The Catalan footprint // The portrait: José Paronella

The portrait: José Paronella

Paronella as an example of catalaness
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A man with a dream.

José Pedro Enrique Paronella was born on 26th Feb 1887, in La Vall de Santa Creu, a small village in North East Catalonia. Born to Pedro and Maria Paronella – they had six kids and José was the youngest. His grandma told wonderful stories of romantic Spanish castles and the nobleza whose lives were filled with drama and excitement. José loved these stories and they made a deep impression on him.

José left school early to look for work, he moved away to a small town to become a baker – it was hard work and for long hours. While in Pamplona he saw an advertisement to work in Australia and decided to go for it. He boarded the ‘Seydlitz’ in Genoa and arrived in Sydney on 24th July 1913. He was 26 years old. 

He headed to Innisfail, north Queensland, in search for work. José hated the start of the cane cutting season. The pain in his hands was almost unbearable, his skin bubbled with blisters, he had aching limbs and nightmares. He was then asked to be a cook for the cane cutting gang. The men demanded large quantities of nutritious food, steak was eaten for all meals, and bacon, chicken, eggs, bread and local fruits. To these traditional Aussie foods, José added European touches with pasta, rice and herbs. He didn't spend his money on booze or gambling like many others. He had a dream to purchase his own farm, which was not very common amongst his colleagues, who always derided him as non-Australian.

José bought a stretch of rainforest. It was hard work clearing it, but eventually he began to cultivate the soil and harvest. His new status as a landowner brought new respect from friends and local farmers and more responsibility.  He steadily began to make money from his crops, and over the next few years he bought, improved and resold about twelve cane farming properties, amassing a considerable amount of money.

José had a good business mind, and invested in a number of different activities: including mining and money lending. During this time José had never forgotten about the Spanish castles his grandmother had described so many years before. There was a dream stuck in his mind...

On the 5th October 1921 he became an Australian citizen. Being 34 years old and very wealthy, José became a target for 'The Black Hand', a criminal organisation with links to the Camorra of Naples and the Mafia of Sicily, but José would not give them any of the money he had earned. In order to avoid dire consequences from this, and the Australian tax department, José returned to Spain.

In 1924 José went to marry a woman he had previously agreed to marry, but she had married somebody else while José was in Australia. The woman's sister, Margarita, was offered to José to restore the family's honour, and they married on the 16th September 1925. José shared his dreams of Spanish castles, balconies, fountains and pavilions with his new wife, and as they traveled through Europe after their wedding they observed buildings, gardens, tourist parks, cinemas, ballrooms, cafes and hydro electric schemes.

Once in Australia, Margarita had a physically hard lifestyle, but never complained. She learnt to live with snakes, spiders and large moths, and learnt English from comics in the newspaper. She found Australian ways difficult.

José bought a property in Mena Creek, an amazing area for its visual beauty, the dense green tropical vegetation, a flowing creek, dramatic falls and a swimming hole. It was the perfect area for a Spanish castle and pleasure grounds. He was a shrewd business man; he sourced material from his own property, and found inexpensive labour. He first built a staircase and a cottage, the first house in the area with indoor plumbing.  Then he built balustrades, picnic tables and a cafe, which suggested the romantic architecture of his native Catalonia. The castle tower was built next, with rooftop balconies and external staircases and Moorish gardens which encouraged meditation. It was similar to styles that José had seen in Spain, it was magical, “a romantic fairytale set against a deep green of the tropical jungle”. José envisioned his grounds to be a pleasure park, an oasis from the cane fields.

In 1934 Jose installed a hydro-electric plant, powered by water from the falls. This had fascinated José in Europe. By 1935 all the major building was completed. Paronella Park received official recognition and praise by the governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Orme Wilson.

Paronella Park was a popular place with the locals. José and Margarita organised social events with other Spanish residents, such as dances and meals, together with advice-giving and fund-raising for the Spanish Civil War.

In 1943 the presence of WW2 US troops in the Cairns/Innisfail area was felt, bringing a sense of confidence about the future. The American presence brought prosperity to Jose's ailing venture: Paronella Park was an ideal place for the soldiers to unwind. As a respite from war, the free-spending troops would bring their girlfriends to swim, stroll, dine and dance. About 70 American troops came every Sunday; Margarita prepared paella for them with home-grown tomatoes and herbs.

Later on, José began to feel uneasy about the future. He became physically ill, and by late 1945 could no longer conceal his symptoms. While in Brisbane José became dizzy and collapsed. Meanwhile a tropical cyclone in Queensland brought widespread tropical rain. Few visitors came to the park, and due to his illness, José could no longer work. The loss of income worried José. The rising floodwaters of the cyclone carried large amounts of debris and logs down the creek, and Paronella Park was severely damaged.

After the flood, work began on cleaning and restoring Paronella Park. The park was uninsured, and became a great financial hardship. Paronella Park was closed for six months during restoration, and the cafe never re-opened. José was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach, it was inoperable, and he died on the 23rd August 1948.

The park was closed for several years and sold out of the Paronella family. Other natural disasters swept the place, such as a fire in the castle in 1979, cyclone Winifred in 1986 and a flood in 1994. 

One day, Mark and Judy Evans discovered the park and fell in love with José’s story and decided to bring his vision back to life. Since then, they have worked on maintaining and preserving the park, always keeping in mind José’s will. Nowadays, Paronella Park is one of the most visited sites in Queensland and José’s dream is still alive.

Are you ready to discover it?