Ayr, a rural town, is on the Lower Burdekin River delta, 70 km south-east of central Townsville. It was named after Ayr, Scotland, the birthplace of Thomas McIlwraith, Queensland's Premier when the town was established in 1882. Ayr was the administrative centre of the former Burdekin Shire.
The pastoral rush to the Burdekin and Bowen districts began in the early 1860s, and included the Jarvisfield and Inkerman pastoral runs. A township, Wickham, was established in 1864 a few kilometres inland from the mouth of the Burdekin, but was soon swept away by flooding. In the 1870s Jarvisfield and other pastoral estates were resumed for land selection, and pastoral activity was supplanted by sugar cultivation on the fertile delta lands. Among these was the Airdmillan plantation, which in 1883 established the first of several crushing mills in the area. A camping reserve had been laid out next to Plantation Creek (one of many creeks in the delta) in 1880, and the rush of land selections for sugar persuaded the Bowen land commissioner to sell off town lots at the reserve named Ayr, in 1882. It was a timely decision, with the opening of the Airdmillan mill and the discovery of bore water for irrigation. A court house and police station were established, and in 1884 the Kalamia mill, 7 km north of Ayr, and the Pioneer mill, about the same distance east, were opened.
In 1886, John Drysdale arrived at the Pioneer mill. Drysdale's brothers had extensive Burdekin sugar interests, but John brought engineering expertise. He adapted the recently developed Naughton tube or 'Abyssinian spear' to tap underground water reservoirs, drawing a continuous supply while keeping the tube unblocked by gravel or fine sand.
In 1886 a State school opened and in 1888 the Ayr local government division was formed, extending from Baratta Creek in the north to near Wangaratta Creek. Bowen's demands for an inland rail route initially locked Ayr out of a rail connection, but a private railway (called a tramway because it was authorised by the Tramways Act) was jointly financed by Ayr, Thuringowa and Townsville divisional boards and opened in 1901.
During the 1890s Church of England and Catholic churches opened their doors, the Ayr Chronicle began publication and the first of several entertainment venues, the Federal Hall, opened. The Lower Burdekin Pastoral, Agricultural and Industrial Association held its first show at the Ayr showground in 1904, coinciding with the establishment of a small dairy factory. In 1903 Ayr was described in the Australian handbook:
In the year the Australian handbook was published, most of Ayr's buildings had lost their roofs or been blown down when Cyclone Leonta struck on 9 March 1903.
Unlike most new towns with a population over 1000, Ayr had to wait some time for a school of arts. The Federal Hall served instead, and in 1910 the Delta Hotel's proprietor opened the Delta Theatre, considered then to be the district's finest venue. Four years later the Delta's electricity generator was upgraded to supply the whole town, maintaining this role until the late 1930s. The Delta Theatre was also upgraded in 1929 for talkies.
Ayr was finally connected by railway to Bowen in 1913, and the private line to Townsville was taken over by the Government in the same year. Rail travellers crossed the Burdekin River on the journey from Bowen by the low-level Inkerman Bridge, a hazardous undertaking when the Burdekin was in flood. Every ten years or so the bridge needed major repairs. The sugar industry expanded in the 1920s and 1930s, and civic improvements followed; the town's heritage-listed council headquarters were constructed in 1922. Other infrastructure needs were also identified: in 1923 a low-level road bridge, similar to the rail crossing, was described as essential to join two towns, Ayr and Home Hill, just 11 km apart. The bridge did not eventuate, however, until 1930, until which time motorists' vehicles were towed across by horse-drawn punt.
Postwar reconstruction prompted plans for a dual purpose, high-level bridge, but shortages of steel and the need to sink foundations 30 metres into the delta mud delayed completion until 1957. The bridge was named the Silver Link, its 1097-metre span linking the two towns. A new public hospital was built in 1945, and expansion of housing to East Ayr required a second primary school (1952). Ayr's intermediate high school (1937) was enlarged during the 1960s.
Acknowledging the importance to the town's prosperity of water drawn from the shallow water table, Ayr started the Lower Burdekin Water Festival in 1958. Domestic water also came from bores or wind pumps, but purity was endangered by household pollution. After considerable argument and delay a supply was pumped from the better-located Racecourse reserve and reticulated in the 1960s.
In an attempt to diversify monocultural sugar production, rice growing and mangoes were introduced in the 1960s. The Home Hill rice mill (1968) and the Mango Growers Association (1988) were evidence of this process of diversification. Nevertheless, sugar remained dominant, keeping four mills going from Giru to Home Hill. Most of the expanded production would have been impossible without the Lower Burdekin Dam, completed in 1988, which mitigates flooding, provides controlled refilling of the water table for irrigation and is drawn on upstream from Ayr for irrigation in the Burdekin Valley.
Ayr progressed to a drive-in cinema in 1964, and the school of arts, established about 1912, kept up a subscribers' library. The shire, renamed Burdekin Shire in 1976, opened the Burdekin Theatre in 1982, reviving the cinema that had fallen victim to television. A better-funded Burdekin Library absorbed the school of arts bookstock in 1984.
Apart from shire administration, Ayr has the former shire hall and offices, and the headquarters for local cane and vegetable growers' associations. It has a showground, and golf, swimming and bowling venues. Professional golfer Karrie Webb, multiple major winner and one of the world's most successful golfers, was born in Ayr and played her first golf there. Ayr also has a hospital, State and Catholic (1912) primary schools and State and Catholic (1974) high schools and the Burdekin Christian College (1982). Post-secondary education is available at Home Hill TAFE. The Burdekin Agricultural College at Ayr closed in 2012.
The precinct around the former shire offices (1920s) includes a court house (1930s), the high school (1930s), Anzac Park, a Masonic lodge and the former Presbyterian church. The first three are listed on the Queensland heritage register. The court house and the high school are fine examples of Queensland government architecture. The top level of the Grand National Hotel (1901) was damaged by fire in 2012.
The main shopping strip is in Queen Street, which features the John Drysdale memorial clock (1928). Shopping is supplemented by off-street drive-in supermarkets. The famous Coutts retail conglomerate, dating from the Federal Store and Federal Hall, failed in 1990 less from retail competition than from unwise expansion. The Ayr Advocate is published twice weekly. A downturn in the sugar industry in the 2000s led to the town pursuing new businesses, including aquaculture, soya beans and fish feed.
Native title rights were granted to the Juru people over nearly 500 square kilometres of sea and land between Bowen and Ayr in 2014.
A frequent recipient of cyclones, the area's first category five-rated cyclone shelter opened at the Ayr Showgrounds on the Bruce Highway in 2014.
Ayr's census populations have been:
John Kerr, Black snow and liquid gold: a history of the Burdekin Shire, Ayr, Council of the Shire of Burdekin, 1994