20/08/17 After a night at the Futter Creek camp, we headed west through lush cattle country that is undoubtedly the reason nearby Rockhampton promotes itself as the Beef Capital of Australia. The cattle we saw were glowing with condition – the fats were very fat and the bulls very bully. Our intended campsite at Biloela and another further north at Goovigen were both bypassed as we’d been making good time and chose to go on to Mount Morgan for a couple of days pursuing family history links.
I was last in Mount Morgan as a seven year old holidaying with my family, and for that short time my elder brother and I were enrolled at Calliungal North State School where our maternal grandfather, Connor Connell, was the principal and sole teacher from 1950 until his retirement in 1965. My memories of that time are very patchy – Grandad circulating around the single classroom as he taught each of the year level groups; sitting with the other students on bench form seats in a vaulted-roofed music room singing “A Scottish Soldier” with Grandma playing the piano and occasionally emphasizing with her hand the metre of the song; the musty smell of wooden school desks, chalk dust and wet writing slates; constructing meccano contraptions on the front veranda of the school residence that seemed the size of an aircraft carrier deck; collecting eggs each day from the wire and corrugated tin chook yard out the back – so I was looking forward to seeing if the buildings still existed and if they evoked any additional childhood memories of that time.
On the outskirts of town, after asking a local for directions to the old school, we very soon pulled up at an old school building now functioning as a private residence. We introduced ourselves to the very elderly owner who was more than happy to chat and recount stories about the building and school days. After an hour or so, I remarked that the school residence didn’t seem at all familiar, so my grandfather may have lived elsewhere away from the school. I said he’d been listed on a number of census returns for that time as living in Baree – to which she responded that Baree was the next community just out of town. “Well then, I guess he must have lived away from the Calliungal North State School to have that address on the census returns.” “This wasn’t Calliungal North State School,” she said, “This was the old Walterhall State School. Calliungal North is further out of town at Baree.”
We had a good laugh, realising that for the past hour we’d each been speaking about totally different schools and still making good sense of it all. Regardless, she was a lovely lady and the chat had been a very enjoyable reminiscence of those times. Now following her directions, Di and I headed off to hopefully locate the correct school. A wrong turn on the way and we pulled over once again to ask directions from a chap standing in his front yard.
“G’day. I’m looking for the old Calliungal North State School. Would you know where it might be?”
“I should. I did my primary schooling there.”
“My grandfather was principal there for fifteen years,” I said. When I mentioned my grandfather’s name, he said “Old Pop Connell! Yes, he taught me the whole time from Grades 1 to 6. Great teacher and great bloke!” After introductions, Keith asked us inside his home and we chatted for an hour or so, with him digging out old photos and ringing his sister a few doors up the road to see if she might have any others that included my grandparents. He also asked after a couple of my uncles who were at school with him in those days. Lovely guy. Keith promised to have a look for more photos and we met up with him again the following day. What’re the odds of a person you meet quite by chance knowing your grandfather and some of your uncles really well! Small world. But then again, Baree is a very small place. Keith had been born and raised in the small weatherboard cottage that he still lived in.
Once again, and now following Keith’s directions, we went off to find the school; this time with success. There it was perched on top of “that bloody hill” that the kids trudged up and down each school day. Tooting the car horn at the rather large guard dog sign on the front gate, Di and I introduced ourselves to the owners, explaining why we were there. They very graciously allowed us a tour of the building that had opened as a school in 1904, closed at the end of 1971, and was now a family home.
Keith had confirmed that my patchy recollections of the internal layout were pretty accurate. But the original internal timber walls had been removed some time ago and the arrangement of rooms considerably altered. The impressive old building has undergone a number of transformations in the almost half century since it ceased being a school, including conversion into flats and for a few years as home to a rather dubious and secretive religious cult till that faded away. The exterior, though, has remained very much as it had always been, aside from the addition of a few windows when a false ceiling was installed inside.
Through renovation gaps, we caught glimpses of the glorious original vaulted ceilings of tongue and groove timber and the original double-height windows now lighting the unused void above the false ceiling. I could see why, with such raking ceilings and windows, I‘d remembered the classroom being like a cathedral; a high lofty space. Thankfully the current owners wish to retain as much of the authenticity of the building as possible as they continue to renovate it into their home.
They took us next door to the old principal’s residence and introduced us to that owner, who was pleased to show us through and relate what she knew of the buildings past. We had a very pleasant chat with both owners about the history of their buildings and the area, and most especially with Keith, the past student, who shared several warm memories of my grandparents.
In all, we spent six days in Mount Morgan. The town’s past, present and future focusses very much on the gold mine that in its day was the richest in the world. It’s been closed now since 1990. The locals hint at the possibility of rejuvenation due to modern techniques for extracting gold from the old tailings, but they seem unconvinced much will happen soon. With very little other industry in town to support the community, the general downturn was evident. It’s a great shame that the once wealthy, vibrant and historic mining town now appears to be in its twilight years.
“Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.” – Wallace Stegner