Then and Now
Cotton, cattle and enterprising migrants have helped make Biloela the town it is today, writes Chris Ryan.
Looking at the old ways and new face of Biloela
LIFE WAS hard and unfamiliar for the first cotton farmers in central Queensland’s Callide Valley. It was the 1920s and the migrants – many from Eastern Europe – tilled fields around Biloela, 120 kilometres south-west of Gladstone in the Banana Shire. They lived in a largely undeveloped area – building houses made of iron sheets atop hard dirt floors and sweltering through long, hot summers.
In March 1934, The Courier-Mail reported: “Among the cotton growers of the Biloela district are a former general of the Ural Cossacks who fought in the Great War and a Russian Orthodox priest.” By this time, Biloela’s Greek community had grown large enough to warrant a flying visit from Orthodox archbishop Timotheos Evangelinidis, who christened children and gave a lecture while there.
“Migrants have earned themselves a wonderful place in our history,” says Rosemary Munroe, executive director of Biloela Enterprise. Munroe is impressed by the way new Burmese refugees have become a part of the community in recent years. “We were thrilled to bits when we saw young couples come here, have babies and send their little kids to school.”
The new arrivals have found a different town to the one in which a Cossack general scratched out a livelihood. While cotton is still important, wheat, sorghum and a range of herbs and spices are being grown. The cattle industry is thriving and the Callide Mine and Callide Power Station also provide steady employment. Settlers moving into Biloela in the 1930s, when cotton production peaked (above)
Richard Tan has witnessed much of the town’s growth. The doctor moved to Biloela with his wife in 1968 and has since delivered some 3000 brand-new residents. “When we first came here,” he recalls, “there was still a DC-3 doing the mail run from Brisbane.”
Tan has also had a hand in developing some small-scale rural enterprises that speak to the breadth of industry in “Bilo”. He breeds squab pigeons for restaurants and black-skinned Silkie chickens for the Chinese medicine market. He also raises Lowline cattle and is rebuilding an aquaculture venture destroyed by Cyclone Marcia in 2015.
Today, the town is hoping to welcome more newcomers with its Sandstone Wonders tourist campaign. The title is inspired by the majestic natural landscape of the region, which can be experienced on a four-wheel drive trip through nearby Kroombit Tops National Park. From the 800-metre-high plateau, you can look out across gorges carved over millennia – or back towards the Valentine Plains, where you’ll see a patchwork of land developed by generations of migrant farmers.