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Oral History - Mt. Surprise

Day 16

What is literature? In a sense, it relates to the art of ‘letters’, relating through words an idea or story. Letters….literature. But must it be written to be considered literature? Of course not! There is the oral tradition of literature, story telling, the passing of one’s history and legends. And today we saw oral literature in action.


Jason and Todd sought to record on film the history of the railroad as it related to the community of Mt. Surprise here in the Queensland outback. We cycled a brief 23 kms into town from our camp out in the bush, arriving in town around 9:30 in the morning. After several hours of talking to people, two women from the community finally sat down in front of Todd’s camera for the interview. Merl and Suzette are active in the community and knew their history well. And they sure could talk.

Instead of reading about the town of Mt. Surprise in a book, we learned about the area’s history from the people who live there. They spoke to the camera and told stories of the early history on up to future. We learned about the railroad history as it related to the mining operations, the cattle industry, communications and supplies for the bush country, and now, in the past 8 years, as a source of tourist revenue with the beginning of the Cairns-Forsythe weekly train trip for tourists and history buffs.


Through their words we learned about the failure of sheep ranching in the area, about mining, about the beginnings and impact of the railroad into the region. We heard about floods and drought and cattle operations, and also we heard a lot about the town itself. Mt. Surprise, with a population today of 60, has been about the same size since its founding a hundred years ago. It grew a bit during WWII when 50 soldiers were stationed there, but it’s a small place. Electricity was first brought in around the mid-1980’s. That’s right, 1980’s, about the same time individual phone connections were first made. And how about this: street names were never needed until recently. There are only four streets, and this month, August 2001, will mark the first time the streets will have official names. I don’t know what the street names will be, other than that Myrna said a vote of the community determined that they will be named after local pioneers.

I don’t think anyone’s written a book about the history of Mt. Surprise. (Actually, we forgot to ask Merl and Suzette why it’s called Mt. Surprise…) But we certainly learned a lot about this little community out here in the vast outback. And that’s true literature in the oral tradition.

Suggested learning activities: can you find someone in your community who knows the history of the area? Go ahead and interview them, ask some questions about when they were young, or about when their parents or grandparents came to the area. Or, here’s another idea: pretend that you are old and a young student is asking you to recall your own youth. What would you tell them about your life, your neighborhood, town, city? What oral literature would create for that young person?



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