Freddie’s rich memories
The pioneer families of the Douglas Shire certainly put in enormous effort to advance the area and the Bell family is no exception.
Coming to this district from the Atherton Tablelands in the late 1920s, Frederick Bell Snr and his wife Alma (nee Eastment) established a sawmill at the top of the Old Mowbray Bump Track.
He was responding to a call from the Mossman Sugar Mill for railway sleepers for the cane train tracks that were spreading out over the district.
Once the contract concluded, the Bell family, which now included their first daughter, Aileen, moved to Saltwater Creek where they built another sawmill.
“The sawmill business went big, very big,” Freddie said, “with a 40ft (12m) high chimney stack.
“At its peak, the mill employed seven men with others out in the scrub felling trees.”
By late 1930, the Bell family increased by one with the arrival of Freddie Jnr and he can remember the sounds and the smells of the mill.
“Just before the mill closed due to the Depression, my family, the mill workers and the Cowes family decided to get into two boats and spend the weekend at Snapper Island.
“There were 14 of us and three miles from Snapper, the big boat broke down so the smaller boat towed it to the island and by the morning the sea had come up so we couldn’t get back.
“Of course there were no means of communication, so we ended up marooned for two weeks out there.
“We only had food for one dinner and one breakfast, so luckily the man who had spent time on the island had planted some food crops and we lived on bananas, sweet potatoes and pawpaws.
“It was a long time before I could look at another sweet potato,” Freddie said.
“A cargo boat that travelled between Cairns and Cooktown came by and we managed to get their attention.
“When my sister Aileen returned to school, the teacher didn’t believe her story of being marooned and she got ‘the cuts’ and when my mother heard about this we were both taken out of the Miallo School.”
When World War II started and Freddie remembers how frightened he was as a young man in his early teens when an enemy plane flew low over their house and shortly afterwards they heard a loud explosion.
“The bomb landed near a neighbour’s chook shed, it sheared off the cane, killed the chooks and a piece of shrapnel went through the neighbour’s wall and grazed their toddler’s forehead.
“The most exciting one was when the American bomber got lost – thought Snapper Island was Double Island and whilst looking for the Cairns landing strip, ran out of fuel and ditched in the water just off Bells Reef.
“Peggy Powell who lived with her family at Rocky Point saw it come down.
“The old man got his ‘flatty’ (a flat bottomed boat) to try to find the crew and in the meantime Peggy rode her bike to our place because we had a telephone.
“She rang the police and we all went up to the beach, just where the Wonga Park is now and we saw some flares go up.
“The American crew had arrived safely to shore in a very well equipped rubber life raft.
“Soon the police turned up and although the crew were very happy to jump in our Ford lorry to be taken back to Mossman, the police insisted they accompany them in their boat.
“The Americans were great though and left the raft for the kids to play with.”
Freddie recalls his years in the Shire with enormous fondness.
“I didn’t get into sport – I was too busy fishing,” he said.
“My father was going to throw me a 21st birthday party but I said ‘instead, could you build me a boat?’
“He and I built an 18 foot carvel boat, ‘Wonga Bell’ and a few mates and I would go away, camp on beaches and have a great time fishing.
Freddie admits to having several close calls with crocodiles, particularly when gathering prawns.
“In the mid ’40s we bought a coconut farm and cleared some land in what is now known as Old Wonga.
“I took over the farm in 1959, subdivided the land along the esplanade into 43 blocks, sold all the land and went to work on farms around the area.
“In the late ’80s I started at the Council doing maintenance and eventually worked slashing roadsides and vacant blocks from Hartley Road to Cape Tribulation.
“I loved it – I got to see all the nooks and crannies of the Shire,” he said, “and I retired in 1997 – a bit after retirement age but I liked the job so much.”
Freddie now enjoys his retirement, spending time in his unit at North Mossman and involving himself in the local Seniors Club.
His family are among those who advanced the shire, including in the dark days of the Depression. Now North Mossman resident Freddie Bell takes a walk through the past with Moya Stevens
Freddie Bell enjoying his North Mossman garden. Inset: the Saltwater timber mill in the mid 1930s