Federal Coffee Palace

It could be that the Federal Coffee Palace which stood like a grand old lady in Gellibrand Street, Colac, was named after the Federal Hotel and Coffee Palace built in the heart of Melbourne in 1888.  In those days, Coffee Palaces were largely known as alcohol-free establishments.  The Melbourne building, amidst much controversy, was demolished in 1973.  It was an imposing building which apparently hosted many sculpted figures and handsome balustrades. 

The Federal Coffee Palace building in Colac was taken over by Thomas Allen in 1915.  He also owned and operated Orient House, two doors up, as well as the butcher shop next door and a small cottage between the two guest houses where, over the years, several families resided.  On the north side of Orient House was a second-hand shop owned by Mrs. Spokes.

Our grandparents, Hugh Alfred Ernest McKenzie and his wife, Bridget (formerly Brady), came to Colac from Carlisle River and before that from Princetown.  Hugh was born in 1868 at Glenample Station and though only nine years old at the time, he remembered the Loch Ard tragedy.  He became overseer of Glenample, married our grandmother and later moved to a Princetown farm known as Cananook where their family of four sons and six daughters were born.  After many years, they moved to a farm at Carlisle River and then to Colac where they established themselves in the Federal Coffee Palace, commonly called the Federal which was located diagonally across from the railway station.  We are not sure if our grandparents named the establishment or if it already carried that name. 

Hugh and Bridget with group – Federal Coffee Palace

Guests who stayed at the Federal were well catered for and in a very friendly atmosphere, the McKenzie family established a good reputation for their meals and accommodation.  Many of the guests who came from around the district were well known to the family and would be warmly welcomed and made to feel at home.  The farmers would arrive, sometimes on horseback or in horse-drawn vehicles.  There were boys from the outskirts of Colac who would ride their bikes into the town where they had jobs.  They would arrive at the Federal on a Sunday evening and leave on Fridays to return to their homes.  Guests were commercial travellers, representatives of government departments such as agriculture, forests, lands, railways, S.E.C.[1] workers, P.M.G.[2] mechanics, school teachers, bank clerks and others. There were workers from around the district and farmers who came to town for cattle sales, usually held on Thursdays.  Most government representatives travelled by train, as in those days the motor car was not generally used by government employees, therefore, the Federal was conveniently located.   People came and went.  Some would be regulars and others perhaps itinerant workers. 

Bridget McKenzie was a tall woman, kind of heart, but firm and very much a capable business woman.  Her dresses were long and black, her black and amber beads also long and she wore her lovely silvery hair coiled on top of her head.  Bridget, fondly known as Chree, was mainly assisted by their daughter, Jean, as well as her younger daughter, Margaret, who, with her husband Alec and daughter Sandra, lived at the Federal until their own home was built.  It is said that on his return from WWI, Hugh, their eldest son, called her Chree after the song Mother Machree[3].  Hugh’s sons and daughters affectionately called him Farsar.  He cared for the maintenance of the building and outdoor areas as well as the large vegetable garden on the block at the back of the house, about where Woolworths stands today.  Farsar and Chree kept a cow, which they milked daily, in a vacant paddock on the south-east corner of Gellibrand and Rae Street.  The eldest of our family, our brother Hugh, remembered Farsar milking and our older sister, Irene, remembers Chree who also milked, crossing the road carrying a bucket for the milk.  After Farsar died on 15th November, 1943, the business would have been difficult for Bridget to manage without family help.  She occupied the room at the front of the house and loved to play cards with the boarders in what was the sitting room opposite her bedroom.  Sandra recalls, as a child, sitting with Chree when she was preparing the shopping lists ready to remind her to add Cool Mints to the list.

I remember the kitchen.  There were big black double wood-fired ovens that stretched across almost the width of the kitchen.  A wooden dish rack, made by our father, was placed over the large double sink area to rest the dishes after they had been washed and rinsed in boiling-hot water.  I remember the cutlery being washed and then placed in tins also containing boiling-hot water.  My sisters and I loved being asked to wait on the tables which were beautifully set with fresh tablecloths, napkins and always flowers or fresh decorations such as eucalypt twigs.  We would clear the tables and help with the washing up.  It was so interesting seeing people from other places as well as local working people who came for their daily lunches.  Another of my most vivid memories is of the huge and beautiful mirrors over the very large chiffonieres in the dining room. 

Hugh and Bridget with grandchild Irene

The kitchen table was central to many projects and there was even one family friend who built a refrigerator for his caravan on the table.  We are not sure how our aunties worked with that going on or if the refrigerator was ever finished.

With Sandra, we bounced on the beds (which was forbidden) and ran up and down the spacious passageways, sliding on the polished linoleum.  We tap-danced on the small front wooden veranda where we usually stood on Thursdays to watch horsemen driving cattle past on their way to the saleyards which were located around the corner in Rae Street, stretching along the back of the Gellibrand Street shops and buildings.  This yard was operated by Charles Stewart and Company.  The cattle would run very close to the veranda railing which would excite us.  Where the Safeway car park is located at present, was the pig market, operated by J.G. Johnstone & Co. and it was not unusual for pigs to be driven along the back and at times stray into the back of the house.  Johnstones also operated a cattle yard at the back of Johnstone’s Lane, which is currently a car park.

The boarding house seemed enormous to me with rooms along the front hallway, a sort of vestibule in the middle and more rooms lining the back hallway.  In the vestibule area there was a big black telephone through which one called the telephone operators, gave them the number you wished to call and they would get the number for you and call back. Under the telephone were huge tubs which contained flour and sugar.  There was a large pantry on the landing across from the kitchen.  My aunty would often ask one of us to get so many dippers of one or both for her cooking. 

The guests were all male until 1951 when our sister-in-law, Molly (nee O’Dowd), came into Colac from Lavers Hill for employment.  There was a room at the front of the house separate from the men’s quarters.  Our grandmother bent the rules and allowed Molly to share a room with a young girl who had come into Colac to take up an apprenticeship in hairdressing.  Over the years, several girls worked in the house.  Molly, who continued to live in, remembers dancing in the kitchen in the evenings to music by Joe Egan playing his accordion.  At any one time there would be approximately thirty full-time boarders.  The male bathroom had a shower which the ladies would use after the men all left for work.  There was a female bathroom, but without a shower.  Male and female septic toilets were located in the backyard.  The laundry was behind the kitchen and had a wood-fired copper, cement wash troughs and a hand-operated wringer.  There was some sort of well in the laundry which we were always warned to avoid.  Firewood for the sitting room, kitchen and copper consisted of mill ends which were delivered into the backyard and there were chip hot-water systems in the bathrooms.  A Coolgardie Safe was kept on the south side outside of the kitchen. 

McKenzie family members lived there over the years as well as coming from Adelaide, Melbourne and Dunkeld for holidays.  The family continued to manage the Federal for some years.  After Bridget’s death on 12th September 1952, the business was run by Jean who managed it until the lease expired. 

There were always stories being told.  Once, two farmers, well known to each other, came to stay overnight.  They were allotted a room containing two beds, which were very close together.  When they retired for the night, they each placed their boots at the side of their bed.  Charlie and Bill were soon fast asleep after a tiring day.  Charlie had to leave early next morning.  It was quite dark when he awoke and to avoid waking his room-mate or disturbing the rest of the household, he dressed quietly and slipped away.  When Bill awoke, Charlie had already left.  He began to dress but when he put on his boots, he found that one of them was very tight and took a bit of squeezing into.  He passed this off, thinking that his feet may have swollen.  He thought no more of it until he proceeded to the saleyards.  Whilst talking to some of his acquaintances, he realised that one boot was smaller and different than the other.  Charlie had taken one of Bill’s boots of a smaller size and, like Bill, had not noticed the difference.  It was some time before Bill was able to catch up with Charlie and in the meantime he had to suffer the discomfort of a tight and smaller boot. 

Another story was of the time when George had driven his cattle from his farm about thirty miles away, with him his faithful dog.  At lunch time, George was sitting at the long table when his friend Taffy arrived and sat opposite him.  The table had been decorated by our aunty with gum-tips and, George, finding it difficult to see his friend on the other side of the table, drew a penknife from his pocket and deftly snipped some of the foliage away, all the better to see and converse with Taffy.  Now, Taffy had a bad leg and in order to place it in a comfortable position, stretched it out under the table.  Moving his feet, George happened to touch Taffy’s outstretched leg and called out, “That bloody dog.  He follows me everywhere”.  With that he gave the supposed dog a hefty kick, but of course, it was poor old Taffy who got a nasty kick on the shin which did nothing to help his bad leg.  Everyone except Taffy found this a very amusing incident.

There was another incident in which George was involved which also gave many people cause for laughter.  A heifer, presumably belonging to George, had escaped from the saleyards.  People were astonished to see George careering along the street holding the heifer’s tail.  The pace became faster and faster, but George hung on tenaciously.  At first he was taking long strides, but as the heifer gained speed, George was leaping high into the air outlining an arc about two feet from the ground, at the same time swaying from side to side.  This continued for some distance along the street, but eventually poor George had to give in and the heifer disappeared into the distance.  A most disappointed George returned and was given an ovation from the onlookers, but this failed to impress him.  He was heard to have made some very profane remarks about cattle in general.

Sadly, the boarding house was demolished in later years and the building called Egan’s Laundry stands in its place today.  The butcher shop still stands, but is not operating.  The general café and grocery shop over the road from the boarding house was owned by the Frauenfelder family: Mr. and Mrs. Frauenfelder, their daughter, Ellen and her grandmother, a tiny woman.  It was of great excitement when Chree, or one of our aunties, gave us money to go across to the shop to get an ice cream.  The shop is still there and in operation.  Driving past now brings back so many happy memories.

The memory of the Federal lingers and many stories can be related of events occurring there.

My thanks to all those who assisted me with this story, Lyn Heppner.

[1] S.E.C. – State Electricity Commission

[2][2][2] P.M.G. – Post Master General

[3] Mother Machree – an American-Irish song (1910)