2010, People, Stories and Articles

Joe and Elizabeth Cronin

“In my families’ eyes”

Joe Cronin “likes a challenge”, and his life confirms the statement. We visited Joe, his wife Elizabeth, and some of their family at their contracting camp on Barkly Downs, South of Camooweal in May of 2009. Their two sons, Dan and Joe, and daughter Emma were working at other places.

Joe was born in Nambour Queensland; his childhood spent around the Sunshine Coast. His Dad worked in the sugar mill at Bundaberg, and as Joe began high school the family moved to Townsville. “Mum always had itchy feet – moving round all the time.”

After he left school (Yr 9) Joe worked for a year at a meatworks and then, shifted to Mt Isa encouraged by his older brother… “lots of work out here, he told me.” Joe arrived on the train, but his “a bit of a character” brother had forgotten he was coming, So with $50 in his pocket, young Joe spent a sleepless night at the Salvos. First thing next morning he went to phone his Mum, and there at the phone booth was big brother, also ringing their Mum! “Boy, didn’t I attack him……you mongrel!”

Joe jacked his age up to 19 so he could get work at a phosphate mine, and he joined a team laying and tying up spikes on the rail lines to and from the mine. “It was killing … in September/October … the heat was on!” Next he worked on a dam site, only to be put off when the Wet set in. Convinced by a Pommie mate to fly to England, Joe stayed for 6 weeks. “That’s country I don’t need to go back to … no sun, closed in, all rugged up … Robin Hood country!”

Back in Australia, 17½years of age, he joined the railways. His Dad and Mum had bought a block of land outside Charters Towers, but sadly the marriage broke up, and Joe bought out his Mums share of the property.

Joe remembers his Dad with respect, and describes him as “a real old goer” who kept working at the meatworks in his late 60’s and “never stopped loving Mum.” Following heart surgery his Dad was left weakened; – frustrated that he could no longer swing an axe, and six years later, he died. Joe admits “I didn’t know Dad til I grew up. He was always working; out there trying to make ends meet, and keeping us 10 kids all clothed and fed. Dad kept me in the railways. He went through the depression; he always said “a Government job is always safe. Do your job, and your job’s safe.” Joe adds “I really hated it, it was all hard work, but I was Tit… for work, and for football!

I worked with a ganger … he was 63, and determined that I wouldn’t outwork him! We used to shovel out mullock wagons from the gold mines. It was used as Tiller for wash outs on the tracks. There’d be three of us in the wagon, shovelling away, and that ganger would not let you have a drink of water between start of work and smoko. I’d look up and this ol’ fella, he was like a machine gun! I decided, no way in the world is this ol’ fella goin’ to outwork me, and we were both going like jack hammers! Breakthrough came when the ol’ fella puffed “its starting to get pretty hot, we’d better stop and have a drink!” My workmate whispered, “you broke him Joe, you broke him!!”

Continuing to work in the railways, Joe’s longing to get into stock work simmered away. A workmate, ‘Old Les’, had a small place near Charters Towers, and Joe helped him out with a bit of mustering. Joe had wished for a horse all his life; his only horse experience was with a spoiled cranky pony, “that knew every bad trick in the book”. He began to learn and appreciate horse work. “For me it was like a duck taking to water! Old Les taught me to break a horse and how to watch cattle. It was good grounding.”

Back at the railway, he was promoted to the position of gang leader at Winton with up to 36 men under him. “It was very physical, but I like achieving things, and we got the job done.”

However, he’d also met Elizabeth and he told the bosses, “If you want me to stay in this job, you’ll have to shift me closer to Charters Towers.” So he was put in charge of a welder gang – a job he held for 10 years. Joe pauses, remembering; and then with animation he explains: “I was in The Silver Spike – ever see it down in Brisbane? Yeah – we were Champions 3 times in a row! Then we had to retire, win 3 times, then out!” The Silver Spike involves a team of rail workers putting down a length of railway line the best way and in the quickest time. “We were a mob of the most unlikely lot of fellas you’d pick, but we worked as a team and we ended up at the Sydney Royal as well!

Joe and Elizabeth have a heart for, and take a keen interest in young people, started with their own kids’ involvement with horse sports. “Going to campdrafts, we’d have to transport 4 horses for the kids, plus my own!” When their older ones were at school, Joe and Elizabeth would host groups of students from schools in Charters Towers, and up to 19 kids would do a bit of mustering, breaking in. “We’d beg and borrow saddles and gear from wherever we could! They were good days. There were always knocks and bruises, but there’s nothing like a few of those to get the kids in touch with life.”

Joe and Elizabeth have been willing to give any young people a go. “We really give ‘em a taste of life. Its been satisfying – they come out here with their short longs/long shorts, and some become bloody handy stockmen – girls too.” Its rough hard work and Joe offers little sympathy for minor injuries. “Some kids who’ve come because they refused to go back to school … after first round, they realise school isn’t such a bad place and they go back home! Their parents are grateful.”

Elizabeth has been listening, giving an occasional affirmative nod, and Joe hands over, “She’ll tell the real story!” She’s also been occupying their 3 youngest children; Hannah, Caitlin, and Liah, and granddaughter, Ella. Bridgid, Ella’s Mum, the Cronin’s oldest daughter, is working with her Dad in the stock camp, and Ella spends time with her aunts! 13 years separates the 4 older from the 3 younger Cronin siblings and Elizabeth simply says “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Elizabeths’ Mum Mary comes to stay for extended periods, and helps out so that Elizabeth can home school Hannah and Caitlin. “Teaching them is a bit of a challenge – finding our thresholds, and needing patience … we’re getting there.” Elizabeth chooses to be with Joe, cooks for the workers, and lives in relative isolation. Communal living also means a lack of privacy. “I miss having lunch with friends, and I do spit the dummy every now and again, but this means we can all be together, and it’s a means to an end. Anyway, we’ve leased our place at Charters Towers, so I had to come!”

Elizabeth was a Toowoomba and Brisbane girl, and at 17, she completed a business course; then travelled to Charters Towers for a bit of a break. “Actually, I was getting over a bit of a broken heart, and Mum suggested I go there. My sister came too; I got work at a Chinese shop and we had fun … we didn’t run wild! Her parents then returned to Charters Towers, and Elizabeth began work as a teachers aide. At a food stall at the races, she met Joe’s Dad, who was tending the billies. He reported back to Joe “there’s a beautiful girl down there Joe … you wanna go and meet her!”

They did meet at a Cabaret Dance, and the rest is history – 30 years together: 26 years married.

Elizabeth’s patient flexibility combines with Joe’s drive and determination “to give the kids a better start than I ever had.” Their dream to operate full time on their own place at The Towers keeps them going.

Through drought, they’ve been forced to take their cattle out on the stock routes. “You discover how hostile some people are, and how loving some people are; they regard it as an insult if you don’t have tea with them, and they offer you a bed for the night. You do a lot of deep thinking in drought, on the road.”

They currently have cattle agisted on properties in the Territory, and keeping an eye on these cattle requires more travel. Elizabeth expresses a little frustration: “We’re always packing up and going somewhere! Sometimes I’d like to sit, and ……. just be! Still, I don’t think I’d change it, I’ve never stood in Joe’s way, and its for a reason. But, Joe often doesn’t give any warning … he’ll make a decision to go somewhere and come and say “You go on ahead! It’s a bit chaotic, but I’ve learned to have certain things permanently packed up ready to go!”

Joe is motivated by personal challenges – “I always like to be in a challenge – it’s the same with campdrafting – I like to have a test with the big fellas! Joe also encourages and appreciates the value of team work, “some fellas hate anyone else having a say, but I like having smart men around me and I like them to start thinking about how to get things done.”

The challenge for Joe Cronin involves the balancing of contracting commitments (mustering and processing cattle at Barkly Downs), organising and caring for the workers in his stock camp, and his desire to provide for his family….“For some men their biggest glory is in wanting to look really good in front of the companies’ eyes. I place importance on doing my job well, and looking the best I can in my families’ eyes.”

Image captions:

1) Some of the Cronin family. Standing L-R Bridgid with Ella, Mary Goodall
(Elizabeth’s mother), Elizabeth, Joe with Liah. Front: Caitlin, Hannah and friends.

2) Apprentices enjoying some time out – Cronin future mustering crew,
Hannah 7yrs, Liah 3.5yrs, Caitlin 6yrs, Ella nearly 3yrs

3) Winning the Silver Spike

4) Joe and Elizabeth on their wedding day