The life on Ashley Downs
Among the pioneers of the cattle industry in the Daintree, Sue Dennis’s family life on the land was about bloodlines. She talks with Pam Willis-Burden of those early days and what came after.
Growing up on a Daintree property, Sue Dennis developed a passion for cattle bloodlines and has maintained breeding records dating from 1950. She has 4000 photos of various breeds of cattle, many of which originated here and have survived well in the torrid climate of the tropics.
The most successful local cattle are Brahmans with a hump, originally bred by Maurice de Tournouer at Wetherby in Julatten, and Droughtmasters, a mix of Brahman (also known as Zebu) and British shorthorn, which were first bred locally by Louis Fischer.
Droughtmasters are mainly polled, or hornless, cattle and feature a sleek red coat, tick resistance, a quiet nature and good beef qualities.
Other breeds tried were a Brahman Angus cross producing a black beast called Brangus, and Brafords, a Hereford cross resulting in red cattle with white faces.
Sue’s grandfather, Edmund George Eli Harlow, known as Pa or Ted Senior, came to Daintree in 1927. His 20-yearold wife Isobel, and Sue’s father Ted who was two, followed.
Pa named the property Ashley Downs after the family’s home in England.
Sue’s father and his three brothers attended Twyford school near Harlow’s Bridge, but when it closed, he rode his horse to Daintree School, before going to Marist Brothers in Cairns.
He came home as a 15-yearold when Pa enlisted in the army for WWII.
He had a special licence to drive because he was so young, and the family’s dairy farm continued to operate, milking twice a day and taking cream to the butter factory.
In 1951 Ted Jnr married Margaret, and his brother Stan (Mick) married her sister Mary in 1963. Continuing the tradition, their daughters Joy and Sue married brothers Ray and Barry Dennis.
Margaret ran the telephone exchange on the verandah of Ashley Downs. Sue recalls watching sparks from lightning dance along the wires leading into the house, causing the phone to ring and the shutters to fall down.
She remembers her father and Ian Osborne making the last butter at the Daintree Butter Factory on 27 October 1960. The Factory had been set up in 1924 by Lucas Hughes. Sue watched from the Daintree School as Vic Tonkin transported the dismantled building away to Cairns for scrap.
Sue didn’t enjoy school much but remembers there were many pupils and only two teachers. Grades 1 to 3 were in one room, and Grades 4 to 7 in the other. When the Daintree Mission closed, the school population shrank.
At home, electricity was generated by a small engine, as long as someone could start it if dad was not home.
Electricity came to Daintree in 1966. Sue missed chopping the wood for the old fuel stove which also heated water for the bath.
Ashley Downs, five miles up Stewarts Creek valley, was originally a 225 acre block of standing scrub, of which 175 acres was gradually cleared for pasture. The most recent large flood in 1996 covered all of the lower country from one side of the valley to the other.
Other floods came in 1937, 1940, 1957, 1974, and 1979 when they lost 30 head of cattle and an expensive poll Santa Gertrudis bull.
In the severe cyclone of 1934, a branch flew through the window, hitting Ma in the chest. She’d just finished feeding six week old Mick, later known as Stan. The roof blew off and the house was full of leaves. Dad was 8, Bob was 4, and Ken was 2.
After finishing school in Charters Towers, Sue worked on Tom Booth’s property Glenray next to Ashley Downs, which ran about 100 breeders of Droughtmaster cattle. She remembers Tom as a knowledgeable man who worked with Arthur Zillfleisch to build the National Bank, now home to DAB in Mossman, and most houses and shops in Daintree.
In 1980 Sue and Barry’s son Darran was born in Mossman Hospital, as were Sue and her three sisters Joy, Tricia and Kate. Sue thinks Mossman is too spread out now. Years ago, all the stores and services were close to Jack & Newells, now the hardware shop.
Normie Downs’ pie shop was legendary across the road from the picture show, and there was a loco on display near the present library. When she came to town with Ma and Pa, for a treat they’d buy her a milk shake from the shop where the tyre service is now, and a pie.
After Ashley Downs was sold in 2004, Sue rediscovered her talent for drawing and painting animals, and joined DAB, which she still attends. And she still maintains her interest in cattle, and family history.
Sue Dennis today, and, inset, with one of her favourites, Banjo