GUNDAGAI – A TRACK WINDING BACK
31st Jul 2011
There’s a track winding back
To an old-fashioned shack
Along the road to Gundagai –
Where the blue gums are growing
And the Murrumbidgee’s flowing
Beneath that sunny sky –
Where my daddy and mother
Are waiting for me
And the pals of my childhood
Once more I will see.
Then no more will I roam,
When I’m heading right for home
Along the road to Gundagai.
(Jack O’Hagan – 1922)
You can see Captain Moonlite’s grave in the Gundagai cemetery from the graves belonging to my father and mother. You can also see it from the grave and memorial to Senior Constable Webb-Bowen, the policeman shot and killed by Moonlite. Before Moonlite was hanged, he requested that he be buried in Gundagai near his friends, James Nesbitt and Augustus Wernicke, who had died in the shootout with the police. This request was denied for 115 years.
Captain Moonlite was born Andrew George Scott and he preferred the spelling of his ‘stage’ name to be ‘Moonlite’, because he had lived in America for some time and thought ‘lite’ was a lot classier than ‘light’. Some beer companies have had a similar thought. Scott was also an Anglican parson in Victoria before the lure of gold rushed to his head.
Gundagai was a thriving, bustling place during the gold era and has been celebrated in verse and song. It was the halfway stop for Cobb and Co coaches travelling between Sydney and Melbourne and that alone was an attraction for bushrangers. Many of the town’s streets are named after poets (Sheridan, Byron, Shakespeare) and today it is a sleepy country town, home to some 2000 people, which has been bypassed by an expressway.
The Dog on the Tuckerbox still sits five miles (9km) north of the town. Frank Rusconi sculptured the famous Dog but cemetery headstones were his bread and butter. His crowning glory is his Marble Masterpiece in town at the Information Centre in Sheridan Street, just across the road from the weatherboard house I grew up in until the age of eight.
My father, Harold Heydon, was the Gundagai Shire Clerk from 1942 to his death in 1970. He was one of the youngest to hold the office of Shire Clerk and while I am a committed republican, I look on his decorations and Royal correspondence from Buckingham Palace with some pride and nostalgia. Dad was an intelligent, gentle man with an infectious laugh. He was very much part of the community being actively involved in Rotary, the Presbyterian Church, the Ambulance Association, the P & C and the building of Australia’s first Travelodge motel.
His funeral was the first I had attended. I was fifteen.
More than 600 people filled the street outside tiny St David’s church and a police escort led the hearse to his final resting place. There were many tributes, one came from a former Shire President, Bol Stribley:
“Harold excelled most of us because he was a gentleman – in these days a rarity. No individual possessed higher principles or ideals. He instigated and organised many notable events, and I recall two, the winning of the Bluett Award and the formation of the Tumut River County Council. But to those of whom he touched along the way, we will always be able to say with justifiable pride, we knew him and there indeed was a man.”
I wore my school uniform to the funeral and at the time thought about the school motto – Utinam Patribus Nostris Digni Simus – “May We Be Worthy off Our Forefathers”.
I have tried but there’s a bit more work to do.
My mother never ‘worked’ but was a devoted wife and mother. She was always busy, bottling fruit, baking sponge cakes, attending church street stalls or pouring boiling water on any snake that ventured too close to the house.
I learnt to swim in the Murrumbidgee River, collected mushrooms in an old, tin billy, dangled a piece of cotton and rancid meat for yabbies, reeled in the occasional trout and shot and skinned rabbits.
It’s what rural kids did in the 1960s.
We rode pushbikes to school, ate hamburgers with beetroot, drank milkshakes from metal containers and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at airbrushed Man magazines that someone had knocked off from their father.
On Saturday nights we’d go to the pictures, share an underage bottle of Brown Muscat and sober up over a Coke and a chat in the Niagara café before heading home around midnight to a house that was never locked.
One of my fondest memories of growing up in Gundagai has the earthy smell of a flowing river and the sound of a sinker breaking the surface – ‘plonk’ – just sitting, fishing for redfin with Kevin McAlister at Johnson’s corner, where the Murrimbidgee River does a left hand turn and heads towards the Murray.
Gundagai by the way, in Aboriginal, means “cut in the back of the knee with a tomahawk” because of that bend in the river. The Sheahan Bridge wasn’t there when we were kids.
On my last visit to Gundagai, in 2002, our kids picked wildflowers for their grandparents’ graves and we wandered the cemetery for a while, with me remembering the living faces of others buried there and the children picking up a bit of history.
We walked down the dry, grassy slope to the graves of Webb-Bowen and Moonlight and I told them of how the original town was flooded in 1852. The death toll of 89 would have been far greater but for the bravery and stamina of local full-blood Aboriginal, Yarri, who tirelessly fought the raging current in his frail dugout canoe. Yarri plucked 49 people from the waters and the rooftops and paddled them to safety.
The Gundagai Times of June 29, 1879 reported that “A gentleman, who passed through South Gundagai on Monday, complains that he saw some individuals whom, he supposes, would expect to be considered men, maltreating and teasing an unfortunate blackfellow, whom he subsequently ascertained was ‘Old Yarri’.”
Yarri was originally buried in that cemetery, too. In an unmarked grave.
We dropped into the Niagara café for lunch. Vic and Jack Castrission owned the Niagara from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. In the early days it was hailed as “one of the finest cafes in the country” and, following the opening ceremony by the Hon W.F.M. Ross MLA in 1938, the brothers donated the day’s gross takings to the Gundagai Hospital. That’s Vic on the left…
In 1942, just after midnight, Jack was locking up when there was a knock at the door. He opened it, prepared to tell an unwelcome visitor where to go, to discover Prime Minister John Curtin. Curtin tipped his hat and said he had a couple of mates in the car and they were all hungry and freezing. The ‘mates’ were future Country Party leader, Artie Fadden, and future Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Vic cooked them steak and eggs and they ate around the warmth of the kitchen stove.
“How’s the war affecting you?” Curtin asked.
“Our ration of tea (28lbs a month) runs out real quick,” Vic replied.
For the rest of the war the Niagara received 100lbs of tea and the Prime Minister always dropped in for a cuppa when he was passing through. In those days there was a big difference between corruption and repaying a favour.
On that last visit in 2002, the Niagara hadn’t changed that much (it is Heritage listed). I remember the date, January 5, because we were sitting in a booth, having a burger and a milkshake, when a Greek Orthodox priest in his robes emerged from the kitchen, splashing holy water about. It was the day before Epiphany. I got talking with the new owner, Nick – well, he was ‘new’ to me, even though he’d taken over from the Castrissions 19 years before. We chatted about Greece, about Gundagai and about racehorses. I asked about the Castrissions. He stroked his unshaven face, shook his head and told me that the last remaining brother, Vic, had died at 10:00am that morning in the Gundagai hospital.
I’m so glad we took time to stop.
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