Thursday, January 22, 2009

My "Bone Country"

Red dust settles deep in my skin.
I don’t where it stops and where I begin.

“Western Wall”
Rosanne Cash

Recently I traveled from Port Macquarie to Gunnedah – the town in rural New South Wales were I was born and spent my childhood and adolescence.

Gunnedah is located in the Namoi River Valley of north-western New South Wales. It’s a hot, often dry farming area, part of the Liverpool Plains. “Gunnedah” is an Aboriginal word meaning “place of white stones” a reference to outcrops of sandstone in the area.

The area now occupied by the town was settled by Europeans in 1833. Forty years later, the Town and Country Journal described the settlement of Gunnedah as a “straggling little town” comprised of 500 “hardy souls.”

Through my maternal grandmother’s family, the Millerds, we can trace our family’s connection to Gunnedah back to the town’s earliest days. My father’s side of the family has its roots in nearby Gulgong (where we even have a couple of streets named after us: Bayly St. and Little Bayly St.) Not surprisingly, I consider this part of Australia to be my “bone country,” the place of my earthly origins; the place that has a claim on me; the place I carry in some way with me, no matter how far I roam.

Above: Conadilly St., Gunnedah’s main street, looking west toward the clock tower of Gunnedah Town Hall - Friday, January 16, 2009.

Above: A similar view of Conadilly Street in the early 1950s.

Here’s an interesting little bit of history (courtesy of the book, The Way We Were: Sesquicentenary of Gunnedah, 1856-2006 by Ron McLean:

The fledging township began to develop around Maitland Street, the thoroughfare closet to the [Namoi] river, spreading slowly along designated streets running off it at right angles. In 1864, however, the town’s destiny was drastically altered by a flood of massive proportions, with homes and businesses destroyed or badly damaged by the raging torrent. It was then that the folly of concentrating the commercial centre of the town in an area prone to extensive flooding became apparent.

The issue opened up sharp lines of debate in the community, with most business people and home-owners canvassing a move to higher ground, which brought them into conflict with George Cohen, the town’s second storekeeper, who intended “staying put.” He was supported by other business owners who had bought land at what they considered high prices on the understanding that Maitland Street would remain the business centre.

It didn’t. But the citizens of Gunnedah later honoured George Cohen by naming the town’s bridge over the Namoi River after him.

Above: The view of the commercial centre of Gunnedah from the roof of the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum - Saturday, January 17, 2009.

Above: Established in 1980, the Water Tower Museum is located in Gunnedah’s first concrete reservoir, built in 1908 atop what later became known as Anzac Hill. This original town reservoir remained in service until the 1950s when the town council built a larger reservoir next to it.

Above: Looking toward the Kelvin Hills (at left) from atop the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum - Saturday, January 17, 2009.

The Kelvin Hills are located 20km north-east of Gunnedah and are characterized by sandstone ridges and steep bluffs that rise above the surrounding farmland. Isolated from the mountain ranges to the north and east, the highest point of these ridges is 885m. The Kelvin State Forest covers much of these hills and contains a waterfall, numerous feral goats, a cave that is home to a colony of bent-wing bats, and (as you can see from the photo above) sweeping views of the surrounding forest and farmland.

In my youth, I would often go on hikes through the Kelvin State Forest - usually with our good family friend Gwen Riordan and members of her family. My last visit to the hills of Kelvin was in January 2001, when I accompanied my older brother Chris and his family to the area. (They were visiting Gunnedah from their home in Melbourne). The photo of me above was taken at this time - which was about a year or so before my parents left Gunnedah and relocated to Port Macquarie.

Above: Looking toward Pensioner’s Hill from the roof of the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum – Saturday, January 17, 2009.

Pensioner’s Hill received its name during the Great Depression of the 1930s, although destitute families had first put up their tents or “humpies” on this site during the economic depression of the 1890s.

One of the factors that encouraged “swaggies” and their families to camp on this particular hill in the 1930s was the open water reservoir (still located on the northern escarpment) which contained over 1,000,000 litres (250,000 gallons) and was built by the Railway Department in 1915.

The last residents were evicted and their dwellings demolished by the Gunnedah Municipal Council in 1977 as the dwellings were deemed “unsafe and unhygienic.”

Above: Gunnedah Town Hall, which has had a new coat of paint since last I saw it!

Located on the corner of Conadilly and Chandos Streets, the Town Hall was first built in 1900 as a single-storey structure. Over the years the building was enlarged - with a second storey being added in 1918, and a clock tower constructed (complete with a four-dial electric clock and bell) in 1937.

In The Way We Were: Sesquicentenary of Gunnedah, 1856-2006, Ron McLean notes that:

In 1942 the main hall was extensively damaged by fire, with the stage totally destroyed. A new stage was built and the interior of the building was refurbished with art deco plasterwork. The feature of the refurbishment was the first use of fluorescent lighting in a public hall in New South Wales.

. . . Gunnedah Town Hall remained the administrative centre of the Municipal Council from 1918 until December 1963 when the new administration building and council chambers were completed in Elgin Street.

Above: Gunnedah Town Hall in 1934 - three years before the addition of the building’s clock tower.

In 1956 the Gunnedah Municipal Council adopted a “civic modernization program” which saw over the course of the next few years the removal of all the verandahs in the main street. My Dad can remember how he and his friends from the Gunnedah Municipal Band helped dismantle the ornate wrought iron verandah of the Town Hall.

Above: My Mum and Dad, early in their courtship, in Gunnedah in the mid-1950s. Dad is in his band uniform.

Above: The Bayly boys: Michael (b. 1965), Tim (1967), and Chris (1963).

This portrait was one of a series taken around 1970. I would have been four or five at the time but I can still vaguely remember the photographer coming to our home in Gunnedah, setting up a backdrop in our lounge room, and taking a series of photos. My older brother was missing a front tooth, and it had to be later painted in on the photographs! As for my teeth - I look like I have a pair of little fangs!

Above: The Gunnedah Miners’ Memorial - Friday, January 16, 2009.

Erected in November 2000, the Miners’ Memorial honours the twenty miners who have died in a little more that a century of coal mining in the Gunnedah district.

Notes McLean in The Way We Were:

Mining started in the Gunnedah area in 1880 when well-sinkers found a coal stream on the Backjack frontage to Wandobah Road. First miners Barney McCosker and James Pryor sank crude pits and started mining the seams, carting by dray to the railhead in Gunnedah.

The first fatality occurred in 1897 when 23-year-old Bernard McCosker, a nephew of Barney McCosker, was killed in a fall of rock at Gunnedah Colliery.

My maternal grandmother’s first husband, Jack Louis, was killed in a mine workshop in nearby Werris Creek. The eldest of their two children, Eric (my Mum’s half-brother) was hit and killed by a coal truck while traveling to work at the Gunnedah Mine on his motor cycle. He was only in his early twenties. Both father and son are honoured on the Miners’ Memorial.

The second child of my grandmother Olive Millerd (1906-1997) and her first husband Jack Louis is my Aunty Fay (pictured above at left, and at right as a child with her brother Eric).

Olive’s second husband was
Valentine Sparkes (1891-1971). They had four children: Margaret (my Mum), Michael, Catherine (who died in infancy), and Ruth (whom I stayed with during my recent visit to Gunnedah). Ruth is pictured with Fay and I above at right. (That’s little Suzy, Ruth’s dog, that I’m holding).

Speaking of dogs, my grandmother’s brother, Jack Millerd, owned the famous Australian greyhound Chief Havoc. According to The Way We Were:

[Chief Havoc] was to the greyhound racing industry in the 1940s what the mighty Phar Lap had been to thoroughbred racing in the 1930s.

. . . The dog had 26 wins from 36 starts with five seconds and two thirds. Many of his wins were on city tracks, as the greyhound with blistering pace and an uncanny race sense carved a place in greyhound and sporting history. In one legendary solo run at Harold Park in May 1947, he broke five track records and equalled another before a crowd of 17,000.

Above: My Mum as a child in Gunnedah with her brother, Michael.

Above: My maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes, celebrating her 90th birthday in 1996 with her children (from left) Fay, Margaret, Ruth, and Michael. This photo was taken to accompany an article about Nanna Sparkes’ birthday that appeared in Gunnedah’s newspaper, the Namoi Valley Independent.

Right: With my cousin, Therese - one of four children of Fay and her recently deceased husband Bert Wicks. Of the couple’s other children, their eldest, Kevin, and youngest, Steven, live in Gunnedah.

I didn’t get a chance to see Kevin or Steven (whom I attended high school with) and their respective families when in Gunnedah last week. However, when Steven and his family were recently holidaying in Port Macquarie (four hours east of Gunnedah) they visited my parents’ home where the photo below, showing me with them, was taken.

Above: Here’s another photo from the Bayly family archives! It’s Christmas 1981 and pictured on Nanna Sparkes’ front porch are (back row from left) my Mum, Uncle Rex (Ruth’s husband, who sadly passed away in March 2006), my older brother Chris, my younger brother Tim, and my Dad. In the front row from left are Fay, her daughter Therese, and Therese’s daughter Vanessa.

Left: As well as catching up with Ruth, Fay, and Therese, I also visited Uncle Michael and Aunty Val when I was recently in Gunnedah (although the photo of me with them at left was actually taken last night during a visit of theirs to Port Macquarie).

I also visited long-time family friends John and Heather Sills (whom I last saw in September 2006), Gwen Riordan, and Peter and Delores Worthington (whose son Andrew was a good friend of mine during my school days at St. Xavier’s Primary School. (I’m pictured with Andrew’s Dad, Peter, at right.)

Above: Speaking of old school friends, one of the few that I still manage to stay in contact with is David Callaghan (pictured above with his wife Tracy). During my recent visit to Gunnedah we met and shared a few beers, memories, and laughs at the Club House Hotel.

David and I were almost in every class together through primary and high school - starting in kindergarten with Miss Hegney!

In the class photo above from 1971, I’m pictured in the second row, second from the right, while David is in the same row, fourth from right (standing next to Miss Hegney).

The colour photo at left is of me in kindergarten. I’m not sure why this was taken in colour while the class one was not!

Above: St. Mary’s boys! My high school mates (from left) Mark, David, Andrew, Anthony, Dennis, and Martin. This photo was taken during our high school’s athletic carnival in 1983.

Above: We loved nothing better than going out and exploring the hills, caves, and bushland around Gunnedah - a pastime made all the more readily available to us once we started driving. Pictured from left: Anthony, Dennis, David, Martin, and Andrew.

Above: With David and another school mate, Denise, by the Namoi River in 1983. That’s me on the right with my family’s dog, Deano. And that’s my (first) car on the left - a Ford Falcon 500. Yes, I know, I look like such a boy that it’s hard to believe that I was driving!

But I was and I did! And it would be my trusty Ford Falcon that carried me on my journey away from Gunnedah - starting in 1984 when I began my teaching training in Armidale, a city in the New England Highlands, about three hours north-east of Gunnedah. From Armidale I went to Canberra for a year (1987), before beginning teaching in Goulburn in the Southern Highlands (1988-1993).

In 1994 I relocated to the States, and that’s where I’ve lived ever since. It’s not now home, but rather
another home - as is Port Macquarie where my parents live; and as is still Gunnedah and its surrounding natural landscape, my “bone country.”

See also the 2006 Wild Reed posts:
Gunnedah (Part 1)
Gunnedah (Part 2)
Gunnedah (Part 3)
Gunnedah (Part 4)
Remembering Nanna Smith
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 1)
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 2)
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 3)
Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
One of These Boys . . .

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