Garradunga Hotel Owner Ian 'Cambo' Campbell with his trusty dog Odie outside his pub amongst the cane fields near Innisfail.
Garradunga Hotel Owner Ian 'Cambo' Campbell with his trusty dog Odie outside his pub amongst the cane fields near Innisfail. Lachie Millard

Best pubs in Queensland: When the cane cutter was king

IT MAY not have built the state, but it slaked the thirst of the men who did, and within its walls are the echoes of an era when sugar ruled and the cane cutter was king.

The Garradunga Hotel, just a few minutes' drive outside Ingham, nestles amid the vast sugar cane paddocks which provided so much of its trade in the first half of the 20th century.

The pub, through a succession of owners, has retained a sense of duty to preserve a past which shaped the contours of Queensland's economic and cultural life.

Cane-cutting gangs once flooded the north every winter for the harvest. The annual migration, celebrated in the ground-breaking 1955 play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll written by Ray Lawler, paved the way for authentic Australian voices to be heard in theatre and cinema.

Behind that theatrical representation of what has been described as the toughest job on earth, lies one of the most successful migration stories on earth.

Immigrants, especially the Italians who flooded the north after World War I, picked up a cane knife to clear a path to family fortunes.

The Italians took advantage of the migration system allowing them to nominate relatives to come and join them, then pooled high wages earned in the sweltering fields until the family was able to buy their own small plot of ground to grown sugar.

The Garradunga's owner "Cambo'' (Ian Campbell), who has faithfully preserved artefacts like cane knives which still adorn the walls, says the cane-cutter gangs underwrote the pub's prosperity in the early years.

"There would have been six or seven gangs working out there, all with seven or eight blokes in each gang, and at the end of the day they'd all be drinking right here in this bar,'' he says.

"Today we still get might get a few harvester operators and a few haul out (tractor) drivers but the number of people required to cut cane has reduced dramatically.''

The Garradunga was built in 1888 but burned down and was rebuilt about 1929, flanked by the main railway line and the early version of the Bruce Highway.

The rail line still runs past the front of the pub but the Bruce Highway was long ago re-routed, leaving the Garradunga in peace and quiet.

Nostalgia for the past keeps the visitors arriving, with many also taking in the magnificent Canecutters Memorial on the banks of the Johnstone River in Innisfail.

Erected in 1959, the life-sized depiction of a cane cutter cut in marble was dedicated to the industry's pioneers and funded by the Italian community as, in their own words: "A mark of appreciation to the land of their adoption.''