What Elise Wrote-Paronella Park

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Many people have asked me about the castle in Castle of Dreams and where the idea for my novel came from and with the launch on Wednesday evening at Readings in Hawthorn it is the perfect time to tell you a little about the history of the Park and the Catalonian immigrant Jose Paronella who built the castle in the rainforest.

Unknown-3 Jose Paronella

I am a storyteller first and foremost and while Jose does not appear in Castle of Dreams I feel he would have approved of my story and my depiction of his castle of dreams. I read somewhere that Jose’s grandmother told him bedtime stories about Spanish castles and this inspired him to one day build his own castle. And while castles are more easily associated with Europe and the Middle East, Jose built his castle in the far north Queensland rainforest, the place he called home and never wanted to leave.

José Paronella arrived in nearby Innisfail, Queensland, Australia in 1913, having sailed from his homeland, Catalonia, in northern Spain to plan a splendid life for himself and his fiancée Matilda. He applied for Commonwealth naturalization in 1921, identifying his place of origin as La Vall in the province of Jarona. In fact his full name was José Pedro Enrique Paronella, and he was born on 26 February 1887, in La Vall de Santa Creu, a hamlet in the province of Gerona, north-eastern Catalonia. José worked hard for 11 years, creating his wealth by buying, improving and selling cane farms. While travelling through the beautiful countryside he discovered a virgin forest alongside spectacular Mena Creek Falls – perfect for his dream.

Upon returning to Spain, José discovered that Matilda had married another! Determined to sail back with a bride José proposed to Margarita, Matilda’s younger sister. One year later the happy newlyweds were ship-bound for Australia and by 1929 had purchased the land of José’s dreams. He first built the grand 47-step staircase to shift building materials between the lower and upper level. Here the fun-loving couple had their cottage hand built of stone, and moved in on Christmas Eve.

Unknown-1Jose and Margarita Paronella

The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. First they built a house to live in, then they started on the Castle itself. Apart from the house, which is made of stone, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete, the reinforcing being old railway track. The concrete was covered with a plaster made from clay and cement, which they put on by hand, leaving behind the prints of their fingers as a reminder of the work they had done. They laboured with unswerving determination, until, in 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. The Theatre showed movies every Saturday night. In addition, with canvas chairs removed, the Hall was a favourite venue for dances and parties.

A unique feature was the myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. With spotlights of pink and blue shining on the reflector from the corners of the hall, it was rotated slowly, producing a coloured snowflake effect around the walls, floor and ceiling. During the mid-sixties the Theatre ceased to be, and the Hall became devoted to functions, particularly Weddings.

Above the Refreshment Rooms was the projection room, and up another flight of stairs was the Paronella Museum. This housed collections of coins, pistols, dolls, samples of North Queensland timbers and other items of interest. Originally, food service was from the lower Refreshment Rooms downstairs.

The concrete slab tables forming the lower Tea Gardens and the swimming pool both proved extremely popular, as they still do today. The avenues and paths were well laid out with the familiar shaped planters which are still to be seen wherever you go in the Park. Two tennis courts were behind the Refreshment Rooms, with a children’s playground, The Meadow, situated near the creek.

Upwards of 7000 trees were planted by José. These included the magnificent Kauris lining Kauri Avenue. A Tunnel was excavated through a small hill. Above its entrances are the delightful stonework balconies. Walking through here brings you to spring fed Teresa Falls, named for his daughter.

The creek is lined with rocks and traversed by small bridges. Some parts have cascades built out of rocks, so the sound of water is always there. The Hydro Electric generating plant, commissioned in 1933, was the earliest in North Queensland, and supplied power to the entire Park.

In 1946, disaster struck. Upstream from the Park a patch of scrub had been cleared and the logs and branches pushed into the creek. When the first rains of the Wet Season came, the whole mass began to move downstream until it piled up against a railway bridge a few hundred metres from the Castle. Water backed up until the weight broke the bridge, and the entire mass descended on the Park. The downstairs Refreshment Rooms were all but destroyed, the Hydro was extensively damaged, as was the Theatre and Foyer.

Undaunted, the family began the task of rebuilding. The Refreshment Rooms downstairs were beyond repair, so this service was moved upstairs, and only the structure of the building recreated. In addition, José built the fountain. The Castle was repaired, the gardens replanted, and the Park was alive again.

Unknown-2    Jose and Margarita Paronella

In 1948, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, daughter Teresa, and son Joe, to carry on. In time, Teresa married and eventually moved to Brisbane with her husband. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Renovations and maintenance meant there was always plenty of work, and the floods of 1967, ’72 and ’74 further added to the load. In 1967 Margarita died, and in 1972, Joe died, leaving Val and the two boys to continue the hard working tradition and keep the dreams alive.

The Park was sold out of the family in 1977 and sadly, in 1979, a fire swept through the Castle. For a time, the Park was closed to the public. Cyclone Winifred in 1986, a flood in January 1994, Cyclone Larry in March 2006, and Cyclone Yasi in January 2011 were all further setbacks and challenges for Paronella Park.

Mark and Judy Evans, the current owner/operators, purchased the Park in 1993 and formulated a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding. Small restoration projects have been undertaken, pathways uncovered and improved, and the Museum, an ongoing project, is continuously being enhanced.

In November 2009, the ambitious project to restore Paronella Park’s original (1930s era) hydro electric system was completed. At a cost of $450,000, the system once again provides all of the Park’s electricity requirements. This work, and other environmentally focused initiatives culminated in Paronella Park being awarded Eco Australia’s GECKO award for Ecotourism in 2011. Paronella Park’s life as a pleasure gardens continues as José intended, for visitors, and with social gatherings, particularly weddings, continuing to make use of this unique location.

Paronella Park – The Dream Continues…

The Park gained National Trust listing in 1997, and has been recognised by multiple Regional and State Tourism Awards from 1998 onwards.

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I hope you enjoy reading about my inspiration for Castle of Dreams.

Elise.

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Kind thanks to Luke Evans for permission to use this information.

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Filed under Allen & Unwin, Castle of Dreams, Elise McCune, Paronella Park, What Elise Wrote

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