Passion that still blooms
As one who loves the Mossman community and its history, 75-year-old Billie Noli sat down with to reflect on her life.
Talking about the past brings a sparkle to Billie Noli’s eyes so it was with great detail she explained how her father arrived in Mossman.
“There were no roads to Mossman back in the 40s so my father, William Reese, arrived by boat at the wharf in Port Douglas then got on his motorcycle and followed the train line into Mossman,” Billie explained.
William came to Mossman to start the first accountancy office, having done his training in Cairns and working for the US Army in Herberton, where Billie was born.
Billie, who was christened Alvina Ruth but her father registered her birth with the name Billie, went to school in Mossman until she finished Year 10.
She recalls how her family home had a wooden stove and a kerosene fridge.
“My mother used to say that we had to keep an eye on the pilot flame on the fridge in case it went out,” Billie said.
“If I got up in the middle of the night, I would always check.”
“I was always worried about getting into trouble as I was always doodling on my homework – I just loved drawing,” she said.
“My mother was adamant that I complete my Senior Certificate (Year 12) so I went to board in Toowoomba,” Billie said. “I have been determined ever since never to live in a cold climate again.”
Billie said that she thought of going to art or teachers’ college but returned to Mossman and got an office job working for the butchery, bakery and ice works.
“My father said that I couldn’t make a living from going to art school,” she said.
The Mossman community was “very, very close” according to Billie.
The Reece family socialised with cane farmers, most of whom were Italians, while the young people were very involved with Junior Farmers.
“There was always something on at the shire hall on Saturday nights whether it was a dance, debutant ball or a wedding,” Billie recalled.
“When Joe (Noli) and I decided to marry, there was a problem as he was Catholic and I was Anglican so we sort of snuck off to Cairns, got married in the registry office and didn’t tell anyone.”
Billie said that when she told her mother, a full Anglican ceremony was arranged.
Joe was a cane farmer on his family property and soon Billie and Joe bought the 150-acre property, Oscalusa, from the Rex family and Billie “just loved farm life”.
Soon there were three daughters in the home – Camilla, Abigail and Amelda.
From an early age, Billie always had an interest in local history and would talk to older farmers about the early days and looked avidly at their old photos.
“It was fairly rare to have old photos,” she explained.
“Until Mr Lancini opened his photography shop in Mossman, you had to send film down to Cairns for developing.”
She was part of the committee who, through the Douglas Shire Historical Society, established the Mossman Heritage Walk which comprises 16 photoposts installed throughout the township.
This year Billie received a life membership of the Douglas Shire Historical Society.
The sugar market was in a “bad way” and Billie, sought out information about tropical fruits and flowers from the American Rare Fruit Council, and she, Joe and another local exotic plant enthusiast, Alan Carle, set up a branch in the late ’70s.
“We would have our meetings in the CWA hall.
“I would decorate the posters about the meetings with drawings of the fruits and flowers,” she said.
“Our girls would go off to school with mangosteens, bread fruit and rambutans and no-one had seen them before but then we got into growing heliconias,” Billie laughed.
By the 80s, Billie and Joe had six acres of heliconias and gingers growing; not only selling them to the Sheraton in Port Douglas but shipping them to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
At its peak, the Noli family would pick and distribute 600,000 blooms a year.
“I remember Pixie Skase tried to drive a very hard bargain but she ended up sending Zena Bethell (a renowned Melbourne florist) to negotiate with us and we ended up great friends,” she said.
The Nolis also were granted a special permit to sell seeds of their exotic fruits and flowers.
Billie has taken the opportunity in her latter years to dive earnestly into her art and was one a founding member of Douglas Arts Base (DAB) 16 years ago.
“Prior to joining DAB, I just poked along with my art as we only really had pencils when I was growing up – no paints.
“I am very grateful to DAB,” she added.
“I finally got the training I had always wanted. I enjoyed trying out sculpting, painting as well as drawing. I love it all,” she said.
A member of the Red Cross branch, Billie says the best thing about life in Mossman is the very close community and “spending time with my old friends”.
Bilie Noii in her garden and (INSET) dancing with her father, William Reese, in 1962. She still retains her interest in flowers, history and the arts.