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Chelona is a community near the regional centre of Mackay, on the central Queensland coast, in the traditional country of the Yuwibara people. Since the 1880s the growing of sugar cane has dominated the Mackay region. Local farmers also graze beef cattle.

A colour photo of sugar can crops.
Sugar cane crops, near Mackay, 2015

Sugar cane knife

In the late 1950s Tom Lester managed a sugar cane farm in the Mia Mia area, west of Mackay. He lived on the farm with his wife, Doreen, and their five children. Tom used this knife to cut down stalks of sugar cane, just above ground level. By bending the knife blade, Tom did not have to stoop so low to sever each stalk.

Trains carried the stalks to the nearby North Eton sugar mill for crushing and processing. Kaaren Sephton, Tom’s daughter, donated two of her father’s cane-cutting knives to the National Museum of Australia in 2010.

A photo of a knife with flat, hooked metal blade [bent] and wooden handle.
Cane-cutting knife used by Tom Lester in the 1950s

North Eton sugar mill

A black and white photo of two men using knives to cut tall canes in a field. - click to view larger image
Harvesting sugar cane near Mackay, 1959

In January 1888 the Premier of Queensland, Sir Samuel Griffiths, arrived in Mackay to open the North Eton sugar mill in the Mackay district, west of Chelona.

Sugar farmers and mill workers watched Griffiths feed a dozen sugar cane stalks into the iron rollers, then cheered as he threw in a bottle of champagne to follow the disappearing cane.

The crowd then enjoyed cake, ale and music to celebrate the opening of the first co-operative sugar mill in Queensland, owned by the local sugar growers.

One century later the National Museum of Australia acquired the original beam engine that powered the North Eton sugar mill.

Manufactured in Scotland by Bow McLachlan & Co in 1884, the device is a type of steam engine characterised by a large, pivoted beam. The engine remained in use until its replacement by new technology in the early 1960s.

Denis Casey started working at North Eton in 1957 as an apprentice fitter and turner. Denis remembers working on the steam engine’s valve mechanism, which controlled the entry of steam into the engine’s cylinder. He was particularly interested in the capacity of steam to power the mill machinery.

Bow McLachlan Rotative Beam Engine No 960. A single cylinder slide valve beam engine, its bore and stroke is approximately 14 inches by 48 inches. The upper bed casting is mounted on six columns. It incorporates two twenty-eight and a half inch vacuum pump cylinders. The drive to the valve is via eccentric and rocking shaft.
The beam component of the Bow McLachlan & Co steam engine used to power the North Eton sugar mill

Chelona State School

Chelona State School is a primary school located at Chelona, a sugar cane farming community south of Mackay, on the central Queensland coast. The school was established in January 1893 and educates children from a sugar farming and beach communities. Chelona State School joined the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden National Program in 2014.


‘Mackay, and Home Again’, Queenslander, 7 January 1888.

Denis Casey talking with George Main at the site of North Eton sugar mill, 24 March 2015.

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