While Melba did not visit Mackay during her 1909 Back Blocks Tour, we could not drive past without calling in and spending a few days with the people of Melba House.
The society and Melba House have had a long association going back about 16 years.
I arranged beforehand to meet with treasurer Vern Lindbergs and the team of the Pioneer Valley Tourism Association which operate Melba House at Marian as a tribute to Melba and also as a visitor information centre.
Thankfully, the community rallied around and ensure the home Charles and Nellie Armstrong lived in at the Marian Sugar Mill was not demolished but saved, moved up the road and restored.
Today Vern and the team have set up a room in the house purely for Melba memorabilia – images, objects, books and folders with articles featuring Nellie and Charles Armstrong.
I spent two days going through their archives and the recently acquired Valmai Tongs collection of records, articles, images and letters between herself and Pamela, Lady Vestey who became a friend.
Thankfully the association accepted the collection as it was offered to a museum in Melbourne which declined to accept it. The collection has the largest number of Melba recordings I have ever seen in one place and has some interesting research.
Melba House, through the association’s work is rapidly being recognized as important to Queensland’s tourism industry as the state government is doing a shoot of the house as part of its strategy.
Wally and I were privileged to be invited to the association’s meeting and learnt first-hand of the challenges of promoting tourism in the region.
Marian today is a far cry from the Marian of Melba’s time – 1882-1884. Then it was all pastoral land just venturing into the infant sugar cane industry. David Mitchell went to Marian to build the sugar mill which sadly only operated for a short time but on the same site now is one of the state’s largest sugar mills.
Surrounding the mill and up the Pioneer Valley it is a sea of sugar cane and as it is now harvest time trains are rushing around picking up trucks and delivering them to the mill.
One of the cane train engines was called Melba and one of the drivers is trying to locate it for me so I can take a photo of her.
Melba House has quite a lot of information about Charles Armstrong so at last we can being to build his story from his time in Queensland through the years to his death in Canada.
My next stop is the museum and library in Mackay and a meeting with the Mirani Historical Society where I will give a Melba talk so members learn more about Melba’s later life.