bay as a way of understanding the country.
That was in 1991 and it took him nine and a half hours to cover the 30km but he would walk it tomorrow if his legs would carry him.
Maryborough’s been good to him and he likes the weather but is hoping to be able to see his sisters again – one is in the UK and the other in Canada.
He tells me about a pub near where he lives that does a great counter meal for $10 but I head into the town centre.
It’s fascinating to look up at the facades of the buildings – shops, hotels, halls and warehouses.
The curved arches of the Royal Hotel catch my eye. And that’s where I meet George, with his Bunnings straw hat, backpack and tradies shirt’n’shorts.
He likes the town but reminds me that anywhere is what make of it.
“You don’t see these buildings in any other town,’’ he tells me. “Especially where you see those arches … ‘’
George was in the construction business in Sydney then spent a long time in Brisbane.
Now he has a couple of woodworking projects on the go in his shed at home such as making some big slabs of mango timber into a table.
“I like to get in the shed, turn the power saw on and go mad,’’ he continues.
“This is life, get up on stage.
“Failure is not an option … don’t give up on life.
“You need self discipline but also explore the limits.’’
We wave goodbye and he yells: “You crazy man … hang onto the reins.’’
Along Wharf Street you get a wonderful feeling of the old Maryborough, with the Bond Store, the Customs House, Maryborough Heritage Centre and the acclaimed Maryborough Military & Colonial Museum, acknowledged as one of the top community museums in Australia.
The Bond Store represents the development of Maryborough as an important river port during the pre-Federation era. The earthen floor and ancient handmade bricks in the original 1864 building downstairs still exist.
Then there’s the Customs House Hotel, the Criterion Hotel and the Waterside Workers Hall, all fronting the river and where the original wharves were.
I walk up the well-worn steps of the corrugated iron hall and into a key point in the history of Australia’s industrial relations.
Inside the hall I meet Stephen McGinley who tells me it is regarded as one of the most important buildings in Maryborough, the site of the birth of the trade union movement in the region.
Like the Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine during the Great Shearers Strike in the 1890s, the hall had links with the Australian Labour Federation that was to become the Australian Labour Party then the letter “u’’ was dropped due to American influence at the time.
Built 100 years ago, the hall was erected on land donated by Jack Ryan, publican of the adjacent Riverview Hotel that is now known as the Criterion.
The hall was used as the meeting place for the waterside workers and a place they could be selected to work on the wharves.
Yet it was also the hub for the workers in organising to ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It honours the sacrifices made by the men in attaining the eight-hour day and fair working conditions.
The committee to save the hall and bring about its restoration to original state want to use it as a community and union meeting place as well as a workers museum.
In the bar of the Criterion Hotel I meet Col at the bar, a musician who came up from South Australia and now works as at some of the pubs in the Maryborough area.
Not only does the pub have strong links with the town’s history but it has its own craft beer on tap – Cri or Die lager.
There’s one more building out of the many that has been recommended to see, the old Dominion Flour Mill in Kent Street.
Walking past gracious homes and school buildings there are also examples of classic architecture from the 1960s onwards, with motels and churches.
The flour mill though, is a classic. You don’t expect such a building.
It was the most northerly flour mill in Australia when built in 1890 and after a period of expansion the Co-operative Milling Association bought the operation in 1938.
Yet it ceased production in 1977 and the rusting buildings with weathered signwriting form a backdrop to the landmark archway and gates.
The words SEA FOAM are spelt out on the wrought iron gates while the archway that proclaims Dominion Flour Co Pty Ltd includes the words Seaspray Flour at the top.
Silent sentinels to a golden era.
Not far away I meet Stephen, a Richmond Tigers Australian rules football fan. He is riding his bike and wearing a Hervey Bay Tigers jumper.
Originally from the Riverina region of New South Wales, he was at the Sydney Cricket Ground on a memorable day in 1993 for a game between Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints.
At the seven minute mark of the first quarter a piglet was released onto the SCG to taunt St Kilda forward and crack goal kicker Tony “Plugger” Lockett.
Only one problem – Plugger was injured and didn’t play. It took three minutes for Swans backman Darren Holmes to capture the pig, with the word Plugger painted on its flanks, but to all those watching it seemed like about half-an-hour. A day for the ages.
I stop at the Sip coffee place next to the IGA Supermarket and meet Amy, whose parents are from New Zealand but she has moved back and forward across the Tasman.
She has lived in Sydney but considers Maryborough a nice town with some nice people.
“There’s more to Maryborough than you expect,’’ she says.
And her advice?
“Die with memories, not dreams.’’
And it is Amy, someone not born in Maryborough, that tells me where the memorial to Wook-koo stands.
It’s a forgotten treasure of the Fraser Coast, but one that holds a lot of meaning for the Butchulla people who were the first inhabitants of the land.
According to Aboriginal legend Wook-koo and his family chose to leave Fraser Island and followed Moonaboola (Mary River) to Mt Woocoo where they decided to live.
Yet they were surrounded by strangers from the west who were looking for the gateway to Butchulla country.
Wook-koo would not reveal the secret and he and his family were speared.
As the angry strangers left, and Wook-koo and his family lay dying on this beautiful mountain, the gods took pity on them.
Although it was too late to restore them to their former selves, a strange thing happened.
Small animals appeared where the others had fallen, but they were different in appearance.
The animals were covered with a coat of very strong quills.
Later the Butchulla people were convinced these quills were spears.
A book written by Butchulla elder Olga Miller now tells the legend of Wook-koo and the birth of the echidna.
The Wook-koo Park and story walk can be found nine kilometres west of Maryborough, along the Biggenden Rd.
The wood carving of Wook-koo was carved from an ironbark tree by Kevin Banting.
It took 175 hours to complete.
It stands more than six feet high and looks in the direction of Mt Woocoo.
Yet it is time to drive away, leaving Maryborough and its memories behind.