Bonus Downs restoration uncovers historic background

Madonna Connolly with her grandson Benjamin Wilkinson at the entrance to the Bonus Downs Homestead. Picture: Lucy Kinbacher

Madonna Connolly with her grandson Benjamin Wilkinson at the entrance to the Bonus Downs Homestead. Picture: Lucy Kinbacher

WHEN Madonna and Lyle Connolly purchased Bonus Downs, south-west of Mitchell in 1990, everybody in the district thought they were mad.

The homestead, located in Queensland’s Maranoa region, was hidden behind a wall of overgrown grass and weeds and there were no steps to access the broken verandah and empty home.

No woman had lived at the home since 1957 and it had been completely empty in the years before their arrival. 

But after selling their property of more than 40,000 hectares outside of Charleville, the pair knew they had found their dream home. 

“Under all the layers and layers of work we could still see the potential and the diversity of country here,” Madonna said. 

The Bonus Downs Homestead was built in 1911 by Sir Samuel McCaughey.

The Bonus Downs Homestead was built in 1911 by Sir Samuel McCaughey.

“There wasn't one room in the whole house that you could put the kids in.

“There was one power point in the kitchen so if i wanted to use anything I had to run a cord right the way down. There was no fences, no waters.”  

While the pair spent their first year renovating the home to a liveable state, they retained the home’s main structure.

A dining area inside the Bonus Downs Homestead.

A dining area inside the Bonus Downs Homestead.

The interior laundry cupboard was also kept in its original state with bare and paper wall coverings to show guests to the property.  

Complete with a wide verandah, long hallway and five bedrooms, it’s the original breezeway feature that is one of the family’s favourites.

The top of the ceiling is over four metres from the ridge-capping, allowing for increased natural air flow. 

The breezeway inside the Bonus Downs Homestead.

The breezeway inside the Bonus Downs Homestead.

“All the timber in the roof from the fascia boards to the top is all soft white pine, and the bearers are six inches by three inches, and they are 40 foot long, being one board,” the couple said.

“An amazing piece of architecture.”

The breezeway also features an original Bonus Downs timber table, which the jackeroos ate from, while the rest of the home is filled with furniture from Lyle’s grandmother, Doris Pullbrook.

The lounge room at Bonus Downs Homestead.

The lounge room at Bonus Downs Homestead.

But it’s the varied treasures that line the hallway and bedrooms that stand out the most.

There’s family wedding dresses, old slates and vintage ice-cream makers, all of which Madonna said make the home what it is.

“It’s just a very lived-in house,” she said.

“It’s a house for people. It’s been an ongoing journey since 1990.” 

School project uncovers history

The ongoing search to uncover the history of Bonus Downs first arose from a school project.

In 1995 Madonna’s son Grant Connolly was completing an assignment titled Looking Back, which involved researching the past of Mitchell. 

The school project created by Madonna and Lyle's son, Grant Connolly, in 1995.

The school project created by Madonna and Lyle's son, Grant Connolly, in 1995.

While looking in a book for information, the pair came across a number of pages dedicated to the history of homes in the area, including Bonus Downs.

It ignited interest in Madonna to find out more about the property’s heritage.

“It’s really just all evolved by people coming back and giving us all their stories,” Madonna said. 

Madonna and Benjamin with one of the family's poddy calves.

Madonna and Benjamin with one of the family's poddy calves.

Through visits from the original landholder’s ancestors and coincidentally running into distant relatives at weddings, the property’s Jackeroo’s Cottage now features photo albums and books filled with the history of Bonus Downs.

Madonna has kept the school project as an important feature in the home. 

Many face behind Bonus empire

While many houses stand out for their striking furnishings and the meaning behind them, the stories of Bonus Downs are forever being unveiled. 

The Bonus Downs homestead and its buildings were constructed around 1908 when 76-year-old Sir Samuel McCaughey took over the property after the previous owners, Eric Leadbetter and JC & WR McManus, walked off due to a lack of water.

Just like Lyle and Madonna Connolly in 1990, Sir Samuel purchased the property with a lot of construction and adaptations to be made after the original home burnt down.

The businessman, who was born in Northern Ireland, never married and when it was time to reduce his holdings he offered his long-serving managers the opportunity to acquire some of the land. 

The verandah at Bonus Downs Homestead.

The verandah at Bonus Downs Homestead.

Apart from the buildings a stone grave was one of the only other original features on the property when Lyle and Madonna took over. 

It is believed the grave belonged to the son of JC & WR McManus, the second owners of the property, who died in his father’s arms while they were moving. He was four years old. 

If only the walls could talk, these stories may have been uncovered much earlier, but it’s through the return of ancestors and phone calls from friends of friends that Lyle and Madonna have been able to learn of the significance of their home.

They open their doors up to create their own stories too.

“We are very passionate about the outback and continuing the legacy of people such as this calibre (Sir Samuel McCaughey) for the next generations,” Madonna said.

“City and bush are losing so much touch with one another and that’s why I think it is so important for every child to have a city experience and every city child to have a country experience.

The original meat room at Bonus Downs.

The original meat room at Bonus Downs.

“It’s just growing and growing and more and more, people are wanting to get back to their grassroots and experience the real authenticity. 

“I love old and under the layers of hard work I could see the potential and the more I got into it the more passionate I became. My passion is just love for the outback and just sharing its history.”

Just as Bonus Downs is filled with many different owners and their stories, Lyle and Madonna’s home at the Homestead is decorated in the same way. 

Rooms inside Bonus Downs Homestead.

Rooms inside Bonus Downs Homestead.

“It’s very rustic, it’s a very lived-in home and I think people like that feeling,” she said. 

The addition of a deck and pool and vibrant garden might be a different sight to that of the Bonus Downs hundreds of years ago but one thing is for sure, this couple is determined to create a future built on the framework of the land’s historic past. 

Original buildings offer unique farmstay

Staying at Bonus Downs for a night or two brings with it a simple question – where would you like to sleep?

The Jackeroo’s Cottage, as its name states, was the housing for employees of Bonus Downs, complete with fireplace and the same table that the cook would prepare meals on.

Inside the Jackeroo’s Cottage, which is filled with photo albums and books about the property's history. It has six bedrooms and sleeps 12 people.

Inside the Jackeroo’s Cottage, which is filled with photo albums and books about the property's history. It has six bedrooms and sleeps 12 people.

Lyle and Madonna have retained the building’s original doors and it features timber floorboards throughout the six bedrooms and kitchen-dining area. The building’s shower and toilet are outside.

Where once sweaty men worked for hours on end in the shearing shed, now it has become the perfect setting for school groups to have sleepovers.

The Bonus Downs Shearing Shed.

The Bonus Downs Shearing Shed.

Even choir and dance groups from Toowoomba have used the open area to rehearse their routines. 

The Smoke House is the newest feature to the property and is an outdoor wood bar with built in spit roast. The buildings are part of the farmstay experience. 

The Smoke House is an added feature to Bonus Downs and is where guests gather for meals and a chat. It includes a built-in spit roast and catering facilities.

The Smoke House is an added feature to Bonus Downs and is where guests gather for meals and a chat. It includes a built-in spit roast and catering facilities.

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