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21 May, 2022

Beating heart of tobacco display

A REMARKABLE remnant of Mareeba and Dimbulah’s golden era of tobacco farming is due to be restored and presented as the heart of the tobacco display at the Mareeba Heritage Centre.

By Rhys Thomas

Mareeba Lions Club member Dennis McKinley, Dimbulah Lions Club member and donator of the tobacco picker Eddie Toffanelo with fabricator Brian Dunigan (centre) in front of the machine.

The four row tobacco picker was a top-of-the-line machine in the industry and continued to pick tobacco in Dimbulah at Eddie Toffanello’s farm until 2003.

 Protected from the elements for nearly two decades, the hulking machine is now set to get a new lease on life as the centrepiece for the heritage centre’s impressive and extensive tobacco display. The machine has sat dormant for nearly 20 years and was under the threat of being scrapped before the Mareeba and Dimbulah Lions Clubs took on the task of restoring and donating the historical piece to the centre. 

Mareeba Lion Dennis McKinley was approached by a woman during one of the club’s regular sausage sizzles outside of Coles, she informed him of the machine laying inoperative at Mr Toffanello’s farm. 

“There is a site already approved at the heritage centre out in the centre plot for a tobacco picker - it was only going to be a smaller two rower or something like that, so it is nowhere big enough for this machine,” Mr McKinley said. “Mareeba could be known as the big tobacco picking machine, we have the Big Banana, the Big Gumboot and all sorts of big things.” 

The revolutionary machine enabled farmers to pick four rows of tobacco leaves at a time, workers would sit on the seats below putting leaves into a bag that would simultaneously be lifted to the floor above, they would then be racked and put on a trailer ready to go straight into the curing barn. 

The machines were developed and produced in Dimbulah at Dunigan’s Metal Fabricators and R&G Beghin General Engineering, however the one used at Mr Toffanello’s farm was made under the watchful eye of Brian Dunigan himself. 

“It was the first type of machine that had all the bins go up together, unload, and come back down again all by themselves,” Mr Dunigan said. 

Every tobacco farmer in the Mareeba and Dimbulah area either had one of these innovative pickers or knew someone who did. 

“It was the latest innovation in tobacco harvesting – in the end, every farmer had one,” Mr Toffanello said. “Efficiency was through the roof, they reduced the cost of labour and efforts and it was just a better system all around. “I had this machine stored away undercover ever since the industry finished and then one day we took the machine out to create a bit more space and the thing was, what are we going to do with this monstrosity.” 

It was then that Mr Toffanello’s wife, Emma, proposed the idea to donate the picker to the Mareeba Heritage Centre. “We were just going to cut it up and rob bits and pieces off it, sell the tyres, and then it was my wife’s idea to donate it,” Mr Toffanello said. “Dennis is obviously a member on the Mareeba Heritage Centre Committee so he said, ‘let’s do it’.” 

It is estimated that there were less than 50 of the four row pickers made with nearly all being used in the Mareeba and Dimbulah area, while a small number were sent down south. Mr Toffanello’s picker had some modifications done while it was in service and its age has begun to show, so both the Mareeba and the Dimbulah Lions Clubs have banded together to restore the picker to its original glory. The rough total cost of the project including restoring the machine and getting the space at the heritage centre prepared, comes to over $100,000 with grants being pursued to help offset the cost. 

“We will be looking in excess of $100,000, 40,000 for the shed, power lights, you will chew up $100,000 easily,” Mr McKinley said. “That is to get it all display ready for people to look at. “What we are looking for is any member of the public or businesses that want to come on board as sponsors to help get this thing moving.”

 Businesses and residents are being encouraged to donate money and or resources to assist the clubs as they undertake the massive project, a plaque will be installed with the display to thank those who donated. 

If you would like to donate, please contact Mr McKinley on 0487 617 589 or Mr Toffanello on 0417 193 213.

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