There are few towns in Tasmania with a reputation as notorious as Rossarden’s.
My mate’s uncle stumbled upon a secret den for hideaways up there once upon a time; this is where you used to go when you were on the run from the cops. Marijuana crops surely grow in the gullies. When a friend’s car threatened to break down up here, she panicked and nearly drove into a ditch.
Or so I’m told. That’s the thing about it all: once a place gains a reputation, stories proliferate and distort into rumours. Myth starts growing, whorling all around it.
I should know: I grew up in such a place, in a town whose name affords you no favours when you say you belonged to it in the first years of your life. A town associated with incest and ice.
Myth tends to have its basis somewhere in reality, and there is nothing fabulous about some of the police reports coming out of Rossarden. Not the least of these is the unsolved murder of Paul Byrne, who was last seen leaving the Rossarden Club at 2a.m. on September 20, 1996. Detectives believe he was “sexually tortured” before he was killed. It is generally believed that those responsible are well-known within the community.
What do we do with the threads of official history that run through a place so far from the centre of the world’s historical narrative? High in the foothills of Ben Lomond, in Tasmania’s remote north-east, Rossarden grew to become a rough cloister in the bush. Its life was centred upon a tin mine. Outsiders rarely visited – perhaps mine managers from elsewhere, or footy teams visiting from the Fingal Valley, or the Mouth Organ Band on tour – and it wasn’t too common for locals to head out either. (They say, though, that Frank Sellars broke record speeds when asked by the local nurse to get a heavily pregnant woman down the windy roads to the hospital in Campbell Town.)
They say that when a tin scratcher named Cheshire passed out after a night of drinking, he missed his chance on being a part of the first claim on the Aberfoyle Rivulet, which would sustain this place for decades. His colleagues, Shepherd and Haas, found the lode while Cheshire snored.
Countless stories spiral out of the nucleus of this hole in the ground. At the dance hall, the younger members of established families met. Illicit bottles of home-brew were shared in secret corners. Men and women fell in love.
“A cricket match was held in February 1937 between married and single men. The married men won by 23 runs. Afternoon tea was supplied by the ladies,” writes Narelle Blackaby in her history of the town.
The stalwart nurse of Rossarden, Sister Phyllis McShane, ended up marrying the storekeeper Mac Campbell.
Pop and Kees Dingjan had moved from Holland and ended up running a butchers store in the bush.
These stories make this town as much as murder and outlawry. But they don’t make as good print.
When I last passed through Rossarden, on a chilly spring day, stillness and chimney smoke hung off the structure of the landscape. And what a beautiful landscape: high up beneath Stacks Bluff, nestled amongst snow-tolerant gums and shrubs that come to flower late in the season.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the locals perpetuate their own notoriety to stop outsiders from taking over – to keep the property prices low.
But in a few short years, I have watched Tasmania’s international reputation change. Even my own hometown is getting a makeover, with arts festivals and boutique booze distilleries starting to bring in a different crowd. One of these days, I’ll say where I’m from and it will mean something we’d never have guessed. The same may go for Rossarden. They say there’s only one crook left in town nowadays.
But the thing about these small towns, far from the major roads, beyond the tourist route, is that the stories trickle down and don’t often reach the rest of the island undistorted. To know what’s going on in a place like Rossarden, you need to go there yourself. You need to spend a while.