The great Snow controversy of 1923

In the 1920s, an event took place that triggered a debate over what is today a very contemporary preoccupation, the colonisation of public visual space with commercial advertising.

Chester Snow was a Lismore entrepreneur who ran a furniture factory shop where everything was made to order. His premises were at 78 Keen Street, in the building where Fairmarket Antiques is located today. The phone number was 286.

Keen Street, during the 1921 flood, showing Chester Snow’s furniture store, with St. Carthage’s Cathedral in the background. The hill above is modern-day Lismore Heights.

While fighting in World War 1, he had been awarded a military medal for bravery. Settling locally, he was young and had an enterprising bent, branching into undertaking services in 1920 before selling the business to Barney Klein & Co. in 1924, the same company he had originally purchased it from. Furniture, however, was his real vocation.

Enigmatically, he had publicly claimed that there would soon be snow on the hill overlooking Lismore. He was referring to Lismore Hill, the name given to the Lismore-facing side of the North Lismore Plateau. Today this slope is covered by trees, shrubs, and grass, but plans are underway to develop the top part.

When April Fools’ Day 1923 came around, it became clear what he had in mind. Overnight, hundreds of rocks had been painted white to spell out the word ‘SNOW’ in large letters, as an advert for his store. The letters were reportedly about twenty feet (eight metres) high, and were clearly visible from a distance, as a contemporary photo demonstrates. The hill was largely bare at the time, with little vegetation to obscure the view.

A remarkable photo of the letters, looking over North Lismore towards the plateau. It could have been taken from Molesworth Street near the Zadoc Street junction, in the direction of modern Pritchard Park, Wotherspoon Street, and Mill Lane.

Reactions were mixed. While some people were indifferent or mildly supportive, others found it an eyesore. One of these was the vicar of Lismore, Reverend P. W. Tugwell. His view, echoed by another Northern Star letter-writer who preferred the anonymous moniker of ‘Civis’, was that it detracted from the natural beauty of the hill. In particular, the commercial dimension to the message was seen as tacky. A whimsical poem about the incident, titled Controversy on Lismore Hill, was published in the Northern Star in October of the same year.

Surprisingly, at times in the past advertising was more intrusive than it is today. In the 1920s, it was common to find relevant ads in non-fiction books. In the 1950s and 1960s, US highways were often lined with billboards until the passage of the Highway Beautification Act required most of them to be taken down.

Were the letters removed? Or did the North Coast climate wash off the paint, leaving behind natural-looking rocks that would have pleased Rev. Tugwell?

Chester later pulled up roots and moved to Bangalow. By the early 1930s, he was running a furniture workshop at the north end of Station Street, opposite the A & I Hall, in the building now occupied by Bangalow Hardware. The business was operated in partnership with his brother Harry. While Chester focused on furniture-making, Harry’s speciality was the sawmilling. Chester lived at 9 Station Street, Bangalow, until the 1980s.

Despite his long association with furniture-making and Bangalow, to some he is still best remembered for his time in Lismore, and especially the letters on the hill.

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