ELAINE GREEN’S fascinating little book, Maleny: An Alternative History assumes wisely that others have their own versions of the birth and growth of this vibrant town. Actually, this is the first real attempt to plot the social history of a place that has many faces. Elaine says this is “a contemporary history of Maleny – a town well known today for its co-operative enterprises, its artistic temperament and its opposition to Woolworths coming to town.”
Fair enough, although the long-standing farming families in Maleny would claim there’s much more to its history. But that’s not Elaine’s patch. She is focused on the mainly young people with their alternative ideas of community who swept across the Blackall Range in the early 1970s.
Because there are many sides to the Maleny story, Elaine carefully focuses on the players who were to challenge the status quo of Maleny’s dying dairyland. As she says, “local histories do differ and that incorrect information is occasionally perpetuated as historical fact.”
So, the book works progressively through the ventures launched by alternative lifestylers, hippies and treechangers. She particularly highlights the matriarchal contribution of Jill Jordan in the phenomenal founding of the town’s many co-operatives.
Some of the old-time, once-were-dairy-farmers I speak to are bemused by the alternates claim for putting cooperation on the Maleny map, given they created a hugely successful butter cooperative at the turn of the 20th century. Elaine doesn’t ignore the butter factory of course, but she charts the steady growth of the Maleny Credit Union and Maple Street Cooperatives in particular, at a time when Maleny’s love affair with milk and butter was over, and the local economy needed a good kick in the pants.
Other long-lasting ventures such as the River School, Crystal Waters Permaculture Village and Wastebusters certainly contributed to a vital new way of living life in the country, while other cooperatives came and went in various bursts of enthusiasm.
Elaine is necessarily selective in this book and some interesting stories are sadly cut short. However, she does recognise that along with the community-building cooperative ventures, the alternates sometimes took political stances that upset conservative Maleny.
You can’t stop progress (read: development) might by a Queensland rural creed. But that doesn’t stop you trying, was the alternatives’ view. Elaine documents opposition to the urban sprawl, a concrete batching plant beside the Obi Obi creek and threats to iconic trees as causes celebre for many newcomers.
One of the most bitter fights in the 1990s was over the Maleny Folk Festival, a particularly colourful and almost medieval expression of the alternative existence. Despite bringing huge injections of money to the district, it was conservative Maleny that put its foot down. They wrote to the local council in outrage at the ‘feral alternates’ who were infecting the district. Sadly for many, the festival only lasted until 1993 when it moved to nearby Woodford.
Ironically, Maleny’s greatest community conflict actually brought together many alternates and Maleny conservatives. The decision to allow Woolworths to build on the very edge of the Obi Obi Creek generated so much local anger that it has become part of Maleny folklore. But it’s a multi-layered story that needs a more comprehensive telling than this book is able to give. For example, Elaine mentions a community offer to buy the Woolworths land was rejected. Interestingly, faced with a cheque for $2m the new, hard-nosed landowners told a community delegation with some cynicism, that $2m came nowhere near matching the income from a 20 year lease with Woolworths.
Elaine is to be congratulated for pulling together a history that is long overdue. I am sure she is smart enough to know that there will be as many interpretations as there will be readers. But that’s Maleny. Where there’s an opinion, there’s an alternative. Michael Berry
Maleny: An Alternative History is available at Rosetta Books & Maple St Coop)