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  • Gavin King

    Tropic Now editor

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    Hidden hipster historical gems of Tropical North Queensland

    Bespoke furniture crafted in a timber mill at Portsmith. Bicycles hand-made in a shop on Lake St. Artists and creative types living on the fringes of town creating masterpieces. Craft beer brewed locally.

    Sounds like a hipster paradise, right?

    Those boutique operators and clever craftspeople were in fact part of a cool scene playing out in Cairns nearly a century ago, long before the trendy subculture popularised by today’s millennials was even invented. And local blokes back then even had the type of stylised beards to rival any of today’s carefully manicured manes.

    So, what was it about the Tropical North in the first few decades of the 1900s that created such a hand-crafted, locally made, creatively independent vibe?

    Here are four quick examples of peak hipsterdom from our city’s past, proving beyond doubt Cairns was a hipster haven back in the day.

    Hand-crafted furniture

    Thomas Griffiths was a cool dude. Decades before China surged as the world’s largest manufacturing base, Griffiths was busy making awesome furniture created with locally sourced wood at this Portsmith timber mill. It was the type of entrepreneurial, folksy venture to make any hipster swoon.

    We particularly love his squatter’s chairs, perfect for lazy afternoon drinking sessions on front porches. They even had holes in the arms to rest your beer. You can check out one of Griffith’s hand-crafted gems at Cairns Museum.

    Excelsior bikes

    A bicycle is the transport option of choice for any self-respecting hipster. It’s good for the environment and perfect for a quick pedal down to the local café for an almond milk latte. Given their penchant for all things vintage, urbane city dwellers would positively drool over the original Excelsior Bikes made by Bill Eddleston in his Sheridan St shop.

    Eddleston opened his cycling store in 1912, a decade or so after cycling first attracted the attention of the local newspaper. In October 1897, a reporter noted: “The cyclist is no longer a rara avis on our roads, or alas on the foot paths of Cairns. Six months ago, the number of wheelmen might have been counted on the fingers of one hand but now there are between twenty and thirty cyclists regularly pedalling with more or less graceful effect.”

    Artistry on Alligator Creek

    The hipster subculture borrows elements of the bohemian lifestyle popularised by writers and artists in the second half of the 19th century. Ian Fairweather, now considered one of the greatest painters in Australian art history, brought his bohemian ways to Cairns in 1939 and lived in Malay Town, where he mingled with the town’s “outcasts” including Indigenous residents and Asian immigrants. It was the type of crowded, cultural melting pot today’s hipsters crave.

    One of Fairweather’s pieces painted during his time in Cairns is called “Alligator Creek, Cairns, 1939”, now valued at around $300,000.

    As beers go by

    In the previous edition of Tropic Magazine we highlighted the revolution in locally brewed beers, with Macalister, Hemingway’s, and Barrier Reef Brewing all rivalling the best craft beer makers in hipster-heavy capital cities.

    These new players on the scene pick up a long-dormant thread of locally brewed history.

    A pivotal moment in that amber-hued heritage came in 1924, when the Cairns Brewery Company was formed. The venture didn’t last long however, with big companies from down south squeezing the local product out of the market by shipping in cheaper products. Angry at the loss of local jobs, a determined group of local investors revived the brewery in 1927 with a new company called Northern Australian Breweries, producers of NQ Lager and Cairns Draught.

    They waged a fierce “Buy Local” campaign urging Cairns residents to reject the big interstate brewing companies, with newspaper ads at the time reminding locals “every time you drink another beer other than NQ Lager your money goes out of North Queensland”.

    Local, sustainable, fiercely independent. Hipsters would be proud.

    Visit Cairns Museum for more fascinating Regional History.