Behan’s Rice Mill

Rice growing

High import duties on rice (a form of tax on Chinese on the diggings) meant many Chinese farmers grew their own rice. However husking and milling the rice by hand dolly meant commercial quantities were difficult to produce, so rice growing was limited to small scale operations.

When surveyor Thomas Behan arrived in Cairns in the early 1880s, 30% of the town’s population of 5,000 was Chinese. In 1885, 25 year old Behan obtained a 13 acre lease with water frontage on the Barron. It had five chains of river frontage, 100 metres and deep water for a wharf.

Behan proceeded to build the largest rice mill in Queensland using the latest US milling technology. He ordered a mill from Squires & Co, New York and while waiting for delivery he called for tenders for the following works;

  • The erection of a 90ft by 30ft shed all materials found.
  • 50 cubic yards of sand and rubble.
  • Dam 25ft by 8ft.
    Cairns Post, 17 September 1887, p.4.

Unlike Kipling’s mill at Freshwater which had a head of water to power the mill, Behan’s mill was steam-powered. The engine shed was 76ft by 30ft (~200 square metres). Behan also built a brickworks and a tramway from the wharf to the railway line. The mill was shipped on the barge Lato from New York to Hobart and then to Cairns, arriving in June 1887. In April Behan had advertised that he would buy rice at £8 10s per ton delivered to the mill. By spring 1888 there were 400 Chinese growing rice (Jones, p.254).

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Cairns Post.

Central Rice Mill

The Barron River Rice Mill finally started production late in 1888, milling one ton a day. Despite Behan’s enthusiasm, rice growing never took off in the north and there was never more than a few hundred acres under cultivation. The situation was exacerbated when the gold rush ended and many Chinese returned home. As a result the banana industry moved to Innisfail, maize moved to the Tablelands and sugar cane began to dominate the Barron valley.

Behan floated his business as the North Queensland Rice Milling Co and the mill finally started production in November 1888 as the Barron River Rice Mill. At a meeting in March 1889 a committee was formed to run the mill with Callaghan ‘Gympie’ Walsh (1843-1918), Mayor of Cairns, as chairman of directors. Walsh opened the company mill on 11 September 1889. It operated as the Central Rice Mill until about 1895 when it faced competition from the Cairns Rice Manufacturing Co which opened a three storey mill on Trinity Inlet.

The mill was taken over by George and Hydro-Bob Clacherty around 1900 as the North Queensland Milling Co. It closed in 1903 when the boiler exploded.

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Behan & Co Central Rice Mill, 1888.
(Near old Barron River Bridge, built 1887 by T Behan; taken over by Bob Clacherty and became North Qld Milling Co. c.1888 or c.1890s)
Image: State Library of Queensland.

Kipling’s Mill at Lower Freshwater Crossing was water-powered driven by a water-wheel on Freshwater Creek. The rice was grown on the flats on both sides of the Barron. On the Freshwater side the rice fields went for a mile all the way to the old junction of Freshwater Creek and the Barron which was nearly a mile further downstream than it is today. There were big areas of bananas along the river too. Right from Lake Placid right down to Acacia Bank opposite Stratford. It was all Chinese banana gardens with the exception of one or two farms owned by white people like Dr Thomatis, Emerys’s and Mason’s. The fruit used to be taken into town on junks down the river and across the bay to the wharves. The junks used to work the tides they would come up to Kamerunga on the rising tide load up and go out again the next day on the falling tide. They would go down as far as the Halfway House or Opium Store on one tide and then wait for the next falling tide. At the Opium Store on the northern bank of the Barron there were a cluster of Chinese huts. The junks were 20 -22 feet long and 7 feet wide with tall rowlock blocks and long oars and the Chinese used to stand up on planks and face the way they were going and row by pushing on the oars. One time the junks struck a strong wind at the mouth of the Barron and several capsized and many Chinese were drowned. For many years right up to the last war 1942 the Chinese community in Cairns used to hold a remembrance ceremony at Barron Heads.
“Kamerunga in the early 1900s” by J Malcolm, Cairns Historical Society Bulletin, Number 45, November 1962.

Over at the Barron River at Smithfield was all bananas and fruit orchards owned by the Chinese. There were 30 or 40 big Chinese junks that used to come down the Barron – it wasn’t silted up as much as it is now – and on Friday nights they used to come across to the big wharf and load the fruit on the interstate ships. In those days they would send 5 to 15,000 bunches of bananas a week and 5,000 cases of pineapples a week. Thomatis, an Austrian [sic – ?)], grew cotton which won awards in Paris and London and he was inundated with orders. An American called Farnham tried to grow tobacco at Freshwater but it was too coarse and after two years he gave up. All this was before 1900.
“My young days in Cairns” by D Headrik, Cairns Historical Society Bulletin, Number 26, February 1961.

I grew rice last year 20 acres about 48 bushels per paddy equal to 40 bushels per ton. Employed kanakas, Chinamen and whites. Paddy rice valued at £8 10s per ton delivered to the mill up to £9 10s depending on quality. One man employed per five acres. Paid 15s to 20s per week with some overtime and board for the kanakas. Mill cleans and dresses one ton per day of rice. The Chinese grow rice on land leased from Europeans. They first grew it at Hop Wah plantation (now Earlville shopping centre) and they would manufacture it by hand with dolly machines. The Chinamen offered Behan £1,000 if he would start a mill. Since the mill has been in operation there is a lot more rice in the district.
Behan’s evidence to the Sugar Royal Commission, 1889.

Thomas Behan

Thomas Behan (1860-1929) was a surveyor by trade and although he invested heavily in the rice mill, he continued surveying while the mill was built. Behan laid out many of the streets in Cairns and Kuranda. Behana Gorge is named after him. He left Cairns in 1893 to survey in western Queensland and in 1895 he was appointed Government Surveyor.

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Thomas Behan

Rice growing in Cairns

Amongst the most enduring and prosperous of the industries that will assist to build up the city of Cairns of the future, the cultivation of rice must be looked upon as amongst the foremost. Some two years ago, three acres were planted as an experiment; now some 100 acres are under crop in this district, and expected to yield about two tons to the acre. Hitherto the means for preparing the grain for market has been of the rudest and most primitive style, so much so that, although the paddy grown and exhibited to experts has been pronounced equal to any grown in India, Java, or other places where it is a product of acknowledged excellence, not a pound has been prepared fit for exportation. The hand-mill or dolly used by the Chinese for husking breaks the grain so much as to render it unsaleable to Europeans. In view of the necessity for providing means for the utilisation of the paddy as a profitable article of export, Mr. Thomas Behan conceived the idea of providing a large central mill at a conveniently situated spot on the Barron River.

Mr Behan has leased from the Government 13 acres of land with a frontage of 5 chains to the Barron. The land is admirably suited for the purpose intended, being high above any possibility of floods, and, in addition to having a deep-water frontage to the wharf about to be erected of 24ft at high water springs, is bisected by the railway. A station is contemplated, which, when an accomplished fact, will render the Central Rice-mill accessible from all parts, either by land or by water, and substantial progress has been made in the erection of the necessary sheds and buildings.

The frame of the engine house (70ft x 30ft ) is fast approaching completion, and a dam, which will contain an ample supply of water, is just about finished. It is intended to construct a tramway from the mill to the wharf, so that economy of labour will not be overlooked. A clay suitable for brick making having been found on the land, the bricks to be used in the setting of the boiler and other purposes also being manufactured. It is the proprietor’s intention to establish a brickyard for the supply of a superior quality of pressed bricks at no very distant date, and if the clay turns out to be material from which good bricks can be made, a large factory will be the result The rice-mill machinery – said to be tho most effective and suitable of its kind – is by Squires and Co, of Buffalo, NY, a firm having a high reputation as specialists in the construction of rice mills, thousands of their make being now in use in the rice swamps of North Carolina. The barque Lato from Now York with the plant on board arrived at Hobart on the 6th June, and, having a portion of her cargo to land there, may be expected in Brisbane at any moment. Mr Behan expects that some three or four hundred tons will be purchased by him from growers on the Northern and Southern rivers.

The crop has not been as successful this year as the farmers anticipated. The unusually wet season has militated against the ripening of the grain to perfection, but given ordinary seasons and no bettor crop than rice can be grown by struggling men with but small capital, and it must not be forgotten that rice-straw chaff will form a considerable item of production. In India and other countries, where it is largely used as fodder, the hay made from the straw is valued as highly for its nutritive qualities. It may be predicted that, with the quantity of land on the Barron, almost opposite the mill, coupled with that on Freshwater Creek, suitable for rice culture, a large additional area of land will be set apart for growth.
Brisbane Courier, Thursday 21 July 1887, p.2.

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