By Colleen Taylor
Amber Station is a 395 square mile cattle station situated north of Mount Surprise. The size and abundance of water supplied by Fossilbrook Creek and the Lynd River, would have been the contributing factor to my parents Ted & Edna Johnson’s decision to purchase the property in 1967. The large old rambling five-bedroom homestead, that had once been a boarding house, had been moved here from Almaden, many years ago. With a family of five children me, Colleen, being the eldest, Eric, Patricia, Rosemary and Earl. Mother’s father Fred West (Poppy) & Spider (Rouseabout) who had lived with us for many years. This large establishment was beneficial to our family.
Edna was referred to as Mother Johnson by all the stockman and locals, and Ma Ma to her grandchildren. Mother was aged in her mid-forties when she tackled the first Christmas lunch at Amber. She was no doubt the busiest bee in the Amber crew.
Upon rising at 5am, she always came to the kitchen wearing her apron to cover her dress. Ted would have lit the large Crown stove when he rose at 4am, he always had to have his cup of tea as he planned the finishing up of the years muster.
As Mother appeared, he would say “good morning Mother, all dressed and ready to fight a bull today”. The conversation of the station activities would be discussed, and one of these being the sending of the fatted Christmas pig to Mareeba Bacon Factory, (now Chicken Factory), during the first week of November.
It took six weeks to smoke and cure the hams and bacon. A week before the fatted pig’s departure he was branded on all quarters & ribs with No. 7, this had to be written on the permit that accompanied him to Mareeba.
A half IC wagon from Mareeba Railway would have been ordered, as the selected pig was driven to Lyndrook Siding in the back in a stock crate on the Landcruiser. From here the pig would catch the train to Mareeba. When cured and ready for departure, Mother would usually collect the hams and bacon that were wrapped in muslin cloth in the back of the Holden station wagon. The hams and bacon didn’t have to be refrigerated and they were hung in the meat house enclosed with chicken wire. A few days before Christmas the hams were soaked ready for cooking.
During October and November, the Christmas catalogues from Wynn’s and McDonald & East had arrived by mail, in the canvas post bag, on the train from Almaden twice a week. All the family viewed them many times, as there were toys, dresses, linen and much more to choose from, thus being our Christmas presents.
Mother would have posted her massive Christmas and wet season order to Jack & Newell’s in Mareeba. Large bottles of assorted soft drink came by train from Collins Cordials in Mareeba.
Red cherries were hidden, as they sometimes mysteriously disappeared from the storeroom before the Christmas cake was soaked in rum for a few days. This was usually made around the first December. The day the cake was due to be cooked, Mother would let the fire die down, to a cool moderate heat, so on this day a large baked custard would cook on the top tray. Or sometimes the cake cooked all night in dying embers.
Two days before Christmas, Poppy & Spider’s job was to kill and pluck a couple of roosters, & sometimes a duck. If there were a few extra arrivals, Spider would kill a goat. Spider locked them up nightly, separating the kids from mothers just in case extra milk was required. There were the house cows to milk daily.
Ted’s tradition was that Mother would never have to cook on Christmas Day, so preparation took place to load the vehicles with a tarpaulin, table & chairs, tucker boxes, to head and enjoy the day picnicking, swimming & fishing at one of the deep holes with a good sandy beach in Fossilbrook Creek. Many times storms had erupted early giving a fast-flowing run & cleaning out the debris. Excitement grew amongst the family and more so when grandchildren arrived, we’d gather around the withering gum Christmas tree with the opening of presents. Paper strewn all over the verandah floor, with lots of Oohs! and Awws!
Then we‘d head to the creek. The first job when we arrived was to place the jelly made in a plum pudding dish with lid, butter & custard in the cool shallow water, as these were the days before the invention of eskies. If someone managed to hook a black brim or perch, Ted came prepared with camp oven & tin fat, to cook it, along with the boiling tea billy.
It didn’t take long to see us changed into swimsuits. Swimming in this idyllic cool water was the best place to eat watermelon. Sliced meat was place on buttered bread, with added sliced roast potatoes and left overs from Christmas Eve.
After lunch, with tummies full, the oldies & babies would have a cat nap on blankets placed on the sand. Upon waking around 2pm it was plum pudding & custard, cut the Christmas cake, washed down with billy tea.
If the rumbling of storms couldn’t be heard, we’d stay until almost nightfall and enjoy every minute of our Christmas Celebrations.
Written by Colleen Taylor. 19 November, 2023.
Author of “Cooee~Cooee” Colleen’s Collected Stories. “Unearthing Einasleigh & District Bygone Days”.
Images: Vintage Australian Christmas card designs from Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales