LOOK­ING BACK: SYLVIA PRIOR

Some­times we for­get how many na­tion­al­i­ties were rep­re­sented by the early white set­tlers of the Dain­tree River area. Syvia Prior speaks with Pam Wil­lis Bur­den

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

Sylvia Prior’s grand­fa­ther and great un­cle, Henry and Frank Fis­cher, came from Ger­many, and orig­i­nally their names were Carl Hein­rich and Franz. They ar­rived in Aus­tralia in 1879 and were nat­u­ralised in 1880, pre­sum­ably then adopt­ing their English-sound­ing first names. Henry was also known as Harry.

They headed for the rich min­eral fields on the Tate River near Her­ber­ton and about 1881 bought the claim where tin had been first dis­cov­ered. They called it The Tate Prospect­ing Claim. As more min­ers ar­rived, Sylvia tells how they opened a store and ran pack­horses over the Bump Track to Port Dou­glas, car­ry­ing the pre­cious tin to the port and bring­ing food back to the area which be­came known as Fis­cher­ton.

Mean­while, as the al­lu­vial tin field could only be op­er­ated in the wet sea­son be­cause of short­age of wa­ter, they also se­lected land on the up­per reaches of the Dain­tree River.

Henry’s block of 445 acres was regis­tered in 1882 and Frank’s early in 1883, al­though they were prob­a­bly claimed ear­lier, but reg­is­tra­tion had to wait for an of­fi­cial sur­veyor to come to the dis­trict.

Back in 1873 Ge­orge Dal­rym­ple headed an ex­pe­di­tion along the Dain­tree coast and named the Heights of Alexan­dra and the 4500ft moun­tain be­hind it Thorn­ton Peak af­ter his friend Wil­liam Thorn­ton, Col­lec­tor of Cus­toms in Bris­bane.

The Cairns Post said Henry’s house, com­pleted in 1887, had mag­nif­i­cent views over the river flats from the ve­ran­dah. He named his prop­erty Alexan­dra View and in­creased his hold­ing to 1200 acres by buy­ing out other set­tlers who could wait no longer for a sugar mill to be built.

In Jan­uary 1888, he brought his new bride Roseann Reynolds home to the new house from Cook­town. They even­tu­ally had six chil­dren.

On our re­cent trip to Dain­tree, Sylvia pointed out where Henry and Frank grew cof­fee on the ter­raced hill­sides and put it through a grinder be­fore sell­ing it in Port Dou­glas. They also grew trop­i­cal fruits and veg­eta­bles.

In 1888 the Fis­cher broth­ers drove 100 dairy cows north from Bowen to the farm, but the abo­rig­i­nals cut the ham­strings of some, killed oth­ers and the rest scat­tered.

So life was tough for these pi­o­neer set­tlers. Henry and Roseann lost their 3 year-old son Henry Les­lie, her mother Brid­get and her 13 year old sis­ter Marie in the mas­sive 1895 flood­ing of the River.

The Doyle fam­ily, present own­ers of Alexan­dra View, have erected a mod­est plaque to mark their graves, to­gether with sev­eral oth­ers who drowned nearby over time.

Fam­ily his­tory says that Roseann’s hair went white al­most overnight af­ter this dis­as­ter.

Sylvia and her hus­band Laurie lived at Alexan­dra View for 50 years, run­ning beef cat­tle on the river flats. Sylvia still loves care­tak­ing prop­er­ties and work­ing with cat­tle, and vis­it­ing her son Lawrence’s beef sta­tion near Ge­orge­town.

It must be a fam­ily trait be­cause her father Frank and Un­cle Louis, sons of Henry, were also pas­sion­ate about cat­tle and bred a new strain that suited the trop­i­cal cli­mate. The prog­eny were a mix of Brah­man (also known as Zebu) and short­horn and short-haired cat­tle who were tick re­sis­tant, which was wel­come af­ter many herds had been wiped out in the tick plagues of 1896 and later.

Sylvia says she and brother Harry were home-schooled with lessons from the Pri­mary Cor­re­spon­dence School in Bris­bane “un­til we were big enough to catch and sad­dle a horse”, then she rode for one hour to Dain­tree School. Al­though she was left-handed, she was made to use her right hand as was com­mon then, but she pre­ferred “to go out work­ing with Dad, be­cause I liked the out­doors and cat­tle”.

As kids when the river was flood­ing, they’d take boats to get float­ing logs for use as fuel in the stove. Once young Harry chopped the top off his thumb and Mum Marie just stuck it back on and wrapped it up tightly. There were no mo­tor ve­hi­cles and no phones to call for help then.

They ate a lot of meat be­cause dad Frank owned the butcher’s in Dain­tree Vil­lage and had a slaugh­ter yard on the farm. Chicken was a treat, but fish were plen­ti­ful un­til the 1960s-70s when a dis­ease called Fin Rot killed most of the fish on the up­per Dain­tree.

Christmas was spe­cial and Sylvia re­mem­bers how ex­cit­ing it was to or­der many bot­tles of dif­fer­ent flavoured soft drink as a treat. Hams were cooked in the same cop­per that boiled their clothes on wash day – af­ter a mas­sive scrub out.

Ducks and a tur­key were spe­cially bought and slaugh­tered on Christmas Eve. And weeks be­fore, Mum Marie made large rag plum pud­dings with three­penny bits inside and hung them some­where cool. She was well known for her very strong rum sauce.

In the 1950s, Sylvia helped to drove cat­tle from the barge We­wak that un­loaded at the Dain­tree Heads. She rode her horse with her baby daugh­ter ‘on the pum­mel’ and walked the cat­tle along the beach to Wonga, then up the main road to Os­borne’s dairy yards where they camped overnight be­fore head­ing for home.

Al­though Sylvia had four chil­dren, Mar­i­anne, Lawrence, Mavis and Jim, and 11 grand­chil­dren, the Fis­cher line has fin­ished be­cause brother Harry and Un­cle Louis didn’t have chil­dren. But many indige­nous who worked on Frank’s and Louis’s farms have taken their sur­name, as have oth­ers who worked with var­i­ous Dain­tree fam­i­lies.

Sylvia pointed out where Henry and Frank grew cof­fee on the hill­sides and put it through a grinder be­fore sell­ing it in Port Dou­glas

Pic­ture: PAM WIL­LIS BUR­DEN

Sylvia Prior to­day (above) and in her youth

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