I have a well-documented interest in heritage hotels, so how could I have missed one less than 25km from home? We read about the 130th birthday celebrations of the General Gordon Hotel in the Mackay Daily Mercury, and we just had to go to investigate. It was built in the same period as my great-grandparents’ hotel, further north on the Atherton Tableland, and it is wonderful that it is still operating and on its original site out in the cane fields near Mackay, Qld.
In 1881, the Colonial Sugar Refinery bought 8000 acres at Homebush, Qld, in the fertile Pioneer River Valley to grow sugar cane, and over the next couple of years built a sugar mill to process the cane. By the mid-1880s, the mill was the most impressive in the area.
A brickworks, post office, police station, general store and butcher soon followed, along with the hotel. When it was built, between 1883 and 1886, the General Gordon Hotel was a single storey wooden building and it became the hub of the community, with a hall built along the northern wall of the hotel.
It is not clear who named the hotel, but it venerates the memory of General Charles George Gordon, who was captured and killed in Sudan during the Mahdi rebellion, while holding Khartoum for the British government.
The Homebush community thrived and expanded over the next couple of decades, but a severe cyclone in 1918 damaged the sugar mill and destroyed a number of buildings. In a folio at the hotel, we read about a family of eight being evacuated to the hotel during the cyclone in a dray, covered by blankets to protect them from the extreme wind and rain. Along with about 50 people sheltering in the pub, they saw the shop next door destroyed by a metre-high ‘tidal wave’ of water, now known as a storm surge. The water lapped at the floorboards of the hotel and the policeman closed the bar as he wanted people sober enough to cope with the major flooding.
The ground floor of the hotel remained much the same after the cyclone, although a second storey was added around this time. Repairs to the mill were very costly and, by 1920, the mill became unprofitable and subsequently closed in 1921. This lead the Homebush population to decline and many of the buildings were left to decay.
Over the years, the hotel has had several owners (all documented in a book onsite). In 1987, Bruce and Margaret McLennan bought the licence of the General Gordon. They had plans to renovate the old pub, but the demolition of the only other heritage hotel in the area (the Greyhound Hotel at Bakers Creek) provoked them to move quickly to save the General Gordon. The architectural style of the old pub was respected and retained, and advice on the renovation was obtained from local historians. Painted in heritage colours, the old pub once again became the focus of the community with its garden lounge and family dining room, offering meals and refreshments to locals and travellers.
In the succeeding decades, the General Gordon has slowly declined from those days. These old pubs require an inordinate amount of maintenance to keep them in tip-top condition, and need dedicated owners. The rarity of timber pubs that have survived for over a century makes them very much worth protecting and saving.
Deciding to make a little break of it, we hitched up the van and drove south on the Bruce Highway for about 12km and turned right into Homebush Road. The General Gordon is about 7km down Homebush Road and it’s a very pleasant drive through the cane fields.
After setting up the van in the camping area out the back, we went in to explore the pub and found the charm and character of the hotel to be evident as you step inside.
Sisters Michelle Bates and Estelle Williams have run the General Gordon for the last six years, but their relationship with the pub goes back much further than that. As kids, they lived locally and Estelle remembers sitting in the back of their father’s ute outside the pub with her six siblings, while he called in for a beer and a game of darts on his way home from work.
When they decided to take over the lease of the hotel, their father was planning to move into the pub to live but, unfortunately, he died just before they took over. There is a little memorial to him on the wall in the bar.
There are neither pokies nor Keno in the General Gordon, so conversation is favoured – there was one poker machine years ago, but the patrons used to fight about whose turn it was to play, so it had to be removed!
The wonderfully rustic timber slab tables and chairs in the beer garden were built by a local Italian artisan, as was the amazing wooden bicycle hanging over the bar. It used to live on the verandah and patrons enjoyed riding it, but the need to preserve it means that it is not ridden any more.
There is an eclectic collection of memorabilia decorating the bar, from a picture of Slim Dusty to a pair of very realistic ceramic riding boots made by Michelle. There are top hats, an old pistol, a collection of matchboxes and various saddles and spurs. The cold room is still in its original state and is lined with the original old railway sleepers. It keeps the beer kegs icy cold to this day.
Estelle told us about the resident ghost who opens the fridges at night and turns on the light in room three upstairs (just a hint of which room to avoid if you are thinking of booking in for the night!).
The sisters keep a couple of books with many records and news items about the old pub, so it’s worth asking to have a read if you’re interested in learning more about the history.
CATERING FOR CARAVANNERS
We were told that 4500 caravans camped at the General Gordon last year to enjoy the attractive, rural cane field setting and the facilities at the old pub. At $5 per person with showers, toilets and potable water available, it is a very attractive proposition for vanners. Meals are available Monday to Saturday with $10 lunch and dinner specials available every day (it was fish and chips the day we were there).
On the third Saturday of every month, there is a country and western night with live music and meal specials. Each Sunday there is a barbecue lunch with raffles and the pub closes at 6pm that night. A bus from the sports club at nearby Walkerston calls at the General Gordon to take Michelle and Estelle and anyone else who is interested over to the club for dinner – it’s nice that the girls have one meal a week cooked for them.
The 130th birthday celebrations at the end of May will be fantastic, with whip cracking, country music and camp oven meals planned.
Four-and-a-half thousand caravanners can’t be wrong – put this place on your itinerary if you are in the area. And remember to arrive early to guarantee a camping spot, as the camping area is not large.
The turn off to the General Gordon Hotel is located about 12km south of Mackay. Follow the Homebush Road for a further 7km.
- Check out the historic items around the walls of the hotel and the wonderful rustic timber furniture.
- Enjoy a meal and listen to live country music.
- Use the hotel as a base for exploring the Mackay area.
- Accommodation is available at the hotel in the way of a small camping area with town water, showers and toilets, as well as hotel rooms.
- General Gordon Hotel: (07) 4959 7324