The rich multicultural history of Mount Isa

EARLY DAYS: Little Finnish girl Aria Hovi with 'mine bosses' for whom her aunt Katri Hovi cooked for, 1929.
EARLY DAYS: Little Finnish girl Aria Hovi with 'mine bosses' for whom her aunt Katri Hovi cooked for, 1929.

Neigh on 410 years ago, in 1608, William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Corolanus in which he penned …. What is the city but the people!

This simple sentence gives food for thought, in relation to Mount Isa; how would the city have grown without the input of the many peoples of the world seeking a new prosperous life in the hot, brown, barren landscape of opportunity called – the outback. Their arrivals were as varied as their nationalities.

Some arrived by conventional method, rail, road, or air while others like Bavarian, Jack Baader made a dusty entrance on the pillion of a mate’s motor cycle, having ridden that style all the way from Newcastle in New South Wales.

Whichever way they chose to arrive in Mount Isa, by 1957 there were 40 different nationalities amongst a population of only 12,000 people and within fifteen years that number had increased to 53 nationalities as the census registered 26,532 residents in 1976.

Mount Isa was fast becoming the international experiment in multiculturalism. During the 1950s, the Mines Dining Hall kitchen chef was a Czechoslovakian, Fmil Svarc; the mine company aeroplane pilot , Maksia Grants was an Estonian, and the company watchman was a Spaniard, Joe Zada.

And while the majority of migrants, such as Baader, Svarc, Grants and Zada, came from European countries post World War Two, others would eventually arrive from Mexico and Uruguay but it was the arrival of two men from the Arctic region, Eskimos, who caused the greatest curiosity.

The two Eskimos who had set out from their diametrically different homeland climate of long, dark months of ice, snow and blizzards (with mean temperature of minus 35 degrees fahrenheit) to the long extended blistering hot and dry weather of Mount Isa with an annual rainfall of less than 12 inches (300 mm) and with an average summer temperature of 38 degrees F (100.3C) of western Queensland, inadvertently became celebrities in their new community.

MEMORIES: Gertraud Laippin holding a photo of her and her and husband in 1947.

MEMORIES: Gertraud Laippin holding a photo of her and her and husband in 1947.

Everyone was searching for a new way of life and the opportunities afforded those who were prepared to ‘colonise’ the outback mining town were gained through assimilating into the community while at the same time honouring their homelands by establishing social clubs e.g. Finnish, Italian, Scots, Filipino, and Irish.

Initially the German community wanted to name their new club, after their own country, but it was (Sir) James Foots who encouraged Franz Born to give thought to a more inclusive name such as the Concordia Club and thereby welcome members from every part of Europe.

And while all of these smaller social groups and clubs have ceased, including the Concordia, the Irish community is not only proud that they are the longest established club in Mount Isa, but they hold the title of the largest Irish Club in Australia. But by far the largest ethnic community, not only in Mount Isa but Australia, was the Finns (locally called the Huckleberries – as in the American writer Mark Twain’s book, Huckleberry Finn – Finnish men).

From 1928 there has been a continual Finnish presence in Mount Isa. With no formal English speaking classes, the majority of migrants had to learn to communicate as best they could and as quickly as possible, for their work and lifestyle, which lead to a range of misunderstandings both funny and serious.

“I always had trouble with ‘yoost’” explained Gertrud Leippins, who came to Mount Isa from Latvia sixty years ago. “The hard ‘j’ was so hard for me to pronounce, so it would sound like ‘yoost’.  Today I just say ‘just’, no trouble”. And in the era before political correctness reared its head, Italians were referred to as Dagos, Asians – Chinks, English – Poms, Germans – Krauts, Western Europeans – WOGs (Western Oriental Gentlemen) to list offensive terms which are no longer tolerated.

A COMMUNITY: Members of the ethnic council if Mount Isa in the 1970s.

A COMMUNITY: Members of the ethnic council if Mount Isa in the 1970s.

Were the new Australians, a general term for immigrants from the 1950s, offended by these references? There is no doubt they were albeit they mostly learned to swerve to the verbal barbs and get on with building their new lives and learning that just as there were many slang words to define the various nationalities, there were as many Aussie terms to add to their English vocabulary. Everyone was a ‘mate’ but he could also be a ‘banana bender’ or a ‘mexican’ (Queenslander and Victorian).

Life in the country was never easy especially during the period of World War Two when immigrants were regularly rounded up and interned to camps for the duration of the war. And sadly many a Mount Isa resident was sent through to one of these camps including the established businessman, Harry Morgan Snr, who was a German national.

Following the war years he returned to Mount Isa and successfully built a delicatessen and grocery shop in Camooweal Street before diversifying into a dry cleaning and laundry business. Building in all its definitions was the name on everybody’s lips as new suburbs were established, the mine output escalated and the local economy continued to achieve new heights.

Apart from those employed at Mount Isa Mine, there were Greek house painters, Finnish builders, German retailers, Italian civil engineers, Austrian cabinetmakers, Hungarian boilermakers, and Greek bricklayers. Bolmak, Thiess Bros, Constello, Viscon, Transfield, Epoca, and Steelcon have all been built on the skills of their European countrymen who came to Mount Isa seeking a better lifestyle and who in turn have all contributed to the growth of Mount Isa.

And in recognition of their achievements many streets in the suburb of Healy have been named in their honour – Steelcon Parade, Thiess Parade and Transfield Road. Mount Isa has always been the epitome of Shakespeare’s adage that … what is the city, but the people! Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton Information sourced from Mount Isa City Library, MIMAG, Mt Isa Mail and the North West Star.