Podcast | Filip Stjepanov Srhoj
This is Filip Srhoj’s story told by his son Tito Srhoj
I, Tito Stipan Srhoj was born in Mareeba on 22 April 1945. This is the story of my father. Filip Stjepanov Srhoj was born on 15 November 1908 in Bogomoje on the island of Hvar in Dalmatia, a region of what is now, Croatia. He was the oldest of five children. My grandfather’s family were landowners but like all people in that region they suffered during World War 1. At the end of the war, Hvar was occupied by the Italians so the family escaped to Loviste, a small village on the nearby peninsular.
My father was educated in a monastery in Split but did not like the strictness of the monks and eventually left. Life was tough back then and many young men immigrated to make money to help the families remaining at home. In dad’s village the destinations were either Perth, New Zealand where they mined Kauri gum for the linoleum or furniture varnish industries, or the cane farms in Far North Queensland. My father’s uncle and cousin had recently gone to North Queensland and my grandfather decided to send dad to Australia to work as a cane cutter to make money for the family. The plan was for him to return after 5 or 6 years.
Filip Srhoj arrived in Brisbane on the Orient Steamship “Ducksea” in February 1927. He was 18 years old. He immediately traveled to Gordonvale. When he arrived, he had 10 shillings in his pocket. A policeman who happened to be on the platform let him sleep in the cells that night then next morning took him to a farm where they gave him a cane knife and a flannel shirt. He was cutting cane by 7am the next morning.
Filip was always a hard worker, and he earned bonuses – 10 bob a week! (approximately 1 dollar). Dad always did everything with gusto. As hard as worked, he played just as hard! He regaled his family with stories of adventures including 3-day card games, big gambling wins, and big celebrations! He also acquired a bit of a reputation as a ‘ladies man’ being nick named – “Rudolph Valentino”.
It wasn’t all fun and games. In those days most immigrants were Italian and they experienced a lot of prejudice. Other European immigrants were lumped into the general category of ‘dago’. Dad told the story of a group of ‘aussies’ who decided to take on him and his mates in the Gordonvale Hotel. It was a fierce fight resulting in many bruises and stitches. But from then on, the trouble makers never bothered them again! Work was inconsistent and during the 2 months ‘slack’ dad was the only foreigner to carry a swag, living off the land and meagre supplies of potatoes and rice. Dad made a lot of money, spent a lot of money, yet consistently send home a contribution to help his family.
Filip was supposed to go back to Croatia, but he realised that the lifestyle and economic rewards in Australia exceeded anything he could achieve in Croatia and he made the decision to stay. In 1937, his younger brother joined him in North Queensland. After two years cane cutting, in 1938 they purchased a farm in Emerald Creek for 1,500 pounds and began their new lives as tobacco farmers. That same year Dad became an Australian citizen then made the most memorable purchase of his life – a 12-cylinder Nash Sedan motor car he bought off a doctor in Cairns. It cost him 820 pounds. Immediately after buying the car, Filip went to the police saying “I need a license, I need to get to Mareeba”. One was handed over. Filip described his experience thus,” I never drove a car before. I went up the Gillies Highway, which at that time was a one-lane track. When I got to the top I was so bloody frightened! The Nash was so fast! At one time I was driving it at 138 miles an hour.” In time the Srhoj’s added an additional farm and other land investments.
In 1944 the Sicilian Leotta family came to share-farm the Srhoj farm. With them came Sarah Leotta, my mother. A quiet, blue eyed, curly haired beauty. Filip was smitten. He asked her to marry him the first time they met. Dad often fondly recalls her reply, “You’re bloody mad”. But six weeks later they were married. Filip was 36 and Sarah was 21. Like everything he did in life, Filip pursued his new role of husband and father with gusto. It was a love affair that lasted their whole lives.
For all his flamboyance, charisma and success, Filip never aspired to wealth. He once told a biographer that while in Loviste, a fortune teller has said to him “You will get rich and you will go mad”. With that advice ringing in his ears years later, his love of family and his town was shown in his commitment to them both.
Filip did take his family back to Croatia to meet the family there in 1962 just after his oldest child was married and settled and could look after the family farm. He enjoyed showing off his family and meeting old friends. They stayed for almost 12 months, but he was happy to return to the country he called home.
When his oldest son Tom was 15 years old, Filip gave him a ton of tobacco quota and an acre of land. Tom had to plant, water and cultivate the crop himself. Tom was independent from the age of 16. My father encouraged me to study but when I asked to leave school and start work he supported me all the way. In 1972 he supported me to get the Mazda Dealership in Mareeba and the family love of motor cars lives on.
My sister was 10 years younger than me so was still in school when mum and dad retired from the farm in 1969. Dad bought property in town and built a home for his family with a home for his in-laws next door. He was 61 years old. At this time he also bought a property in Rankin Street which was rented to a second-hand furniture dealer. After a few years he came out of retirement and took over the business himself, he and mum alternating bowling trips with buying trips.
Filip’s love of people was manifest in his politics. He was a member of the Labour party but his views were socialist. He believed everyone had a duty to help those less fortunate and he did this in many ways himself. When destitute people came to his shop he would give them furniture to help them out. Many ‘Mareeba-ites’ remember Filip handing out how to vote cards at elections. One story talks about the time when, with a poker face, he handed a labour ‘how to vote’ card to the sitting national party member! In a testament to his popularity the national party member took it in good grace. His desire to serve the people did result in his standing for council one year but his reputation as a leftie in a time when people were afraid of ‘reds’ saw him lose in spite of his popularity. He was very hurt by this rejection but continued his support of people through sport.
Filip’s sponsorship of sport in Mareeba is legendary. His own sport was bowls, and he played for many years, becoming patron of the club and sponsoring many competitions including the Atherton-Mareeba inter-town competition which continues to this day. He also sponsored the Mareeba Soccer club, now sponsored by his nephew. He sponsored competitions for the Mareeba Swimming club and was president of the Mareeba Amateur Boxing Club. He was President and patron of the Mareeba Basketball club for more than 48 years. Many Mareeba ex-basketballers remember him manning the front door; attending every game, rain, hail or shine. As well as his encouragement of sport, Filip was also a board member of the Tobacco Growers Board, a member of the Mareeba Chamber of Commerce for more than 20 years, vice-president of the Crippled Children Society for 12 years and an inaugural committee member of the Garden Settlement Committee.
Mum and Dad had three children, eight grandchildren and a growing number of great-grand children. Sarah Srhoj died after a brief illness on 14 September 1988. Filip survived her by 9 years finally leaving the family and town he loved on 3 January 1997.
Janet Greenwood General Manager
Janet commenced work with the Mareeba Heritage Centre in July 2016. She had the vision to create this project and was instrumental in acquiring funds and putting the right people in place to bring this project together. Janet is passionate about community engagement and development.
Mick Hay Announcer (Mareeba 4AM & Innisfail 4KZ)
Mick has worked casually in radio for 30 years at a number of stations including 4LM, 4GC and 4KZ whilst also working for Telstra. He joined the 4AM team taking over the Breaky Show full time in July 2014. Mick enjoys living in tropical North Queensland after growing up in Innisfail and staying in areas like Thursday Island, Normanton, Mount Isa, Cairns and Mossman. In his spare time, Mick likes to go camping, do a bit of fishing and he enjoys the great outdoors.
Angela Musumeci Volunteer Project Officer
Angela was born in Mareeba but like most young people left to pursue a career in Corrections and then Community Services. On retirement, she returned to her home town and is happy to be contributing to progression and preservation.