On Saturday afternoon 28 November 1959, this fronton or handball court was opened before a large crowd. Here vigorous games of pelota mano were played becoming the centre of Basque and Spanish social life in the Herbert River district for 20 years.
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“The Basque, wherever he goes, he carries with him his sign of identity, the Euskera, and his handball game and leaves behind signs of his stay if he stays long enough. In Trebonne we left a handball court.” – Albert Urberuaga
Trebonne was a bustling township in the 1950s and the Trebonne Hotel, run by Joe and Jessie Sartoresi, was a popular meeting place for the locals, where many lifelong friendships were formed.
During the 1950s and 1960s Spanish and Basque cane cutting gangs worked and lived on the surrounding farms. During this time the Mendiolea family sponsored many of the Basque immigrant cane cutters and offered them companionship and a good home-cooked meal.
Back in Euskual Herria, the Basque country, the cane cutters were accustomed to playing pelota mano in the town squares, school grounds or even on church walls. At the Mendiolea’s they would play on the high back wall of their concrete house. During this time, brothers Felix and Jose Maria Jayo ran a baker’s shop across from the Trebonne Hotel. Together with their friend Albert Urberuaga, they approached Joe Sartoresi with the proposal that he build a fronton in the hotel grounds. After seeing pelota mano being played at the Mendiolea’s house and recognizing the economic rewards to be reaped, Joe agreed to build a proper court and proceeded to seek approval from the Shire Council.
Albert Urberuaga and Agustin Adarraga obtained a design which had to be modified as it was for a much larger court, a jai-alai. There are three traditional variations of pelota: mano, pala, and cesta-punta (the supreme version played with a long, scooped, wicker basket (chistera) on a fronton called a jai-alai). Whatever the version, this ancient game required great energy, agility and quick reflexes.
In Trebonne, the game was played with the bare hand (mano) and a goatskin ball which required a smaller court. Architectural firm, Ford, Hutton and Newell drew up appropriate plans and builders Idillio Quartero and Ken Duffy were employed for the construction along with gangs of cane cutters to dig the foundations. There was much community interest in the project which took six weeks to complete. Idillio Quartero recalled that the Basques could hardly restrain their excitement: “[they] nearly began playing while we were still working on it!”
On opening day, the formalities were conducted by Mr. ‘Jack’ Williams, solicitor and the Reverend Father Tomas Ormazabal, travelling chaplin for the Spanish community of north Queensland. An exhibition game and barbecue were held as part of the festivities. On this occasion and for special competitions, traditional clothes were donned: white shirt, trousers with a green or red sash (guerrko) and espadrille like footwear (alpargata). The exhibition game competitors were Felix and Jose Maria Jayo versus Juan Crux Arriaga and Tomas Monasterio, the victors were Felix and Jose Maria.
While both Spaniards and Basques played social games on the Trebonne fronton, only the Basques played competition games. Felix Jayo with his “hands like steel” was the acknowledged local champion of those heydays.
During the harvest season, the Spanish Handball Club would organise many large gatherings of up to 200 people. Nights were filled with dancing; barbecues and many other traditional games were played. The Basque card game Mus; the weight lifting contest Harrijasotzaile which required the lifting of a set of piedras or weight lifting stones and Txingas (Chinga), a competition in which the competitor had to cover a distance carrying a 50-kilogram weight in each hand were just some of them.
By 1980 the court was no longer formally used and manual cane cutting had been replaced by mechanical harvesters.
Most of the Basques who had come out to Australia to cut cane in the Herbert district had returned home and today, the fronton stands unused, a lone remaining monument to mark the small but significant migration of Basque people to north Queensland.
Image 1: A game of pelota mano in progress on the Trebonne fronton. Source: Photographer unknown.
Image 2: Felix Jayo, Jose Maria Jayo, Pasqual Badiola, Tomas Monasterio, Juan Arriaga and Javier Urberuaga (child). Source: Albert Urberuaga