January 2000. Blazing heat and a bright blue sky. Oak Street was still strung with Christmas lights, but nothing much was happening in Barcaldine. The tourist season had not yet begun.
You forget, on the Coast, what it is like to drive in the West: on-coming drivers lift a finger off the wheel in laconic greeting, emus and kangaroos lurk in the roadside scrub; trees in the paddocks are levelled off along the bottom where sheep and cattle have reached up to pull at the leaves.
Con and I had driven two days from Brisbane and arrived on what would have been my mother’s eightieth birthday. She was born here in Barcie. The town is important in my family history. I’d driven through in previous years, but now I wanted to spend a bit more time here.
That Sunday evening, we asked the motel manager where we could eat.
“The pub,” she said. “Or the servo.”
In the Central West, Barcaldine, population eleven hundred, is a classic country town, a flat grid of streets with a row of pubs looking out across the railway line: Globe, Commercial, Shakespeare, Artesian, Railway, and Union Hotels. The streets are named after trees. Barcaldine was the first town to provide town water from an artesian bore, and it still calls itself the Garden City of the West.
This is an important town on the tourist route, situated on the junction of the Capricorn and Landsborough Highways. Barcaldine is also important in the history of politics and industrial relations in Australia. Troops were based here during the great shearers’ strike of 1891, and this was where Australian soldiers first wore emu feathers on their slouch hats.
Meetings of the striking shearers famously took place outside the railway station, under an old eucalyptus tree, a ghost gum, that came to be known as the Tree of Knowledge. By 2000 the tree was showing its age.
Six years after our visit, causing distress locally and nationally, the Tree of Knowledge was poisoned.
If anyone knows who the poisoner was, they’re not telling.
Then, in 2009, the astonishing Tree of Knowledge Memorial was opened on the site where the old tree had stood, outside the station, across the road from the Artesian Hotel. Built with Commonwealth funds, the Memorial consists of a high cube of timber, startling in that flat country with its traditional roof-lines. Inside, above the dead trunk and branches, old railway sleepers hang suspended, outlining a ghostly image of flourishing foliage. At night the tree is lit up in green, a moving and spectacular sight.
Eucalypts propagated from the old Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine are flourishing next to the State Library of Queensland, in Brisbane. Don’t tell the poisoner from Barcie that they’re there.
Back in 2000, a publican gave me a local perspective on the political significance of Barcaldine’s hotels.
“The Shakespeare was the pub for the squatters, and the Globe was the workers’ pub. During the Shearers’ Strike there were heated meetings on both sides. They say the Australian Workers Party, later to become the Labor party, grew out of a meeting at the back of the Globe, and the Country Party began in the lounge of the Shakespeare.”
Six hotels are a lot for a small town to support. By 2011 the Globe was up for sale, possibly to be demolished. Huge old timber hotels with deep verandahs are the architectural treasures of Queensland country towns. So many of them have been lost through fire; I was sad to think that such a building, with so much history, could be pulled down.
I paid another visit to Barcie in 2015, with my cousin Nadine, searching for family history. To my delight, I discovered that the Globe has been preserved. It was bought by the local Council, and the designers of the Tree of Knowledge Memorial were commissioned to renovate it. It now stands in its original form, preserved and enclosed by elegant metal screening. What used to be the bar is now the Information Centre. Upstairs is an art gallery.
During our 2000 visit, Con and I saw in the bar of the original Globe some large Hugh Sawrey paintings, based on Banjo Paterson poems. Con, loving horse racing as he does, especially liked “Old Pardon, the son of Reprieve”.
In 2015, over dinner in the motel restaurant, Nadine and I talked to the waitress about our family history trip, and I mentioned the spectacular preservation job on the Globe.
“My husband and I used to own the Globe,” she says. “We sold it to the Council.”
“What happened to the Hugh Sawrey paintings? Did the Council buy them, too? Will they go into the new art gallery?”
“We’ve got them packed away. Still deciding what to do with them.”
I hope those paintings make it back to the Globe.