The Good Ol' Days

In 1979 the Victorian Division of the IFA held meetings at which members and guests presented their recollections of early times. This article is based on the transcript of one such meeting held in September 1979. The recollections come from Jim McKinty and Murray Thompson.

During the meeting Jim McKinty describes some experiences and conditions during timber assessments, employment relief work in Gippsland, fires and graziers in the high country, timber salvage following the 1939 fires, the Thomson valley timber industry and tramways, and the opening up of East Gippsland for timber production.

Murray Thompson outlines the rapid expansion of the Forests Commission’s activities after 1936 and particularly following the 1939 fires and the Second World War. He mentions working with MW Carver who was secretary to the Bush Fire Brigade Association. He describes sleeper cutting at Yarram, using bullock teams to haul logs, supervising employment relief gangs at Narbethong, and the introduction of the bush log book.

The meeting also discussed the naming of some of the mountains in Victoria.

You should really treat yourself and read the entire document, but there are some quotes below that will at least give you a taste for the times in which Jim and Murray worked.

Jim McKinty

In fact it was a week before the 13th when the situation was even more critical in some parts of the country, behind Toolangi and Warburton. My assessment camp was just south of the run of the fire that burnt Denby and Barling (two Forests Commission officers) in the ranges behind Toolangi. No communications - I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know what I should be doing. Whether I should be getting out and leaving everything or whether I should look after the Commission equipment that had been so generously loaned to me for the job. It was all packed up, and through the night we watched the movement of a bit of a sea breeze that was holding the fire away. Finally come morning, and in the thickest smoke that I have ever seen, we got out with everything intact.

.. in the previous 20 years Commission surveyors had been methodically working every block of forest that had been made Reserved Forest under the old Act. Their surveys outlined the block of forest and it was simply blank paper with a line around it. Sometimes there would be a tie-line right across from one edge to the other to check the surveys. They cut their lines .. these were the only tracks following the ridges and spurs you could use in a lot of the country behind Toolangi. These were the base lines from which the assessment was carried out. There were no maps, no indication of what the topography was, unless there happened to be a sawmillers tramline or a horse track that had been surveyed and placed on paper.

When assessing the head of Big River we walked out from camp to where the work was to be done, walked in on the traverse line. It was worked out that in a period of eight weeks we walked and worked 800 miles.

Two local stockmen were engaged to act as guides/ packers/chainmen and I was turned loose with a copy of McDonald's traverse of part of the Great Divide that had been made in 1863 and Wilkinsons traverses of the Macalister and Wonnangatta Rivers done in 1860-61. In between them there was a lot of blank country.

Further up, in the vicinity of Mt Howitt, we came across a strange spoor in soft ground. The locals hadn't seen it before and they had a great argument about it. There was no doubt this was the appearance of deer in that high country in 1940.

The entry of Commission personnel to country that had largely been 'cattleman's country' wasn't without suspicion. We were at the Dairy Farm Flat camp on the Moroka quietly having a game of bridge one night, and a big raw-boned bloke burst in through the door. "Who are you blokes? What are you doing?" He threw back his oilskin and he had a Webley revolver swinging down on his leg.

The murders on Wonnangatta Station were well in the past at that stage. Later on, when I was on a move from Dargo to Mt Arbuckle, I stopped to make camp overnight with the man who was a chief suspect. I had taken along a bottle of wine, got on side with him all right, and by the time that was finished, he said he had "been accused of murder and if so-and-so didn't keep his cattle out of his farm there would be a murder and he would admit to it to the troopers".

Costs incurred had to be balanced by areas treated, but as the walk from camp increased the area treated decreased. In one District this was rectified by making the map record agree with the expenditure.

In the remote areas I began to do illegal operations, .. . One of the chainman had a fall, and a piece of bracken went into his forearm and got lodged in behind sinews and veins. Getting him out meant something like 12 hours in travelling time, if you could get all the connections. He offered to let me ministrate, so I used my cut-throat razor and metho for sterilisation. I had a dram of whiskey for him for when the job was over. He waved it aside and afterwards the cook, who had been holding the hand, drank the whiskey. I was the one who really needed it.

On my first trip up the Thomson line on a rail trolley, there was a foul up and our trolley ploughed in under the ends of the descending rake of logs. Syd Ryan and myself went over the side and sheltered under the bulge of a stump. Jack Ezard simply stepped off onto the bank and then went to work on the driver of the tractor.

This work had been in-progress for 12 months when I went to Erica with Charlie Elsey in charge. He had three gangs at that time I am told, although I only saw one. There was the gang going out to start work, the one working, and the others who had been sacked and were coming home.

During the war years, labour was hard to get and it was necessary to take and try whatever was offering. A high percentage of misfits, men escaping from their families. There was one camp that used ten times more methylated spirits than any other for lighting. There were Army deserters, both Australian and US. When overseer Bill Halliday, wearing an Army great coat, went up the line on a rail trolley and rounded the bend at Sharps No. 2 mill, there was a mass exodus of crew. Whistles sounded for nearly an hour before sufficient men were coaxed back to restart the operation.

There was also a process that used to be referred to as 'showing the flag' and that was to attempt to make contact where fires did start in the remote country. One of these was in an area called Jackson's Crossing on the Snowy River. There was a recluse who lived in there. He grazed Crown Land in the Roger River and reputedly was responsible for the annual burning that took place. One late spring when the smoke went up, I took a party comprising displaced persons, generally known as 'Balts', who then were part of our labour force and tramped them from the Basin at Buchan out to Jackson's Crossing, camped the night, forded and swam the river the next morning, and walked out to where the smoke was rising and found the old fellow busily lighting up and poking the fire along. One of the party let out a howl, the old fellow jumped in the air, dropped his torch and spun round, grabbed a rake, and said, "Quick, give us a hand to put out this fire".

Murray Thompson

Now if I can talk about the summary of the period 1936-1946, which is not very long as there is not much of it. It saw a transition start in administration from the old bushman type to the younger, professionally trained graduates from Creswick, Canberra, Adelaide and Europe. I am speaking about Tiger Dahlstrom, Bern Dahl, Bill Litster, etc. The old bushmen should get a mention too. There were fellows like Jimmy Firth, Tom Newton, Bob Code and a few others like that, who would be way before your time.

It also saw the emergency of the latter part of the Great Depression when there was 30 per cent of the labour force unemployed and there were many forest works going to absorb them.

Also it saw the development of a major fire protection policy. We had political powers that we never had before. We had terrific money supplies, we were making dugouts, roads and lookouts and in conjunction with that major protection policy, we saw the development of a major war effort. In that were included departmental logging, departmental firewood production, charcoal production, the utilisation of alien labour, and we saw the transition of operations from men with barrows, horses and drays to modern machines.

My service as an Assistant started with Head Office and Bendigo in 1936, and in Yarram in 1936-37, Taggerty in 1937-38, Narbethong 1938-40, Erica again in 1940, a bit of assessment at Orbost in 1941, I went up to Cohuna in 1941 and '43 where it was charcoal and firewood, and in Broadford in '43-44 and Kinglake in '44-46. So that I had ten areas to work in in ten years. I just don't know why that would be, perhaps because I was single and I had a motor car?

When I went to Head Office I worked with Maurie Carver who was the Commission-supplied Secretary to the Bush Fire Brigade Association.

Sleeper passes were very colourful occasions. Bert Pope was the passer. He was the grandfather of Laurie Pope. Every sleeper was carefully checked, turned, rebranded, and counted to make sure no previous rejects were being resubmitted as eight foot sixers. We looked very closely at species, sapwood, wane, want (you wouldn't know what that means, I suppose), size, all very carefully watched.

I first learnt from Angus O'Rourke how to flick wax matches off my saddle without being noticed. Angus was a descendent of Angus McMillan's partner who ran cattle in the bush. Another thing I remember was from Alearic Hodgson (Idon't think he was any relation to Athol) from Hedley. He taught me to drive bullocks, to nose-block 80 foot blue gum piles out of the gorges above Welshpool to the new Defence Jetty.

Inspector Jimmy Firth rates a mention here for his attention to the care of the young timber and his concern for its welfare. He may have earned himself a reputation for eccentricity, but he was a first class bushman, first and foremost, and a real tree grower.

I went to Narbethong because Alan Coldicutt had a falling tree crush one leg while going to brand palings on the Acheron Way in late 1938. The paling tree was felled, hit a dead one and Alan was just in range of the dead one about 600 ft away. It was a terrible day.

I had about 16 men from the notorious Red Maloney gang from Fitzroy grubbing stumps on the road just past the Narbethong nursery. We had a tacit agreement: if I didn't sack them or make them lose the dole they agreed not to kill me or maim me, or words to that effect.

There was a salvage falling in the Lower Acheron Way. I used to ride around to the area and then scribe on numbers and measurements. To give you an idea, the logs were usually about 20ft girth and 14ft long. The fallers reckoned they were doing really well to get two trees down and logged off each day. It was so steep and rough that I reckoned I did pretty well too, to measure them in the day. The heads had been speared off in the fire storm that went up the Acheron Way at 60ft, so they were falling 60 ft high stumps 4ft diameter at the small end, where they had been screwed off just like you would screw a match off. It was really some job.

About this time World War II commenced, resulting in an extraordinary pressure for logs, for firewood, for charcoal, and an order for telephone poles for Egypt.

The inspections of the logging operations up the Thomson Valley meant a bitter freezing trip of three hours or so after tea on the open scooters, also no pay. I carted several three ton loads of gelignite from Erica to Svenson's at Aberfeldy on a 30cwt truck on a one way road, dropped the top layer off, literally, and then helped Alex load them on to pack horses and cart them down Swingler's Spur over the Thomson River and up to the tramline crew because it was too dangerous to take it on the tramline.

And in those busy days the Police were worried where all their long-term crims were going after leaving Pentridge. They were finally found at Little Boys and in Bells, clearfalling. Their last job had been recorded as plasterer's labourers. This explained to the employer why they were so pale and yet had such hard and horny hands.

And Dave Parnaby, you want to ask him about this, is the only man I know who could go to sleep with an alarm clock in a bucket suspended over his head and not wake up when it went off six hours later.

In 1944, I was given the job of laying out, constructing and supervising a 150 prisoner of war camp at Kinglake West for firewood production. It involved road construction, quarry operations, bridges, dam construction and practically clearfalling the old messmate culls for firewood.