The news that Gundagai’s Dog on the Tuckerbox had been damaged recently made national headlines and prompted an outpouring of love for the beloved pooch.
But why does the dog sit five, and not nine, miles from Gundagai? And what does the side-altar at London’s Westminster Cathedral have to do with it?
Somewhat surprisingly, this bastion of Australian agriculture, a monument to European settlement and the foundations of modern Australia, is the creation of a first generation Swiss-Australian immigrant, Frank Rusconi.
It’s arguably not even the most impressive or significant work by the stonemason who made him.
Rusconi was born at Araluen, near Braidwood, on the NSW South Coast in 1874. His mother died four years later and as a young teenager the family returned to his father’s birthplace of Switzerland.
While in Europe he became an expert stone and marble mason, working in France, Italy and England. Examples of his work include the choir staircase and black marble side-altar at the Westminster Cathedral.
Despite this burgeoning career, most of the family returned to Australia in 1901 and Mr Rusconi settled in Gundagai.
It was while on a family picnic at Borenore, about 16 kilometres from Orange, that he discovered a marble deposit that would be used for projects such as the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney and Central Station. The Powerhouse museum has a table crafted by Mr Rusconi from this marble.
It also provided the inspiration for his greatest project — the ‘Marble Masterpiece’ – on which he began work in 1910.
For the next 28 years, he spent three hours a day hand-turning, polishing and crafting the 20,948 pieces into a miniature baroque palace.
It is now owned by the Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council and on display in the Gundagai Visitor Information Centre.
For some time the town of Gundagai had been wanting to construct a memorial to the pioneers and it was Mr Rusconi who, in 1928, suggested a memorial using the legend of the Dog on the Tuckerbox; and in 1932 the proposal was taken up by the community. The Gundagai Independent of 11 August 1932 wrote:
A monument should be erected at the nine mile peg, dedicated to the pioneers and bullockies, who made the highway of today possible, and there should be an unveiling ceremony during “Back to Gundagai Week”
Frank Rusconi made a small clay model and sent it off to Sydney, where a mould was made and a small bronze replica of the dog was cast. The mould was enlarged and then cast in Sydney after some small modifications. He thought the original plan for the dog was too much like a “thoroughbred” and he changed the design to make it more like the “mongrel” dogs the drovers “really” used.
The base was sculpted by the Gundagai stonemason and the dog section of the monument was cast in bronze by Oliver’s Foundry Sydney
The statue was inspired by a bullock drover‘s poem, “Bullocky Bill”, which humorously describes a series of misfortunes faced by the drover, culminating in his food being spoiled by his dog who sits either in or on his tuckerbox (an Australian colloquialism for a box that holds food, similar to a lunchbox, but larger).
The poem was written by an otherwise unknown poet who used the pen name “Bowyang Yorke” and first printed in 1857. A later poem by Jack Moses, Nine Miles From Gundagai, drew on the Bowyang Yorke poem for inspiration and was published in the 1920s. Jack O’Hagan‘s song, “Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox” was published in 1937.
Five or nine miles from Gundagai?
But why does the dog sit five miles from Gundagai, when the original music and poetry references are all to nine miles?
This was a strategic marketing decision to attract more visitors. The story says nine miles, but the town decided on five because it wasn’t as far for people to go.