This is the story of young immigrants from the small villages of Southern Rhodes (Rhodes Island, Greece) who came to work in the sugar-cane and cotton fields of Biloela, Queensland, Australia. These early immigrants were overwhelmed by homesickness for their native villages, the families they left behind and their church. However, they took the opportunity to better their lives by working in the harsh, rural environment of Queensland’s cotton and sugar-cane fields of Biloela.
By 1934, the Callide Valley had 40,000 acres of cotton planted and a butter factory opened in 1936.
In March 1934, The Courier-Mail reported: “Among the cotton growers of the Biloela district are a former general of the Ural Cossacks who fought in the Great War (WWI) and a Russian Orthodox priest.”
A Greek Orthodox Archbishop, Timotheos Evangelinidis (1880 – 1949) the Metropolis of Australia and New Zealand from 1931 to 1947, visited Biloela from time-to-time to baptize children, give communion to the Orthodox faithful and to preach the Divine Liturgy.
By the early post-World War II years, Biloela’s population was about 1000 people, making it the largest town in the Banana Shire.
After having acquired considerable savings many of these early immigrants started town businesses such as cafes and restaurants.
Phillip Hagi-Diakou was born in the seaside village of Gennadi, Rhodes Island, Greece. In 1936, at the age of fourteen, he said goodbye to his mother, his sister and village and travelled with his father on the Italian ship, Romolo bound for Queensland, Australia to seek their fortune.
Phillip worked alongside his father in the cotton and sugar-cane fields of Biloela and had to cope with the hot and humid conditions as well as dingoes and snakes.
He was determined to succeed however through hard work and he set about learning the English language by studying a Greek-English dictionary.
He was nineteen when World War II began so he enlisted in the Australian Army and was sent to Darwin where he served as a cook. It was to be the beginning of a life-long career in the kitchen.
When the war ended, he moved to Adelaide, South Australia and bought the Gouger Cafe – the Cafe that changed his life.
The close-knit, hard-working and dedicated Diakou family made their Gouger Cafe an icon of Adelaide’s seafood restaurants headed by Phillip and his wife Anastasia in the kitchen and their three children, Maria, Steve and Bill. The Gouger Cafe was a pioneer in seafood dining in Adelaide and Gouger Street was to become the hub, boasting the cream of South Australia’s seafood restaurants.
The Stiliano Family
Stylianos (Steve) Stiliano (nickname Matsi) said goodbye to his mother and his little hilltop village of Mesanagros, Rhodes Island, Greece in the mid-1930s and traveled with his father and brother’s Yianni and Marko to work in the sugar cane and cotton fields of Rockhampton and Monto in Queensland, Australia.
In 1944 Steve met and married his wife Erini in Biloela who had also migrated with her family from Lahania, Rhodes Island, Greece.
They had five children – the twins, George and Anna, Philip and Gary who were born in Biloela and Stella who was born in Adelaide in 1957.
Mixed Farming – Cotton and Livestock
The Stiliano family had a mixed-farming enterprise on the outskirts of Biloela which integrated the cultivation of crops (cotton was the main cash crop) as well as the raising of livestock (mainly dairy) for meat and milk.
Cotton seeds were planted in spring and the crop had to be harvested before the weather could damage or completely ruin its quality and reduce yield.
Their cows had to give birth to a calf before they could produce milk.
Some of their calves were reared for veal and about three quarters of the heifers became replacements for their adult milk-producing cows.
The long working hours lead to tiredness and fatigue. And the family were exposed to numerous life-threatening safety and environmental hazards which included snakes, heat exposure, falls, injuries and pesticides.
Cafe in Monto
The Stiliano family tilled, labored and endured in the cotton fields to earn enough money to establish a cafe in Monto about 96.2km from Biloela offering quick service, long opening hours, and tasty meals seven days a week.
Their cafe offered the traditional English-style steak and eggs, a mixed grill, chops and sausages, fish and chips as well as the American hamburger, ice cream, sundaes, milkshakes and sodas could be purchased as sit-down meals or take-away.
Every Tuesday was to become a popular social past-time at their cafe by farmers from the surrounding areas who took time off from their daily chores on their farms to enjoy a delicious cafe-style meal with family or friends.
Nick Frossinakis along with his father Manoli and brothers Philip and Tom from the small, southern Rhodes village of Lahania, Rhodes Island, Greece, left the uncertainty and economic instability of Post-War Greece in 1949 in the hope of attaining a more stable life in Australia.
They migrated to Biloela where they labored and endured in the cotton fields to earn enough money to buy their own small farm.
Nick’s sister Eleni (Helen) stayed behind in Lahania, Rhodes Island for about three years, then traveled to Australia with another female immigrant from Lahania to reunite with her family in Australia.
Horse-drawn ploughs were used for the cultivation of soil on the farms in those days to prepare for sowing seed or planting to loosen or turn the soil.
They lived in houses made of iron sheets atop hard dirt floors and sweltered through tropical long, hot summers.
Their homes had no power so, kerosene lamps with a wick for burning was used for lighting.
Keeping clean and using the toilet wasn’t as easy in those early days as it is today.
The bathroom and toilet was a stark contrast to the suites with which we’re familiar today.
Be it freezing cold or swelteringly hot, many immigrants had to make do with a portable metal tub to bathe themselves and wherever they could find privacy outdoors was their toilet.
And, flax canvas water-bags were a necessity in those days because the availability of clean, cool drinking water in remote rural locations was essential for survival. All the farmers had to rely on a lot of sunshine, warm conditions and 4-to-5 months of frost-free temperatures to produce the fluffy white cotton.
Later, the family acquired about 120 dairy cows which they milked every morning then sent it to the factory so that dairy products such as drinking milk, cream, butter, yoghurt and cheese were produced for human consumption.
Christos and Zaharoula Arnas
Christos Arnas was from the village of Katavia and Zaharoula Diakomihalis came from the village of Lahania, Rhodes Island.
During the late 1930s both, decided to leave the island of their birth in search of a more peaceful life in Australia, carrying with them the virtues of rural life – of farms and villages that work the old-fashioned way.
Christos immigrated to Biloela, Queensland, Australia in 1936.
Zaharoula was brought to Australia by her father, Phillip Diakomihalis in 1937.
They met and were married in Biloela in 1937 and together, they bought a farm in the Callide rural area on the outskirts of Biloela where they grew cotton and raised livestock.
Their children Irene was born in 1938, Phillip, was born in 1943 and Mary in 1944.
Every morning, before going to school, Irene, the eldest daughter would feed 32 calves and then, after school would feed the pigs.
When the Arnas family went to do their shopping in the town of Biloela they traveled in an 1800s style, horse and buggy (an old-fashioned reminder of a simpler, more slow-paced era).
Mixed-Farming – Cotton and Livestock
The Arnas family mixed-farming enterprise integrated the cultivation of crops (cotton was the main cash crop) as well as the raising of livestock.
It reconnected them to the traditional, self-sufficient rural, lifestyle they were accustomed to back in their homeland of Southern Rhodes.
Milk, meat, cotton, cereal, vegetables and fruit were all produced on their farm.
They worked under the heat of the sun and in the rain to watch over their crops and livestock seven days a week, silently and uncomplaining.
In the cotton fields the family toiled and endured to pull the white, fluffy lint from the boll while trying to not cut their hands on the sharp ends and they had to stoop to pick the cotton because the average cotton plant is less than three feet high.
The cows needed grass, hay and grain to feed them and adequate pasture to graze, while newborn calves required nursing every three to four hours or an average of 7 to 10 times daily and consume 1 to 2 pints of milk during each nursing.
Their pastured pigs presented other challenges because poor nutrition will slow a pig’s growth and impact on the quality of the meat as well as and the pig’s welfare.
The Arnas family fed their pigs a varied diet such as corn, barley, soybean meal, bread, vegetables, fruit and pig pellets to stay healthy.
Banana peels also made good feed for pigs because of their high energy content.
Each pig needed to eat an average of 6 to 8 pounds of feed per day and were free to roam on the Arnas farm, in the sun and fresh air.
The Callide Primary School was a one-room schoolhouse built upon stilts with a single teacher who taught the academic basics to several grade levels of primary (elementary-age) boys and girls from the surrounding rural areas of Bilolela.
Nick and his brother’s Tom and Philip were the first Greek immigrants to attend the Callide Primary School. Nick would seat his brother Tom on the crossbar of his bike to ride the 3km on a gravel road to the school each day. Irene Diakos would also ride her bike to school.
Anna and George Stiliano were young farm children who were taking their first look at a schoolroom with rows of desks and a large teacher’s desk at the front.
That walk from their home to this strange new world was so different from their old familiar farm home, pastures and fields.