Casino buried one of its own in January. Ninety-seven year-old bullocky and bush poet Jack Axford was a spirited, community-minded individual who belonged to another era. For decades Jacks gentle beasts led Beef Weeks grand parade and his appearance was for many a highlight of Casinos popular 12-day celebration of beef and the bush. His passion for bullocks prevailed long after it was fashionable or economical.
It was symbolic then, that when Beef Week committee members decided last week that the much-loved 25-year-old festival would be cancelled that thoughts turned to Jack.
We looked at a photo of Jack and his bullocks and a couple of us cried, said committee member Janelle McLennan. Jack had died and so had Beef Week. There was a great sense of grief for the loss of the festival and for a time lost. Jack was, to me, the epitome of Beef Week he was a battler, an old-time larrikin, but someone with a great heart.
Many locals have described the demise of Beef Week as akin to a death in the family.
Ive had so many people contact me and come up to me in the street to say Its my festival; we cant let it die, said Richmond Valley mayor Charlie Cox. People feel as though they have lost something really precious. I feel like Ive certainly lost one of my best friends and Casino has lost one of its greatest ambassadors.
Each year the event attracted some 20,000 people to the Richmond Valley to experience such traditions as cow-milking, wood-chopping and whip-cracking, enjoy a free breakfast with the butchers, a suite of cultural activities and come face-to-face with one-tonne stud bulls in the main street of town. Somewhere between the hoedowns, led-steer competitions and cow-pat Lotto, Beef Week burnt its brand on Casino.
That Beef Week brought immense economic and promotional benefits to the district and its all-important beef industry is undisputed. The annual influx of visitors and flow-on tourism effects were profound and the event firmly installed Casino as the beef capital of Australia. Less measurable was the sense of community pride and spirit of co-operation that Beef Week inspired among people determined to celebrate their heritage and have fun.
People like the late great cattle man Wally Bennett, whose prize bull Think Big made a big impression on the floor of the Commercial Hotels public bar in the early days and was only saved from crashing into the cellar below by the carpet when he stepped through the floor; colourful cowgirl Brenda Armfield, who dispensed balloons and program updates with vigour from her brightly decorated Mini Moke; and the many entrants in what is now known as the Miss Casino Beef Week quest, who never took offence at being known as Miss Hereford, Miss Braford or Miss Droughtmaster.
Stalwart Iris Cruickshank, now in her late 70s, volunteered her services from the outset, most recently helping marshal the flotilla of floats that sailed down Barker Street during the grand parade. Shell never forget the inaugural Beef Week, in 1982, and the spectacle of beautiful stud cattle being proudly led through town for the first time.
But in recent years the hard slog of organising and staging Beef Week has increasingly fallen to a small team of tireless but tiring volunteers. Securing adequate and ongoing sponsorship to cover the events $90,000 operational costs was a constant struggle and rumblings persisted that the program needed to be revamped and the event put on a firmer financial footing.
Still, committee president Terry Serone said that the final decision to butcher Beef Week, taken after many agonizing sleepless nights, was heartbreaking.
We had a new program of events for this years Beef Week but no support to run those events, Terry said. You cant do it without volunteer help. The loss of Beef Week is a sad reflection on the regions community spirit. Some of the heart has gone out of Casino.
He said many local businesses made money out of Beef Week (tourism is worth some $35 million annually to the district and in 2005-06 directly generated 270 jobs and 405 related jobs) but few were prepared to invest in it. They will be hit hard financially by its loss come June or July, but perhaps not as hard as the volunteer and service organisations Rotary, Quota, Lions, the SES and Rural Fire Service among them for whom the event was a major fundraiser.
Richmond Valley Mayor Charlie Cox, who became renowned for his corrugated-iron Beef Week bulls and cows (especially the jet-setting Sir Loin and his partner Milly, who disappeared one year and famously sent postcards from around the globe) described the festival as the heartbeat of the region. We had no need for glitzy fireworks displays; it was simply people enjoying each others company and preserving the country charm that reflects good, solid values, he said.
But some say that improved business, marketing and budgetary planning for the event was long overdue.
Richmond Valley Council Tourism and Promotions Officer Rod Caldicott remains firmly committed to working through a formal planning process to assist Beef Week to develop a road map for the future of the event.
So perhaps Beef Week isnt quite ready to be put out to pasture. Casino Chamber of Commerce President Jannie Stevens has been investigating possible government funding sources and says there are townspeople willing to volunteer their services to ensure that Beef Week survives. The Casino RSM Club is also putting together a weekend program of events for May to try to keep the momentum going.
The Beef Week committee host their monthly meeting on March 19 and many hope that positive solutions and genuine offers of financial and practical support will see Beef Week resurrected. Janelle McLennan is not alone when she says she hopes the festival can be saved, to honour people like Jack Axford, the regions 1500 beef producers and townspeople, alike.
Jack was someone who went against the grain, said Janelle. He was proud of his heritage and refused to let the modern-day engines take over from his beloved bullocks. He never gave up without a fight. Maybe Beef Week wont either.
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