IRON IN THE SOUL

The ex­tra­or­di­nary but ne­glected ar­chi­tec­ture of the Cape York town of Coen is tes­ta­ment to a time when life was harder and gen­tler, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

THEY rise up, gleam­ing in their rough, wild sym­me­try, the cor­ru­gated iron facades of Coen, each one worn and weath­ered, well-matched to its am­bi­ence of heat and dust and light: the homestead guest­house with its wide, fineworked por­tico, the In­land Mis­sion, the Ex­change Ho­tel, the old low-slung Arm­brust store. There are palaz­zos in curv­ing metal, jew­els built from hand-cut sheets of iron — mon­u­ments, all lost in the for­got­ten cap­i­tal of Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture, a lit­tle set­tle­ment at the mid­point of Cape York.

Who de­signed them? Who con­ceived them here, 500 hard kilo­me­tres up the Penin­sula De­vel­op­ment Road? And what strange stroke of fate con­signed th­ese bush trea­sures to their present near-obliv­ion: un­no­ticed, un­ap­pre­ci­ated, almost un­known?

The tale of tiny Coen, pop­u­la­tion 260 (fluc­tu­at­ing), and of its self-taught master builder Alf Col­man seems to stem from another Aus­tralia, far off in a sepia time of folk­lore, though the town­ship’s great re­con­struc­tion oc­curred within liv­ing mem­ory and its hero ar­chi­tect died a mere 34 years ago.

On the sur­face, it is a dreamy-seem­ing, ex­otic place. It even has an ex­otic ring to it. The name Coen ap­pears for the first time on Dutch charts of the new-found south­ern land in the mid 1620s, be­stowed, in hon­our of the fear­some gov­er­nor of the East Indies, on a slug­gish river es­tu­ary up the coast­line of the Gulf. Not, though, the same river that runs through mod­ern Coen — the maps and their read­ers in those first days of set­tle­ment were im­pre­cise.

To­day’s Coen has its ori­gins in the gold rush 1870s. It was a ram­shackle des­ti­na­tion in its first decades, home to Chi­nese dig­gers from May­town and Palmerville, to drifters and swag­men, to san­dal­wood grow­ers and strug­gling cat­tle kings. There was a scat­ter of houses and a tele­graph post, a colony of fly­ing foxes and an an­cient bougainvil­lea tree. There was a road out, or at least a pair of wheel-track lines carved in the dust. There were kites soar­ing in the sky and ma­jes­tic ranges all around. Hard scrub coun­try, sur­rounded by four Abo­rig­i­nal clan es­tates: the north­most set­tle­ment in all Cape York.

To this re­mote out­post, in 1942, came a tall, rail-thin jack of all trades, Alf Col­man, born in Cook­town but raised in the bush at Mount Fin­ni­gan, where his par­ents worked a tin mine on and off. He was a painter, a plumber, a builder, a car­pen­ter. He was good with his hands — you had to be in the north back then — but more than this he had a fine eye and an in­ven­tive mind. He loved mak­ing things: mod­els, gad­gets, de­vices of all kinds.

He had mar­ried a young woman from one of the great pi­o­neer fam­i­lies of the Cape, Ann Gostelow, and they had a son. Alf needed work and there were prospects up the track: re­pairs to be done at the old Coen post of­fice. Midyear he pushed his bi­cy­cle from Laura up to Vi­o­let Vale, across 160km of heavy sand. Then the pas­toral­ist Fred Kep­pell asked him if he could build a new bush house on Meri­pah sta­tion, amid the mess­mate trees. The lit­tle fam­ily came up: the di­ary-mem­oir Ann Col­man wrote by hand in a neat school ex­er­cise book records her first im­pres­sions of this new world. It seemed dis­tinctly un­promis­ing: rusted fence wire coiled here and there, a wilder­ness of eu­ca­lypts.

“I’ll be glad when I walk out of this place,” she wrote. That coun­try would be her home en­vi­ron­ment for decades to come. Alf cut the bush tim­ber for the new house on the spot, and han­dadzed it all: tall cy­press pine logs for the posts, the rafters and the bat­tens. There was a trol­ley to drag them and a horse to pull the load.

He was well un­der way when malaria struck. The ringers at Meri­pah had to craft a home­made stretcher to get him out. Mau­rice Shep­hard drove up from Coen in a weapons-car­rier and rushed Alf back into town. A Chi­nese doc­tor trav­el­ling north with the army was on hand with a bot­tle of qui­nine mix­ture: it saved Alf’s life. After weeks in the bal­ance, he came good, he was on the mend. Soon there was a new task for him: to build a cof­fin “for a chap who died after fall­ing from a truck”.

Was there any­thing in Coen apart from dis­ease and death? On the night of De­cem­ber 16, 1943, a trop­i­cal cy­clone passed just south of the town­ship and smashed its shacks and build­ings to shreds. There was rain, thun­der and light­ning all night long: the roof blew clean off the ho­tel; the tele­graph poles were all bent over and their arms buried in the ground. When morn­ing came the Col­mans crawled out from their shel­ter un­der the long, heavy ta­ble in the Ex­change’s din­ing room. They saw dev­as­ta­tion: the trees had been stripped of their leaves and branches, the hills were bare.

The cy­clone carved its way on across the Cape into the Gulf. Re­con­struc­tion be­gan at once. For Alf, this was the great op­por­tu­nity to shine. He was the lone builder in town. He set to work and re­built the iron roof of the ho­tel, then re­stored the rest with tim­ber from the wreck­age of the school. He built the store back from its ru­ins, and the butcher’s shop, the post of­fice and sev­eral homes — and all th­ese struc­tures had a dis­tinc­tive id­iom from the start. Over time he re­turned to them re­peat­edly and em­bel­lished them un­til they be­came fin­ished, finely de­tailed com­po­si­tions in wood and iron. The work re­dou­bled.

In the post­war years Alf be­came the un­of­fi­cial ar­chi­tect for all the sta­tions of the cen­tral Cape. Once he fin­ished his work at Meri­pah, he be­gan on Strathburn sta­tion house: its ce­ment floor was hand-mixed by shovel on a

A house built by Alf Col­man in Coen, left (the older child out­side is his son Colin); the Arm­brust store in Coen; Alf Col­man, bot­tom left

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