Once upon a time in Palmwoods, there was a little grocery store with a timber floor and shady verandah. You could stroll in with your grocery list and the shop assistant would hand-select your goods from the shelves and carefully wrap them in paper and string. If you wanted cheese, it wouldn’t come already sliced and packed in plastic. It would be cut from a large cheese wheel in just the quantity you needed. Nothing was wasted, everyone knew each other and life was hard, but good.

The popular Homegrown Cafe now occupies the same site and while it may offer latte art and other treats unheard of when the building was a grocery store from 1900 to the 1980s, it retains a similar old-school ethic. Food is grown in the backyard to be picked and used fresh in the cafe, coffee beans are roasted on site in a tin shed and the old timber floor that has seen generations of feet come and go remains strong.

Homegrown Cafe and its adjacent laneway and delightful back garden sit in the heart of Little Main Street, which features a row of historic buildings as charming as any you’ll see on the Sunshine Coast. Occupied by natural healing clinics, a hair salon, a beauty salon, a boho clothing and gift store and a couple of cafes, walking down this street is like stepping back in time.

Directly across the road is the historic Memorial Hall, once the site of buzzing Saturday night dances that brought all the farmers and their children to town. Situated at the confluence of Margaret Street, Main Street and Little Main Street, it takes pride of place in the town and is the site of ceremonies, gatherings, workshops and classes. In November 2018, a beautiful stained-glass window commissioned by the Palmwoods Memorial Hall Association was unveiled, inspired by the John McCrae poem In Flanders Fields, to commemorate the Armistice Centenary.

Behind the hall sits the relatively new town square, Piccabeen Green, the result of extensive placemaking consultation by Sunshine Coast Council and the community. It features a flat community lawn area surrounded by shady spots to sit and a boardwalk that leads to Main Street below.

It provides a much-needed level community gathering space in a hilly town of winding roads that previously felt a little disjointed. It also provides a seamless flow from Little Main Street to Main Street below, which leads to the train station and the historic Palmwoods Hotel, a family owned and operated pub built in 1912, which serves as a place to meet, eat and hear live music.

In the Sunshine Coast Council’s Stories of Palmwoods document (2014), long-time resident Rick Jamieson says, “I can remember Peter Roberts riding his horse through the pub. One night there were a lot of characters down at the pub … and the doors flung open, he came through one door and out the other; that was just another night at the pub back in those days.”

It feels as though something of those times is still alive as you stroll around the quiet, leafy streets of this quaint and quirky hinterland town. Named after the piccabeen palms that once covered the entire town, there are still plenty of palms flourishing around Palmwoods, adding to its rejuvenating charm. Many long-term locals still live here and tell stories of the good-old days when life was all about growing pineapples, citrus, avocados and strawberries, while newcomers are being drawn to its retro, genuinely small-town vibe.

Interest in the town has undoubtedly been spearheaded by the iconic Rick’s Garage, an American-style diner with a beer garden and whisky bar, bursting with 1950s memorabilia. Old magazine pages plaster the walls and ceiling and there are vintage pieces wherever you look – from old petrol bowsers to motorcycles, a telephone box, an old typewriter and hundreds of number plates from around the US. It attracts up to 150 motorcyclists and car clubs on weekends, and this swells each May when the Time Warp festival takes over town (it was cancelled last year and this year due to COVID). “We hold it over the Labour Day weekend and we get 12,000 to 15,000 people on that Saturday,” says manager Ben Jamieson. “We have rockabilly-inspired music, over 1000 motorbikes come through and around 100 hotrods.”

Ben’s parents Rick and Lisa Jamieson purchased the business as a petrol station 18 years ago and transformed it into the burger joint, watering hole and must-visit Sunny Coast destination it is today. Many say it has injected life back into the town.

“We classify Palmwoods as the gateway to the hinterland,” says Ben. “We tried to landmark it as a point where motorcycle enthusiasts and hotrod enthusiasts could enjoy a meal together before taking off on a road trip through the hinterland or the other direction.”

When environmental standards tightened up, Rick and Lisa realised it was going to cost $40,000 to bring the old servo up to scratch, and opted to keep the nostalgia of a vintage petrol station, while moving the business into hospitality – and it has paid off.

“It’s definitely a thriving little business now,” says Ben. “I don’t think there would be an opportunity to employ 60 staff operating a petrol station. It worked out not only in our favour, but in the favour of Palmwoods.”

Homegrown Cafe’s owner Sarah Wright was drawn to the area for its country ambience and its convenient location, which is in the hinterland, but not too far from the coast. Originally from Zimbabwe, she opened the cafe in 2008. “I think people like Palmwoods because it’s still got that little village feel to it,” she says. “You can be living in the village and be able to do everything you need to do within the town. It also has a train station so you can jump on the train if you want to go and have a little city fix, but we have enough to do on tap locally that you don’t need to.”

Sitting in the back garden at Homegrown feels like being welcomed into someone’s home, with friendly locals laughing and chatting in the sunny courtyard, which also features one of the most delightful bookstores on the Sunshine Coast.

Kay Nixon opened The Little Book Nook 18 months ago after dropping into Homegrown Cafe for a cuppa and seeing a ‘for lease’ sign in a nearby window. Having worked in bookstores for many years, it was calling her name. “I thought it would make a lovely children’s bookshop,” says Kay, who has lived in Palmwoods for 26 years. “It’s primarily a children’s bookshop but we have a good selection of adults’ books as well.”

Kay has created a magical little bookstore decorated with flying books on the ceiling, strung up like birds. Owning her own bookstore in the centre of town is a dream for this long-time local, who is involved in many facets of the community. She is the community pastor at the Uniting Church, has been involved with the Palmwoods business association and established the community garden, Soil and Soul, just around the corner on Hill Street.

“I arranged for the Palmwoods Community and Business Association to lease the garden from the Palmwoods Uniting Church at no cost, because there were three blocks of land sitting dormant,” Kay says. “We have about 30 people regularly involved and we hold Reflections in the Garden, which isn’t a religious thing but it combines a bit of the spiritual, a bit of community and a bit of nature.

“The garden has become more than I ever dreamed of. People who have been grieving go there and find solace. It has really become a place of healing. The outlook to the hills is lovely and it puts people in a different mindset. A lot of people comment on what a good community Palmwoods is, but I always tell people we have to work at that. It doesn’t happen by magic; you have to be intentional about it.

“When people move to a town because it’s a nice area, they do need to connect with people. At the garden we try to create a safe place where people from all different backgrounds can come together.”

Kay lives in one of the oldest houses in town, built from local timber about 100 years ago, and has enjoyed seeing Palmwoods experience somewhat of a renaissance over the past few years. “It used to be somewhere people would drive through to get up to Montville,” she says. “We wanted to make it a destination where people stopped. I think it’s getting there. It’s got a bit of a retro and sustainability feel. I just love being able to walk everywhere. I can walk to my work, meet people on the way. I can look across to the duck pond at Kolora Park and across to the bowling green.”

As charming as Palmwoods is, it also has its sad stories. According to Kay, Palmwoods experienced a string of tragic circumstances in a short period of time but says the way the town pulled together was “awesome”.

“We had deaths of children and key figures in town,” she says. “There was an old tree at the primary school that had to be removed, so they had an amazing sculptor do a sculpture of an adult holding a child in place of it. It’s a really significant symbol of a child being nurtured and has now become a place where events happen and it has become a real place of remembrance.”

One such tragedy is the murder of Palmwoods teenager Daniel Morcombe. His disappearance is a trauma the town – and indeed the country – won’t forget. But with their characteristic resilience, the Morcombe family went on to found the Daniel Morcombe Foundation, which is now headquartered at Daniel House in Palmwoods. Opened in 2019, the house is the national office of the foundation and provides a counselling service for young victims of crime.

Another iconic Palmwoods charity is the Compass Farm, which sits on 20 acres about five minutes out of town. Palmwoods local David Dangerfield established Compass Institute in 1992 to provide support for people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities. The Compass Farm was established in 2011 to provide a place for people with disabilities to learn, gain diverse work experience and enjoy genuine vocational opportunities. It is a real working farm where everyone plays their part in creating an environmentally and economically sustainable enterprise.

Members of the Compass Farm also work at the community garden, which has raised garden beds to cater for those with disabilities. It’s an example of how this town works together to create its own little pocket of peace and prosperity, with everyone pulling together.

“When you say you want to be inclusive of everyone, it can bring in some tricky dynamics sometimes,” says Kay. “We need to be able to do that and talk through things to progress as a society.”

Indigenous history of Palmwoods
There are strong Aboriginal connections and stories relating to many areas of the Sunshine Coast and hinterland. However, few stories relating specifically to Aboriginal connection with Palmwoods can be found. Historian Ray Kerkhove, who has done significant work on Aboriginal history in south-east Queensland, suggests that the lack of Aboriginal stories from Palmwoods may be because it was dense rainforest and so would have been mainly an area of resources, like fruits, nuts, medicine, twine, and foods like eels and flying fox. However, there are numerous stories of Aboriginal pathways, or walking tracks, running through and behind Palmwoods. There was also an Aboriginal cemetery or burial ground in an orange orchard in Palmwoods. Little is known of the location. Kerry Jones, traditional owner and descendant of Australian South Sea Islander people, talks of Aboriginal and South Sea Islander people working on the farms and in the logging industry in Palmwoods during pioneering times.
Source: Stories of Palmwoods, Sunshine Coast Council, 2014