Townsend's 'cowboy heaven'

Townsend's 'cowboy heaven'

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FIFTY years ago, Asa and Maria Townsend led their family on a migration from Florida to Stapleton station, in the Northern Territory's Top End.

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FIFTY years ago, Asa and Maria Townsend led their family on a migration from Florida to Stapleton station, in the Northern Territory's Top End.

For centuries, since before independence from the British, the Townsends had been moving southwards through the eastern American colonies and states, always seeking the newest frontier where there would be more and better land.

By 1850, the Townsends had reached Florida, America's southernmost edge.

A century later, family leader, Asa Townsend, thought that things were getting too crowded in Florida.

Asa had done well in vegetable farming and cattle raising around LaBelle, in south-central Florida, but he wanted more land for his family.

The problem was that land had become very expensive in Florida. It was far too valuable for cattle raising, which was what Asa and his sons really wanted to do.

Asa looked at Argentina, then Australia. In 1961, his sons Ray and Bob came to Australia and found Stapleton, the place they thought was 'Cowboy Heaven'. They bought the station and then the migration from Florida began. Before long, more than 30 of the immediate and extended family had moved to the Territory.

A young American living in Darwin, Demar Dahl, heard about the Townsends and he went down to the station to work with them. Fifty years later, Demar recalled, "I knew what they had left behind in Florida and I knew what they had gone to at Stapleton".

"They had comfort and security back in Florida, but there was certainly none of that at Stapleton, where they lived in a tin shed or in tents and swags. They had taken a very big step that very few other people would have been brave enough to take.

"They had adventure in their souls that's for sure."

True words. Times were tough in the northern cattle industry in 1962.

They were about to get a whole lot better, with the opening of the American market and the establishment of meatworks at Darwin and Katherine in 1963.

But, in 1962, the better times were still in the unknown future.

What was known for sure was that since the army left the Territory in 1945, there had been practically no worthwhile market for cattle from the Darwin hinterland. The cattle in the area were mostly ill-bred Shorthorns that generally didn't thrive in the hot and humid conditions. It wasn't worth walking them to markets in Queensland and there was almost no local market.

The country in the far north, on stations like Stapleton, was regarded as rubbish. Productivity was low, it was extremely difficult to manage and it wasn't worth even thinking about fencing or introducing new blood into herds.

As the noted industry figure Paul Vandeleur described it, "the position was hopeless".

"There was no real market anywhere. You could send animals to Wyndham but most of them would be rejected, or you could send them to Queensland and take the long odds that somebody might want them. You couldn't borrow money you couldn't do anything."

So, the Top End of the Territory in 1962 was still an undeveloped frontier. It was still a land in waiting - a land waiting for frontier people with adventure in their souls, people who would defy the odds and 'have a go'. The Townsends were such people.

Things had been so bad for so long that even Winnie Bright, one of the toughest of the old-time battlers, had given up. Winnie was a teenager in 1923 when her father, Harry Sargent, brought his large family from Queensland's Dawson Valley over to the Territory.

Harry bought Stapleton, thinking that he would grow cotton there. Nature and lack of markets defeated him, so he turned to tin mining and cattle. He gradually amalgamated leases and licences until he had more than 700 square miles. Thousands of scrubbers ran wild on the area there was no point in mustering them.

Things got better for the Sargents during the war when the influx of soldiers created a local market, but after the war, conditions were again as bad as ever. Harry died in 1951. By then his wife and family had drifted away, all except Winnie, who kept going with the station.

But by 1961, Winnie was ready to sell. She was worn out, she couldn't find ringers willing to help her and she couldn't find buyers for more than a few dozen cattle each year. To her, there seemed to be no point in persevering.

In August 1961, Winnie was in Dalgety's Darwin office, "turning the air blue about ringers who wouldn't work", when in walked Ray and Bob Townsend. They had heard that Stapleton was on the market and they had flown in to look at it. They met Winnie and quickly agreed to go down to Stapleton for a fortnight or so to work in her stock camp and have a good look at the station as they mustered it.

It didn't take Bob Townsend long to conclude that Stapleton was even better than Florida. There was high country as well as wet country. There was every sign that cattle would do well if they were properly managed. Bob and Ray dreamed of what Brahmans might do at Stapleton. "We knew what they could do in Florida," Bob said. "I reckoned they would do even better at Stapleton."

Best of all, the land was cheap. "Why, back in Florida you had to pay many dollars for an acre. Over here, we were paying a few pennies for a square mile. It was Cowboy Heaven, all right."

Within a fortnight a deal was done Ray and Bob would buy the station for the Townsend family. In October 1961 they took delivery.

Other family members back in Florida then began organising their move from Florida.

Asa Townsend made it plain to his family that going to the Territory would require a willingness to leave the familiar comfort of much-loved people and places, a willingness to start life again, and a willingness to work hard and do without in a strange and distant land.

"There will be bountiful rewards for those who come to the Northern Territory," Asa told his relatives. "But it will take the same skill and fortitude that enabled earlier generations of the family to succeed on the American frontiers.

"Those who come with me to the new country will have to have open minds about the place they are going to and they will have to be willing to join the Australian community. And there will be no going back."

Such was Asa's standing as the head of the family that the younger Townsends accepted Asa's terms without question.

There is no more respected figure in the northern cattle industry than Sid Parker, who went down to Stapleton soon after the Townsends arrived.

"I wanted to see if I could buy some cattle from them. I met all the family and immediately I was impressed," he said.

"There was movement at the station, that was for sure. There was confidence, efficiency and progress. They were not the sort of people who spent time in pubs skiting about how good they were and what they could do. They just got into it and did it. And they had the courage to do things their way, no matter what other people said.

"Before long they had some paddocks and yards, and already they were ahead of other people who had been on their stations for decades. A lot of the local people just smiled and waited for the Townsends to go broke. They didn't and it wasn't long before the locals were watching with respect. They realised that these Americans could teach them a thing or two."

The most valuable lesson that the Townsends taught by their example was that the "rubbish country" of the Top End could be made productive and valuable if it were properly managed. The country was worth spending money on it was worth the effort.

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