1960’s: Banana Growing in the 1960’s ….. with Owen & Norma Aitken & Family


Note: I would like to share with you through these few words, photographs and hyperlinked websites, a 3 Dimensional experience as though you were actually there with us. Click on any photograph and it should enlarge to a   different size  …… at least half screen or size full screen. It will be clearer in detail than the photo on the post. It will be as if you were  really there looking at the actual  scene. You are an armchair traveller with us.



Photo 1: The Graham house below the new Browns plantation Dad bought in the 1960’s. The creek is in flood after the cyclone mentioned in Photo 4.


Photo 2: Dad and I in the bananas in the late 1960’s. In the 1960’s Dad bought an additional plantation off Mr. Brown nearby. This photograph was taken outside Browns Packing Shed facing Browns extensive Avocado Plantation. We had special banana clothes as the sap from the cut stems would permanently stain your clothes.  See the post  on Mr. and Mrs. Brown:  Browns House at Wilsons Creek as in January 2008


Photo 3: Paintings of banana cutting. I painted these paintings in 1966 when I was 17 years old  in my small art class of five fellow students in my final years of Mullumbimby High School. I left High School for further tertiary studies down south at the end of 1967. Our very enthusiastic Art teacher Mr. Brereton, was teaching about the genre style of painting from past artists ….. of painting everyday scenes of life.

Because banana growing was central to our world then, I began to paint scenes from the banana-growing world. I was seeing the wonderful sunlight effects falling down through translucent banana leaves, falling in shaded effects on moving bodies, on banana stems, and on the trashed leaves and stalks on the ground. I was also experimenting with the new water-based acrylic paints which had just become available. They had a really luminescent and broad quality about them.

This painting was hung in a central staircase of one of the new buildings at the time. Everyone saw it as they moved up and down the stairs. In the early 1980’s I personally obtained it back from the present Art master who had kept it in special storage. It now hangs on a wall in our TV room in our house.

See our House  Post


Photo 4: The plantations adjacent to our plantation. The Aitken plantation merged with other plantations around the Valley ….. next door there was the Knights, then the Graham’s, then the Cox’s and then the Brown’s plantation. There was a continuous steep north-facing rocky escarpment that suddenly turned into an elbow as the photo above demonstrates. This ran for about half a kilometre and suddenly turned back to a steep north-facing escarpment again. This escarpment ran for many kilometres to the full length of the Wilsons Creek valley. Other plantations were spread over this escarpment.

This photo was is taken after a cyclone has gone through Northern New South Wales. All the creeks and waterfalls were flowing …. it was quite spectacular. After one cyclone in this time period, there were several major landslides that tore out wide and long strips of plantation …. probably in the order of 200 metres long and thirty metres wide. The ground was so waterlogged, the soil just turned to mud and slid down the hill. We went over and looked at the situation with Dad at the time in Brown’s and Cox’s plantation. All these hillsides have now been taken over by Camphor Laurel trees in 2007. There are no bananas whatsoever there now.


Photo 5: Dad is misting the bananas. This was to prevent a fungal disease from attacking the leaves of the bananas. A fine mist of air mixed with an anti-fungal chemical solution from the tank on the back of the machine could be directed upward at will into the leaves of the bananas.


Banana Growing in the 1950’s – 1970’s.


I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s at Wilsons Creek, up in the mountains out from Mullumbimby in Northern New South Wales. I was raised on a banana plantation amidst the steep slopes of rainforest and wet sclerophyll (gum) forest and occasional cliff outcrops. The creek we swam in was a very clear, clean freshwater rainforest creek with big deep pools. People now in the City, would give their `eye’ teeth for it as my late father used to say.

Wilson’s Creek is about twenty minutes (about ten kilometres) up in one of the many valleys west of Mullumbimby, in the Northern Rivers area. With this time, came for me a strong spiritual love of Creation, Nature, Country Living, and the Environment.

It was a hard and simple life with a Dad and Mum and three younger brothers (Gerald, Rick, and Colin). My father had come through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. His father had died when he was only thirteen and he had had to leave home and fend for himself. He had learned many lessons of self-sufficiency …. personally and economically.

I recently saw a DVD called ‘Liam’ a story a little boy called Liam growing up in Liverpool, England in an Irish Catholic family in the 1930’s. The Depression had just started and men were finding it hard to get work in the factories. Factories were closing down from lack of sales and there was no welfare at all.

In the midst of growing tensions, there was a rigid traditional Catholic education for the small boy Liam. There were racial tensions between the Irish versus English, prosperous Jews, and the grinding poverty of the working class. This poverty was all set against a rising nationalism led by Mosely with his black-shirted followers (the equivalent of the German people who became the Nazis). The Unions were formulating their identity with a background of Communists advocating for promises of a better society with State-run endeavors.

People coped and made do with frugality and counting every bit of money and put up with a lot of hardship. Even the children worked part-time to help the family budget. Sharing and helping out each other was common. It was a real do-it-yourself approach to life with practical wisdom and innovation born out of necessity. The Government wasn’t helping them …. They had to help themselves.

I now have a better understanding of what Dad had to go through to survive by himself in this period with himself alone. The conditions of the Depression were felt in many countries around the world, including Australia at the time. Now I understand the cultural attitudes of frugality, communal help, and openness to others and at the same time self-sufficiency, emphasis on innovation and practicality, a ‘no-frills’ approach to life and making do with what you have.

These lessons of a ‘do-it-yourself approach to life’ were passed on to us boys in different ways. They were more caught than taught by example. We could make anything for ourselves. As money was always tight, we would make our own fun and amusements individually and together. We would make our own toys and equipment such as billy carts, canoes, thatch huts, treehouses, American Indian suits out of cut and painted hessian, Indian ti-pis to match the theme, homemade chemistry sets and experimenting with electricity from torch batteries to name a few things.


The nature of bananas: …. in this subtropical area, bananas could only be grown on north-facing slopes for maximum warmth and sunlight …… otherwise, the bunches of bananas did not develop to be economical for the farmer.  This then meant there were plantations on the entire north-facing slopes in Wilsons Creek as in all other valleys around Mullumbimby.

Blue plastic covers were placed over the bunches in the winter period which ensured that the bunches would develop fully. They would then be taken off when the bunch was cut down. This was in contrast to tropical areas up north as near Tully and Ingham in the far northern Queensland. Bananas could grown on flat land all year round. That was a far easier proposition. As we were in a subtropical area, we all had to do it this way.


A basic explanation of the nature of the banana plant: There is a central growing stool then it is topped with a whorl of broad green leaves that grows out of the stool. Then one hanging bunch of bananas slowly grew and matured over the months. When it was ready, the green mature banana bunch was assessed as being ready for the cutting day. See the website photos: Images for banana plant

On the cutting day, the farmer goes along the rows with an assistant (as were my brother and I) and assesses the bunch as being ready for cutting. He swings a big knife into the stool about a metre off the ground and while hanging onto the bell (the lower stalk of the bunch). He then lets the whole banana plant fall in a swinging motion so that the bunch is gently lowered to the ground. The bunch doesn’t touch the ground at any stage to avoid marking or bruising the fruit in any way.

The bunch is then lowered down on top of the trashed leaves, cut from the top of the stool and carried with the hooked stalk over your shoulder along the row to a central collecting area. That is why we always wore our ‘Banana Clothes’ …. the sticky sap from the cut stalk would permanently stain our clothes.

The stool was made up of overlapping concentric layers of the banana plant. These layers consisted of cuboidal 5mm air spaces formed by a structured rigid fibrous divide that ties all the overlapping layers into a firm upright plant four to five meters high.  Broad green leaves arise as a whorled bunch out from the end of the converging layers.


The manner of getting the many bunches right down to the lower packing shed area: The plantations were generally in two stages:

1. A flat stage section on generally sloping to flat ground

2. A very steep section on the exposed north-facing slopes

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the way to get the bunches down from the steep slopes was to have several collection stations set out across the plantation. All the bunches were brought in by hand from across the plantation …. carrying the bunches by the hooked stem on your shoulder.  See Photo 3.

From these stations, a series of flying foxes were set up from stout posts at either end. An overhead thick wire went down to the bottom post then a return wire was underneath that. This return wire was thinner than the overhead thick and ran on an endless loop on two bicycle rims which were fastened firmly to each post by a U bracket. The returning wire had two carriers at the top and bottom stations ….. the top could be loaded and sent down whilst the empty carrier came up from the bottom. Each carrier could carry three bunches.

From the early 1960’s came a new innovation for getting the bunches down the slopes to the packing shed. That was in the use of 4WD Toyota Land Cruisers as a utility. Flat zig-zag roads were bulldozed across the steep plantation slopes so the 4WD could climb to the highest point of the plantation, collect a ute load of bunches and turn around and go all the way down to the packing shed.

All the bunches would be carefully unloaded then Dad would go back and get another load. The back of the 4WD would be carefully padded with special blankets so that none of the fruit were bruised. See illustrated a road being used in Photo 5: Dad is misting the bananas …. using one of the roads.

The Packing Shed Process: In the packing was a focused set of repetitive tasks. It was repetitive throughout the day and then repeated in the next cutting day. The goal was to finish the cutting and packing in one day = Sunday as all the family was available. This consisted of cutting off all the hands of bananas off the bunch and carefully stacking them in graded sizes against the wall of the shed. Plastic sheeting was underneath to prevent bruising of the fruit.

Individual bananas were then pulled off the hands of bananas and packed into wooden cases. When full, the cases had wooden lids nailed on them and a stencil brand showing the Banana Agent’s name and address had to be stenciled on either end of the case. The case had to be loaded on to a dipping framework which lowered the case into a rectangular galvanized tank filled with an anti-fungal solution to prevent diseases like Squirter from attacking the individual bananas.

Squirter was a disease the bananas could get after they had been down to market. One the ends went brown and the end of the banana went very squishy. All the cases had to be stacked near the loading area for loading the next day. It was major physical work from all the family to get the job done in one day. Monday was time for Dad to take the wooden cases of packed fruit to the train at Mullumbimby ….. for the trip to Melbourne.


Basic banana tasks: chipping weeds, stripping the dead leaves from around the growing stool, fertilizing with a nitrogenous fertilizer and suckering. Suckering was process of selectively removing the cluster of suckers which grew out from the initial stool by using a long steel gouging like tool that cut a conical hole into a new sucker and removing it.

If you didn’t sucker, each banana plant would go from single stool to a multitudinous mass of trunks. Suckering left a single trunk to develop and kept all the rows in parallel to each other. Because a single stool only grows one bunch, there needed to be replacement suckers coming on. Either on flat or sloping land, the sucker was always kept on the topside of the stool. This way over the years, the rows advanced up the hill or over the flat ground.

Cutting Day: this was a big day as fifty to a hundred bunches of bananas could be cut. Packing and cutting days began on Sunday when us boys were home to help Mum and Dad with the packing. Monday was time for Dad to take the wooden cases of packed fruit to the train at Mullumbimby ….. for the trip to Melbourne. Dad would use a banana agent like Mentiplay who would give us the best prices for our fruit In summertime, packing was weekly as the bananas developed very quickly.

In wintertime it was fortnightly or as fruit developed. In the late 1950’s, the way to get the bunches down from the steep slopes was to have several stations set out across the plantation.

Preparing a new patch of bananas: The new patch was on a north-facing slope at approximately 30 degrees. In one lot of Christmas holidays, I worked for six weeks in very hot days on the exposed slopes, chipping out the newly emerged bracken fern and the new crofton weeds in the newly prepared patch just under the top ridge forest line. I was never paid any time ….. it just expected that you would help out around.

Working in the bananas was really a subsistence farming with very little free money. New rows of freshly planted rows of banana suckers ran across the slope, were planted into soft ground ripped to 0.5 metres deep in downward runs by the clearing bulldozer. As I worked, I would uncover fresh cicada nymphs and hand-feed these to the magpie who often accompanied me.


Some Things I remember About Working for Dad:

  • In the bananas sending down bunches to the lower holding area …. this was preceded by the bunches we sent down to be caught by a rope …… some of them smashing into the stump behind the wire.  In contrast, the Land Rover carried the bunches carefully  down to the packing shed with the bunches wrapped in layers felt padding to avoid bruising
  • The Flat Area of Bananas above the house: There was a portion of the patch about a hundred metres above the house. It was a lot easier to work as flat ground as the bananas were in tidy rows across the contour as this was for convenience
  • Part of the yearly work of bananas was stripping the dead leaves which hung down from the individual stools
  • Occasional butcher birds used the upturned banana fingers to make their neat nests in the bunches which Dad showed me
  • Track up the Paddock to the Track to the Top Patch of Bananas in 2005: all that remains is the corner fence post marking the wire fence between the lower cow paddock and the bananas on the flat. The rest has grown up as camphor laurels everywhere.


A new man, David Dubens now owns the property. I get on very well with him. I have been out to the old property several times with my wife Harriet. I have come to realise that our land and house at Chambers Flat Queensland, is very influenced and inspired by growing up here at Wilsons Creek.

See the many hyperlinked posts on our  house and garden: