In 1876 the Watson brothers; Harry Frederick Watson, Phillip Sidney Watson and Robert Mc Gregor ‘Greg’ Watson left from the Upper Murray where their father, Sydney Grandison Watson, owned Walwa and Tintaldra Stations. They brought 900-odd mixed cattle from Dotswood Station and started out for the Upper Diamantina and later the Flinders River.
They had a tedious trip to the Gregory River, having no roads to follow and always having to look ahead to find water and camping places. On arrival at the Gregory River in August 1877, they were surprised to see the clean running water and the lovely cabbage palms, Leichhardt trees and tea trees. They chose a camp on high land near a good crossing place on the river and turned the cattle out on the western side.
‘Greg’ Watson had been left with the cows and young calves at Alicks Creek near Nelia Ponds and after approximately a year returned to the Gregory to find that his brothers, Price Fletcher, George Cooper and Walker had built a log hut of one big room on this site, the present site of Gregory Downs Hotel. A stockyard and another log hut were being built on the west side of the river, where the present yard stands.
Due to the cost of supplies from Normanton (Burketown having been abandoned 12 years previously due to Gulf Fever) the brothers decided, along with Frank Hann from “Lawn Hill” and Francis Henry ‘Harry’ Shadforth from “Lilydale”, to arrange for a schooner to bring supplies from Townsville to Burketown. This led to the Watson’s building and starting a General Store, so re-establishing Burketown.
In 1882 the Watsons moved the goods out of their store in Burketown to Gregory Downs.
‘... later we moved the goods out of our store at Burketown to Gregory Downs to the present site of the Gregory Downs Hotel and Store and started a pub and store. It was the spot we first settled and built the homestead on when we arrived at the Gregory river, but travellers became a nuisance so we moved the homestead across the Gregory river where it still remains. ‘ (Diary of R M Watson)
The business was sold to Mr Clark and his partner Mr Campbell, then sold on to William Barrett in 1889. On his death in 1892 his wife Emily Barrett took over the licence. Nicknamed ‘Auntie Barrett’, she went on to built a great reputation for excellent cooking, stocked from a splendid garden of vegetables.
Her hotel became a home away from home, and a haven of rest for many stockmen who were working on the surrounding stations. She also developed a small store that had a piano; on special occasions space would be cleared to make a dance floor. Before long this became inadequate and the Jockey Club would pull down the wall and extend the floor for the period of the races and race dances. ‘Auntie Barrett’ died in 1933.
Over the years since, various owners have held the licence. Nearby a hall, race track, tennis court and cricket pitch were established and eventually a police station were added to make up the village around the Gregory Hotel and the tradition of good hospitality and fine food continues through to this day.