Postcard from Sugar Country

The Clarence river, Tuesday afternoon

I must have done the return trip from Brisbane to Sydney by car a dozen times over the years. It's a grueling drive but I always look forward to the journey through the sugar country along the Clarence and Richmond rivers, from Grafton to Ballina. It's just a beautiful part of the world - the broad, slow flowing rivers dotted with small towns and iron bridges, oceans of sugarcane against the hazy ranges to the West. And of course, lots of vintage architecture reflecting both the Queensland tradition and southern styles, in various stages of repair and despair.

This time I was alone in the car and took the opportunity to make little detours along the way. But I only had time to look at a handful of houses and had to resist the overall streetscapes and commercial buildings, including some impressive colonial-era hotels. I consider it a mere reconnaissance trip and vow to return one day, spend a bit more time and finish the sightseeing. Perhaps a family biking holiday, time will tell.

As a brief historical background, the district was raided by cedar getters in the 1830's and agricultural communities were established along the rivers over the following decades. Once cleared the land was used for general farming and increasingly for sugar cane. Some of the towns became important river ports and were serviced by steamers from Sydney and other cities long before roads were established. As with most rural centers the wave of mechanization and motorization lead to a steady population decline and some of the towns now have a fraction of the population of a hundred years ago.

The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) mill in Broadwater,
opened 1880
Now, let's look at some houses.

First out is this rather rare and well-maintained "M- roofed" gabled cottage, spotted close to the highway in Ulmarra. This is a doubled-up version of the two-room colonial gable typical for the late 1800's, see the below example from Woodburn. A brick fireplace warms the core house and a separate chimney services the kitchen under the skillion extension to the rear. This is a real gem and it warms the heart to see it in such great shape.

"M-roof" gabled cottage
Next up a house with a dutch gable roof and a U-shaped, stepped veranda with pediment facing the street. This ca 1900 house would be comfortable in any contemporary Queensland neighborhood if it was high-set on stumps, not low-set on brick piers. I spotted houses on stumps all the way to Coff's Harbour but the style is relatively rare south of the Tweed valley.

Dutch gable roof with stepped verandas, on brick piers
Many of the grander houses are situated on the river and backing onto the road with the more humble worker's cottages located on the other side of the busy pacific highway. You need to get off the main road and walk through the riverside neighborhoods to spot the upper-crust dwellings. This Victorian brick residence with multiple extensions overlooks the river in Ulmarra.

Sprawling Victorian
Even the fibro houses were built with pride and attention to detail. This little place on the river has deco-inspired detailing on the front porch (apologies for the under-exposure).

Deco fibro
Another stately Victorian Regency-style house with a separate kitchen wing, overlooking the river. This dwelling was clearly built for one of the leading families of Ulmarra and the spectacular river views from the veranda are captured in the title photo.

Victorian Regency
Next up a tragedy - a colonial gabled cottage in a desperate state, apparently slated for demolition. I don't know the reason why, the "bones" look to be in good condition at least viewed from the outside. How many families were raised within these walls over the past 130 or so years? The multi-colored, most likely hand-made bricks in the old chimney hint to a diversity of clay sources and uneven firing temperatures.

Colonial gable with exposed brick chimney, Woodburn
A short-ridge colonial cottage, painted salmon pink with moss green roof and details, which could also be at home in any of Brisbane's inner-city suburbs if was perched on tall stumps instead of low brick piers. The color scheme works surprisingly well against the cane backdrop. I spotted examples of this classic design all the way down to the mid coast.

Colonial short-ridge
This impressive bungalow with river views was probably built for the manager of the Broadwater sugar mill which is next door. The house has multiple original extensions to the back including a separate kitchen wing. This fabulous home is for sale - submit your offers!

The Manager's bungalow on the river
Another humble and ancient colonial M-roofed cottage, this time in Broadwater. The old bearers are well supported by brick piers but the bottom chamfer board on the gable is missing - better replace it before terminal rot sets in.

M-roofed colonial cottage
This is a fairly standard asymmetrical bungalow on its last legs, but my interest was drawn to the well-preserved "thunder box" at the rear of the house. I was tempted to trespass for a closer view of the old dunny but the weeds were high and full of burrgrass.

Derelict bungalow, with "thunder box
The district is scattered with old barns, stables and other outbuildings of various designs, some made with timber slabs. Perhaps another research and documentation project when time allows, before the termites and weather finish them off. They certainly add character to the landscape.

Roadside shed
That's all for now - in summary a very enjoyable couple of hours on the road. Next time you pass through the sugar towns why not stop for a rest by the river to enjoy this special part of the world? As the highway is upgraded from both directions I expect that the district will see a resurgence from tourism and small-holdings over the coming years. Perhaps this is a good time to buy a truly historic cottage, overlooking the old river, and make it yours.


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