Cooma: a poem

“Oh how beautiful is our home town Cooma. To me most precious.”

cooma main street

Josipa migrated to Cooma from Croatia with her little brother and father in 1960. Her first memories in Australia are of loneliness and homesickness. However when her husband to be walked into her father’s restaurant Josipa was introduced to Cooma’s colourful, multicultural nightlife. She went to the pictures, danced, swam, kissed, learnt English and made friends from all over the world.

Today Cooma feels like home, and what a beautiful home it is.

Josipa at her home in Cooma

Josipa at her home in Cooma

Listen to Josipa’s beautiful poem called ‘Cooma’ here.

Transcript 

Oh how beautiful is our home town Cooma

To me most precious.

This is where live my beloved ones

My husband, my children, and the grand children

And this is also where my dear friends are.

Cooma is in New South Wales, Australia

Situated in the middle, close to the great snowy mountains

South seas, and the capital city Canberra.

Cooma is spreading in the valley and over the hills far and wide

Looking like a big mother bird watching after her brood.

The people of Cooma came from all over the world

First to work here, together with the ones that were being born here

And then stayed and made a home.

The buildings in Cooma are just like the people

Some old, some new, some tall, some small.

They’re made out of bricks, weatherboards, and vinyl cladding

And the roofs covered in corrugated iron, and brick tiles.

Gardens are full of beautiful flowers

And pretty shrubs and pleasant scents all around

Tall gum trees, poplars, pine, birch and many other trees

Swaying in the wind is all a breathtaking view.

Sometimes I go away for a while

And I miss it so much

But then I come back

My heart start to beat fast

I feel great

I am home.

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Wasn’t He Naughty!

“He said to his friend looking through the window, “Look there’s a girl ready for bed, let’s go in!” Wasn’t he naughty?”

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Diana Klima met her husband at a ‘Come in bad taste’ dress up party in Cooma in the 60s! Listen to her tell the hilarious story of their meeting here.

Transcript

I met him just at the dance. I was dancing there with someone and then he came in… Actually he was going out with a girl from Croatia or somewhere and she’d broken it off with him. And he was with his friend, looking through the window. I was in pyjamas because it was ‘Come in bad taste’. Imagine today ‘Come in bad taste’ pyjamas… It wouldn’t be bad taste at all, because it’s just ordinary, isn’t it? It was just ‘Come in bad taste’ it was called and I just wore my pyjamas. They were pretty nice stripy pyjamas. And he said to his friend looking through the window, “Look there’s a girl ready for bed, let’s go in!” Wasn’t he naughty?

He just asked the person I was dancing with, he just said, “Could you introduce me to your friend?” Because he knew the chap anyway. He invited me, he said could he take me home and I said unfortunately, well not unfortunately, but I do have to go home with the person I came with. And he said, “Could we go to the pictures or something?” And I said “Oh yeah…” I couldn’t even remember what he looked like, except that he had a very nice white shirt, I can remember that. So I went to the pictures the next night, and we got sort of friendly.

Cooma’s Nightlife in the 60s

“Here in Cooma was lots of nightclubs, and good food, and dancing, and floor shows!”

Night music

Josipa moved to Cooma from Croatia in 1960 as a young girl. Her father worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Her first few years in Australia were lonely without her family, and she could only speak a few words of English. Life became a lot better when her husband to be walked into her father’s restaurant and Cooma’s nightlife became alive!

Listen to Josipa’s memories of Cooma’s vibrant night scene here!

Transcript

Once I met my husband, we went dancing all the time. Because here in Cooma was lots of nightclubs, and good food, and dancing, and floor shows. People were coming, especially in the weekend, all of them from the mountains. They would stop in our restaurant. They wouldn’t let me… because it was full up and they didn’t want to go away. They would help me with the dishes, bringing everything, and clean the tables and then come and eat. It was really like that.

Savoy theatre, we went a lot to the pictures. It was very special at the time. At the beginning there was a little short news or something, but then you had to stand up and it was God Save the Queen. That’s how it was. It was very special, everything. You always had an escort. They would wait for you at the door and take your ticket, and then they would take you to your seat, you know, and shine with the torch and whatever else. And downstairs, like it is now, you can always have an ice cream or whatever you want, you know, popcorn… From then on, once I learnt the language, then my life was much happier here. Of course now, I love Croatia and I am happy to go back and see my family, but Australia is my home.

Cooma before the Scheme

“There was a store there… It was dirt. It was dirt when you walked in. Dirt, you know, dirt floor. That’s how backwards [Cooma] was.”

Mia migrated to Cooma from Holland, so that her husband could work on the Snowy Mountains scheme. Listen to her first impressions of Cooma, and the re-invention of the town as a result of the scheme.

Cooma bus

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Transcript

It was what you’d call a very backwards town. It gave me a shock because it was already a shock to come to Sydney, which was quite different from Holland and not very advanced, but then we came here it was like the back… There was one place I remember, you can’t see the… so different now, not one is recognisable anymore. I think it was on the corner where they have Mack’s, and there was a store there. It had, well you went there, where you could buy food and things like that. It was dirt. It was dirt when you walked in. Dirt, you know, dirt floor. That’s how backwards it was.

But when the Snowy came it really went very quickly. Because the high school wasn’t here, none of this was here in those days. That one was built later on, you know, so it was it was really not very pleasant to come. Get a real shock. There was nothing in the mountains, nothing at all. They had… in the mountains there was only Perisher, that big hotel there at Perisher. That was the only thing there was, and some huts I believe. People that came here from other countries where there was skiing, in the summer they used to go to the snowfields and build their huts. You know, collected wood and stuff from here, and brought them up so they could ski in the winter. That’s all been opened up since the Snowy came. There were no roads, was all tracks. That was all done by the Snowy.

Cop on the Scheme

“When they were locked up in the cell, things used to get a bit rowdy at times. And the cell was almost part of the house.”

We chatted to Bill Keefe, the local cop of Cabramurra during the Snowy Mountains scheme. Listen to his experiences with rowdy migrant Snowy workers!

The Cabramurra Police Station

The Cabramurra Police Station

Margaret, Bill’s wife and the Snowy scheme’s unofficial social worker, features too. Margaret is a proud member of the community cast of Ghosts in the Scheme!

Cabramurra - the highest town in Australia - established for the Snowy Mountains scheme!

Cabramurra, the highest town in Australia, was established for the Snowy Mountains scheme!

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Transcript 

MARG: When somebody was locked up in the cell, things used to get a bit rowdy at times. And the cell was almost part of the house, just adjacent to it. Our sons… The eldest one came into me one day and said, “Mummy, why does that man want to kill my daddy?” He was a very, very small boy. They wouldn’t take a son of ours on anymore anyway. But he heard all the ruckus, and they would be quite wild, and violent. And loud.

BILL: With the new Australians when they were coming, when they came out, a lot of them came from war torn countries, and that… and they took quite a while, you know, to accept the respect of the police. It took them a while because they’d been through a tough time.

MARG: It’s mostly European people who came out, migrants that came out mostly from Europe. They were still fairly traumatised and used to fighting, and it took a while for them to realise that the system here was a little bit different to what they’d been used to. To adjust to the laws of Australia.

BILL: The older ones were quite good. They were quite good. Yeah, it was mainly the younger ones who’d come out in the very early sixties, and they, they took a little bit of, a little – how could you put it? They took a while to sort of, you know… well they couldn’t believe the police were as good as… to them as what they… because they had a, used to get a pretty rough time by the police from where they’d come from. You can go through the nationalities. Like the Italians never caused any trouble, and just want the work and send the money home to poppa and momma. And the Germans, they weren’t too bad. But they… well Germans, they’re pretty bombastic in ways, at times. The Serbs and the Croatians, they were a bit hard at times. And the Hungarians, they were mainly all in the kitchens. They used to be mainly Hungarian cooks.

Memories of the Scheme

We’ve collected a trove of stories and secrets from Cooma’s senior community members throughout Project Cosmopolitana. Here are some of our favourite memories from the Snowy Mountains scheme.

Diana Klima 

‘He was with his friend at the dance, looking through the window, and I was dancing in pyjamas as it was a come in ‘bad taste’ party. He said to his friend – ‘Heres a girl ready for bed, lets go in!’ We went to the pictures the next night and became friends, his mother was German, and he was Czeck’. 

‘We used to go to the pictures and the nightclubs, the Pasha had a wonderful pianist and a man who played beautiful gypsy Hungarian music, Julian Latray.’

Restaurant copy

‘Cooma was nicer when I came, there were more verandahs. It hasn’t changed much, just modernized. Centennial park had a lovely little bandstand we would hear music.’ 

‘The tafe was great in those days, we had free lessons in crafts and furnishings and art, with wonderful teachers, when that ended we formed the Monaro Art group’. 

Gherda Rohde

‘My husband came in April 1950 from Germany with 70 tradesmen to build houses for workers. They lived in the camp. I came seven months later on a ship. My fare cost me 300 pounds, a lot of money!’ 

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‘He took me to Cooma, the German tradesmen were so happy I arrived as I could cook food from Germany. I prepared the salads and hamburgers, pudding, strudel. All the men would get into the big car, with our picnic and our swimmers and off we would go to the river, that’s how we spent our summers. In winter we would go skiing’. 

Lovers jetty

Ski2

‘Cooma sold no international foods for a long time, only ham and devon, no salamis. After a while butchers from Europe opened shops’. 

‘Because I worked for the doctors I could see how Australians were living, I had my home in the back of the surgery while my husband worked in the mountains. I made myself curatins and pillows and made it my home. The doctors wife got a shock when she saw my nice place, that was my first start’. 

‘I got pregnant and had to leave my job, and we moved to Nimmitabel. Somebody offered us a unit at the Royal Hotel and I made a little kitchen with a camping stove. It had no electricity, running water or toilets. My husband painted the hotel in exchange for us to stay. It was hard to wash nappies in buckets of water from the well, I had to carry them upstairs. I learned on my own to look after the baby, sometimes the publicans wife would help me’. 

‘Coming from Europe, where we were on ration cards, coming to Cooma we could buy bulk, we had plenty of flour and sugar, we could be kings everyday, and not expensive’.  

‘ The Australian women would tell me to feed the baby porridge. Then the nursing sister arrived and was shocked, said that would kill the baby. I said ‘the baby doesn’t look like it is going to die!’. I used to put him in the sun to get a nice sun tan and good for the bones. I have never been to a baby health centre. He was a happy baby. And I continued to have healthy babies and fed them porridge’. 

Mia Boeren

‘When I arrived to Australia in the morning and we were married in the afternoon. It was different to be catholic in those days. 

We were not what you called skilled labour, we had to pay our own fare. He was happy when he arrived so brought me over. ‘ 

‘We stayed in Sydney for 18 months, it was hard. My husband was out of work and I was working in a paper manufacturing warehouse. A man at my worked asked me how were were going and I said not too good and he said ‘have you heard about the snowy?’ So we went at the end of the year and got a job. That’s how we came to Cooma, in March 1952.’ 

‘Cooma, then, was a very backwards town. It gave me quite a shock. Not one is recognizable anymore from those days. We came here from Sydney, where I was already shocked. Mack’s on the corner had dirt floors and all the cans were covered in a layer of dirt. That’s how backward it was. When the snowy came, things changed very quickly. None of this was here in those days!’ 

‘There was nothing in the mountains, only perisher, and some huts. People that came here from other countries for skiing, in the summer they would go to the snow fields and build their huts, and collected wood, so they could ski in the winter. That’s all been opened up since the snowy came, there wasn’t even roads.’ 

Ski

‘When I came here, I worked for the Snowy too. We weren’t naturalized so we couldn’t get any unemployment benefits. I worked for the attorney general first, then I ended up in the printing hall. As soon as I had children I had to stop working. That’s how it was, sadly.’

‘My husband, before I met him, made arrangements to migrate because things were not good in Holland after the war, not good at all. He didn’t see a future there for our children. He saw opportunity in Australia, he was right, my children have done very well here.’

Bill Keith

‘I come from the Riverina. I was stationed in Cooma, Jindabyne, Bellavista, Cabramurra during the construction. The biggest challenge to overcome was the big distances we had to travel, the isolation, in very remote areas. We would deal with crimes like stealing, accidental deaths on the scheme and alcoholism. It was quite an experience’. 

Tommy Tomasi

‘My father gave me a shotgun and said ‘go’. So I went into the hills to hide with the resistance in northern Italy. When I got captured I was taken into a prisoner of war camp by the Gestapo. When the Americans found me I was 39 kilos!

They let me drive their tanks. 

I was selling coffee beans to the Swiss across the border to make money. I would buy Swiss watches to sell to the Americans, they would buy anything! The Americans let me drive their tank around. And that’s how I was able to drive bulldozers in the Snowy!
I made money and made my way to Perth. I worked in those nasty mines. 

On the wall of the pub there, was a painting of the snowy mountains. I bought a very little old car and drove to Cooma! 

I used to climb the electricity poles as I was small and the smaller Italian men could be nimble, get up the poles. We had so much fun. All those boys. 

I started the snow patrol as there was nothing like it, no one to save anyone that was lost or hurt. I am now the head representative for snow patrol Australia.’ 

Elizabeth Piotrowsky

‘Things were hard here.
My husband died many years ago and now I live alone in Cooma, and would run the motel alone. I like this place, good people, although I wont let anyone stay with me as I fear they will never leave. People can be advantageous at the best of times, even at my age! 

Life is not a little cake. It’s all about good attitude.’

Stories from the Cooma Community

At Concert Cosmopolitana, the Cooma community shared with us their secrets, their histories and their hopes for the future of their town…

Cooma welcome sign

Where did you grow up, and what do you know about Cooma?

‘On the South Coast of NSW. Population of 8 to 9 thousand. The heart of Snowy Mountains Scheme completed in 1979. Lots of multiculturalism. Great local community. Lots to do. Great schools, hospital, heart of Snowy Mountains an ski fields. Great central location from the coast, Canberra and Sydney.’

‘I grew up in Sydney. After studying art, marrying and travelling for a year on a budget of $5 per day for food, $5 transport and $5 accommodation, we thought it would be nice to live in Cooma near the snow and bush for a year or so. That was in 1985. I’m the best recorder and horn player in the village.’

‘My parents came over from Germany. My father in 1951 to establish work with the Snowy and then my mum in 1952. I was born in Cooma and still live here. As a young child I remember all the night clubs in town, all the different nationalities in the snow in winter, the delicatessens. Cooma was a bustling, thriving town. The surnames of my classmates were mainly ethnic, long and for many, hard to pronounce. I remember, the nightclubs as taboo places where ‘naughty’ things went on. The festival of the Snowy parade was always grand with incredible floats. As a member of the pony club, we would always ride our horses in the parade. Monaro High had over 1000 pupils (I think 1100 when I started). Life was free then. We played freely and only came home at dusk. There was no fear of bad people and no litigation (which is ruining life today). I now live very happily on 40 acres, 10 minutes from town. I still love it here!’

‘Cooma has been home for over 25 years. We came for work (Phil, my husband’s) at Snowy Hydro. He retired 2 days ago. Our children grew up here, they went to Cooma North school and Monaro High. I wrote feature stories for the Cooma Monaro Express for several years – the last stories were about Cooma in the 50’s – published by the Historical Society as a book – still available. We’ve made friends, worked here, lived with a series of animals, from Chooks, through dogs and cats, to horses – in recent years I’ve ridden through Cooma’s Travelling Stock Reserves and Stock route tracks frequently.’

‘Grew up in Sydney. Cooma is a regional town and gateway to Snowy Mountains. During the period of Construction of the Snowy Scheme, 1949-79, Cooma and other Snowy towns became the centre of multiculturalism in Australian. Cooma serves the Monaro region of agriculture and animal husbandry.’

‘Daughter of a Brisbane girl and her American soldier, I grew up at first in USA then in Brisbane. I met my love at the Conservatoire and together, two young classical guitarists, took off to Sydney to study, and in 1984, came to Cooma to establish a classical guitar school in the mountains. Became a music school and shop, we raised children here, played at weddings, funerals, speech days, conducted choirs, Christmas carols, bush band dances, play group songs, school assembles, art openings etc. etc. etc. Such a charmed life we’ve had here. What do I know about Cooma? The skies are to die for. Almost everyone gets hay fever. There are no cockroaches. When it’s freezing people say, “bit fresh”. You always greet people in the street or at least meet their eyes. Kids call their grandparents Opah and Omah. The tap water is delicious. A swim at the pumping station is still the best summer activity. There are a lt of churches and a lot of liquor outlets. The coffee is very good almost everywhere. No one has a raincoat or umbrella – it’ll go soon.’

What is Cooma to you, and what could it be?

‘I am a snowy kid. Grew up in Cooma East. Learned English at Cooma East Public in 1955. Along with Captain Cook and God Save the Queen, there was no mention of the world all us Snowy Kids came from. So it is wonderful to now have all the many various cultures that built the Snowy Scheme explored, encouraged and enjoyed. In behind the staid and stolid Lutheran upbringing was the underlying theme of Cossack dancers, tunnels, thrills, dams, sheep, graziers, Ned Kelly, fiddles, accordions, dances next door. Many years later, it has all blended into a cool, sharp, blood red wine like the Monaro sunsets. A final memory – being 9 years old and being on the land where the Italian Embassy was to be built – with my father. He had just left the Snowy and had won the contract to build the framework of the Italian Embassy buildings in Consena.’

‘Cooma has the potential to be an amazing buss of culture, activity and fun. You need people on the shire council who actually want the town to progress one move into the future and to embrace change. Welcome ideas from the new people in town.’

‘It’s a special small town that is nice to live in, has pleasant people and is busy enough but still relaxed enough too. Hopefully Cooma never becomes too much like Canberra. I like the way Cooma is, a small nice, not too busy Country town.’

‘I started at Blowerine Dam. Deliverine 12 CAT 769 dump truck, from Caterpillar (I worked for Waugh & Josephson Wagga). In 1969 I was asked to join Thiess Bros at Talbingo as a leading hand on the spillway w/shop permanent nightshift. During that time I was in charge of 27 men dedicated to keeping dozers, dollars, dump trucks, loaders, tire chain repair greasers, welders, laborers. Our repair shift started at 11pm till 8am every day. During that time working in the snow and mud, nearly up to top of gumboots, in the freezing conditions to the comfortable nights of summer. Several men were killed during that time. Going for breakfast there would be a call for volunteers to help find someone missing, only to find he had been crushed under rocks on the dam wall or run over by a dump truck. One instant was one night at 6am drivers, operators came to the spillway workshop to start work. I had a welder putting caps on a sheep’s foot roller connected to a D.8 CAT. The operator got on the dozer and started it up and started driving it away, while the welder was still on the roller working. That welder was very lucky to get off it alive. The same operator a couple of months later was killed driving the dozer vibrator roller. When he went past a high light one pole came loose and fell across him on the dozer. Early in my employment by Thiess at Talbingo there was a confrontation between Thiess and a tire company, which came to a head with the tire company ordered off the site with armed guards used to stop entry. At the end of Talbingo jobs were offered at Bouganville P.N.G and Mataranka N.T. I took the latter. What an experience I shall never forget.’

Tell us a lie, or a secret. 

‘I was born in 1920’s, Russia. After 18 years I went to Australia in the 1940’s. I stayed in Canberra for 8 years, the days went so fast, and in no time it was 1960. I came to Cooma to work at the Scheme in the tunnels. I worked for 18 years there, then retired. Oh, what I had seen. My friends crushed by large rocks. Then ten years later my wife died. R.I.P, R.I.P my dear wife, now I have sadness in my heart. I cannot go on with this sadness.’

‘I once found a duffle bag with over $3000 in it. It was under the seat in an old wreaked car near the park closest to my high school. They were all bundles of 50’s. I did not hand it into the police or even tell my mum and dad. I would only take a few 50’s at a time until one day the bag was gone and in its place was a yellow rubber duck.’

‘My great grandfather was a pioneer in old Adaminaby – Mr. L W. Mackay – and he built the first General store. I was very fortunate to grow up on my parents’ property south of Adaminaby. I want to High School with so many nationalities and we all just for along with each other. I hadn’t seen kalach bread or salami until I was in high school, where we swapped sandwiches. I would have vegemite, cold lamb or peanut butter. Now I feel very blessed to live in Cooma with its wonderful community.’

‘My name is Rob Simmons. I came to work on the Snowy in Feb 1953. First as a Rural Valuer and later as Property Officer responsible for the purchase of the source required for the Scheme. This included the land now under lakes Eucumbene and Jindabyne and the removal of the town to its present site. This caused the winching down of the new Scheme, the sale of houses and surplus rural lands. A very busy time.’

What makes you happy? What makes you sad?

‘Meeting my friends at our different activities. An exercise class for “oldies” every Monday morning and then “chit chat” over tea and coffee afterwards. Meeting only wonderful Baptist Church Christians (Jesus Christians) on Sunday over coffee and tea. Doing shopping and meeting friends everywhere. That is Cooma – where else would you live?’

‘What make me sad? People complaining about their aches and pains, and what they haven’t got, instead of thanking God for what they have got – everything in Cooma. We are truly blessed, and I thank God daily – I am 87 years old! P.S. I am sad that the Visitors Centre is to close at 3pm – not good for tourists passing through, but stopping first for information about the area.’

If you were in charge of Cooma, what would you do?

‘We should get a PA system at the Cenopath so that when ANZAC Day comes everyone can hear. This year was awful.Try to get the footpaths swept by the shop owners regularly.’

‘Invite a form of industry to the Area so that Cooma has a form of income outside of Winter. Add a half-court basketball court to the useless scrap of land near nijong oval. Encourage students to participate in the decisions made about town. Have public polls before council does projects. Listen to what people have to say. Really listen. Street lights.’

‘One weekend per month run buses, or better a heritage train from Canberra to Cooma to keep the shops open. Have a Fiesta weekend each month to bring tourists and money. Even make the bus or train fare free to attract tourists.’

‘Put a limit on the number of cafes and pubs allowed in Cooma. Ban smoking. Have a parkour indoor centre. Have a flip out indoor trampoline park.’

Cooma's main street in the 60's!

Cooma’s main street in the 60’s!