Frank Teodo shares the family story behind the secret cave at his sugar cane farm in Cairns

If you visit the Teodo family’s sugar cane farm in Far North Queensland and head to the creek, you may see a modest hole in the side of a hill.

The secret cave, in the southern reaches of Cairns, in Edmonton, will have a few vines enveloping it, if Frank Teodo hasn’t brandished the reed knife recently, and it won’t look like that to the untrained eye.

For a child it is a gateway to a world full of adventure.

The fascinating story of how this man-made cave came to be – thanks to an ‘abnormally strong’ ancestor who survived the horrors of war – is one of history, hardship and triumph, and it’s one that Frank has always loved. too proud to tell.

“You have the creek next to it and we could camp there,” he recalls.

“We would light a fire and smoke out all the mosquitoes first.

“I remember a big bull called Topaz, a Santa Gertrudis bull, a nice big guy.

One day he stuck his head in the door.

“He wanted to join us, but he didn’t fit in with the rest of us, so we left him outside.”

A black and white photograph of a man in military uniform with short hair and a mustache.
Frank Teodo’s grandfather Giovanni in 1919 after the end of World War I.(Delivered: Frank Teodo)

From starving child to elite soldier

Frank’s grandfather Giovanni Teodo had experienced more of the dark side of human existence as a child than most people in their lifetime.

“He was probably one of the original ‘homeless youth’,” explains Frank.

A man in a blue T-shirt squats on rocks by a river, a black dog behind him.
Frank Teodo and his dog trek down the creek at their family farm in Edmonton. (ABC News: Charlie McKillop)

“He left home at a very young age and roamed Europe.

“He was just hungry as a kid.

“It’s hard to imagine the poverty and deprivation where your family can’t even afford to keep you.”

He joined the army when he reached the age of hearing that soldiers were fed every day, and he rose through the ranks to become a sergeant in the Arditia – a select team of elite commandos whose name translates to “The Daring Ones”.

Giovanni was thrown into the thick of battle when World War I broke out, with rifle and bayonet aimed at pushing back a German attack.

He survived the horrors of the war and decided to return to his hometown to seek a normal life, where he had to involve a woman.

Ten people, adults and children, in a historic black and white photograph taken in a garden.
A family portrait of Teodo, with the addition of a few close friends, taken in 1933. (Delivered: Frank Teodo)

The search for a partner begins

The handsome young veteran took a very hands-on approach to finding the ideal mate.

“He looked at all the girls who worked in the vineyards and studied them for a while,” Frank says.

“And he said, yes, that’s the best worker.

“He fed himself completely those days, so he couldn’t afford to have a sick wife or a wife who couldn’t survive the hardships.

“So he picked one, walked right up to her and said, ‘Would you like to get married?'”

It was quite an abrupt courtship and she had no intention of accepting the offer without her family’s approval.

The young lady’s people said that Giovanni had to prove he was worth it, and that they weren’t impressed enough by his war medals to hand over their blessings.

“They said you can’t eat medals,” Frank says.

“So he said, ‘I’ll show you. I’m going to Australia. It’s full of jungle and desert’.

“He heard about Australia in the war.”

A black and white photograph of a picturesque Italian village built on a hill.
The town of Castelnuovo Calcea in the Piedmont region of Italy, where the Teodo family lived.(Delivered)

The couple married despite family friction and had two children and one more en route when Giovanni boarded a ship bound for Australia in 1925.

The bun in the oven belonged to Frank’s father, who would not meet his father until ten years later when the rest of the family traveled to Australia to join Giovanni.

Crowbar, Shovel and Abnormal Human Power

Giovanni was a short man, but strong as an ox and equipped with a work ethic that would make the ant of Aesop’s fable blush.

He ended up in Sawmill Pocket on the outskirts of Edmonton, saving enough money to buy a plot of land from a man named Horace McGuigan – the same man who took him under his wing and taught him to speak English.

All the pieces were finally in place and he was ready for his family to emigrate from Italy.

World War II broke out shortly after their arrival – and the torment of his blood-soaked predecessor was still fresh in Giovanni’s memory.

A black and white photograph of a mule in undergrowth.
Tony, the family’s mule, snapped logs from the undergrowth to use as fence posts.(Delivered)

“He remembered, yes, I have to do something to protect them,” Frank says.

“So he dug this hole on the side of the hill, this cavern he called the bomb shelter.”

It was a gigantic effort.

He used a crowbar and shovel to carve out a cave large enough to protect his family if planes ever rained down dead.

“There’s a whole mountainside up there,” Frank says.

“So they could have dropped the bombs they had at the time from a plane and it wouldn’t have interfered with the bomb shelter.”

A black and white image of a man wearing an open shirt and hat, crouching in front of sugar cane crops.
Frank’s father, Italo Teodo, cut sugar cane in 1963.(Delivered)

Shelter becomes children’s wonderland

Fortunately it never got to that point.

What remains is an 83-year-old cave that has survived cyclones and landslides to provide generations of Teodos with the perfect hidden hole.

It was only about 150 yards from the house, but it felt like a world away for Frank and his mates.

“Camping of any kind is good for a small child,” he says.

“We were always in the creek and hunting and fishing.

“You know, we always had a pack of dogs with us.

“It was a good childhood. You couldn’t ask for better… and that belongs to my grandfather.”

A black and white photograph of an old farmhouse on a thatched farm, built in the Queenslander style on stilts.
The original Teodo homestead in Sawmill Pocket, in Edmonton.(Delivered: Frank Teodo)

The cave serves as a physical reminder of a man who made something out of nothing and laid the foundation for his family for decades, or even centuries, to come.

“It’s hard for us to understand how poor those people were,” Frank says.

“He loved Australia. I mean, he’s the most patriotic man you’ll ever meet, in any way, in any form of life.

“He kissed the ground. He hated Italy, never wanted to go back.

“He hated all of Europe and said, ‘They can have it, but here in Australia you come here and you have a job. You pick up a reed knife and cut reeds all your life, work from morning to night and enough to eat’.”

An elderly stranger arrives

Giovanni seldom spoke of the war, but he was scarred by what he had seen.

When he shared memories, they were usually about the nurses whose “golden hands” helped save so many of his compatriots.

A man in a blue short-sleeved shirt squats next to a large brown and white dog in a garden.
Frank Teodo and his dog on their Edmonton farm.(Charlie McKillop)

It was only after his death around 1980 that Frank and his father received a real education.

Having just kicked off work, they ducked for a beer at the Grafton Hotel, where they encountered an elderly Italian man who looked almost 90.

Frank’s father started talking to him in Italian, and the old man’s eyes lit up.

He had traveled up the east coast of Australia in search of his old friend Giovanni, but it was too late to see him alive.

“They were in the army together,” says Frank.

“In every city he went to, he tried to find my grandfather.

“He told us stories of how my grandfather entertained the troops during the war – he was like a circus strongman [or] acrobat, he would do somersaults.

“In the vineyards they have these big concrete tanks that they would fill with water and drip the grapes and vines.

“He picked up one of those tanks and lifted it over his head.”

A black and white photograph of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, t-shirt and gun in a forest.
Italo Teodo, Frank’s father and Giovanni’s son, pictured while serving in World War II.(Delivered )

Giovanni was the full package – singing, dancing and performing at a time when entertainment didn’t exist unless people made it themselves.

For Frank, it felt like his grandfather was coming back to life, if only for a moment, when he heard this accidental revelation from an elderly stranger in the pub.

It’s a moment he’ll hold onto forever.

“He was a quiet, humble, decent person, you know,” he says.

“Australia is full of great people from all walks of life.

“If you ever see an elderly man, men or women… go upstairs and talk to them.

“They are fascinating.

“They’ve lived lives none of us could even imagine.”

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