Memories of the Logging Industry in Toolangi-Castella
from the memoirs of Alex Demby (1922-2010)
As a little bloke I liked to travel to all the mills I could, in the T-Model Ford, with my father. The Burnie Mill, so named because the owner was an ex-Tassie, was bought by D. & J. Evans. They shifted to a site on the west side of Wee Creek. It was destroyed by fire on 8 January 1939. I was told that a falling beam rested on the whistle string. The whistle blew for hours, until the little engine ran out of steam. The mill was rebuilt on the west side of the Yea River, an area known as the Gap. It was later moved to Spraggs Road, Toolangi, where it remained for many years. My uncle, Watty Cherry, was the manager for some years.
Carroll and G. Mills had a small mill at Castella. It did not last long and was shifted to Lukes Creek, Glenburn. Another mill was owned by H. Postlewaite Anderson, near the school. It cut mainly over-mature logs. It closed in 1950.
In the late 1920s or early 1930s, Downeys selected a large area on the range, east of Glenburn. Kittie Downey is reputed to have carried the next week’s stores, including a bag of sugar, up the range to the selection. Kitties Creek was named after her.
My cousins, Charlie and Ted Cherry, had a small mill at Castella. It lasted a short time. Toolangi Timber had a mill, south of the Toolangi Hotel and another one on Chum Creek Road. Alf Youhi and Clem Matthews worked at both, cutting mainly large mountain ash logs. Three paling mills were Carroll’s at Castella, Ned O’Brien’s and Clive Morrison’s at Toolangi. Murrindindi Mill was not in the Toolangi Forest Commission area, so I didn’t see it until 1945. It was then the largest mill by far.
After the war I got a job with George Prentice builders. One month later I got malaria. I had one week in bed and then back to Toolangi, where I cut a few loads of paling logs. I had lent Jack Stewart one hundred pounds, to help him buy a garage at Elmhurst. I went there for a short time, until he paid me back. Then to Kinglake, felling with a crosscut. My mate was Jack Bergin. I worked with him for a few months.
Back to Toolangi. Then Arthur Basset told me I could have his logs. That was the start. One day Fred Lee suggested I buy a mill. In December 1948 I bought the smallest and roughest outfit you could imagine. Dick Watson was the other member of the team. We worked in the open for six weeks, until some old iron was bought. Then we had a shed. The first tractor was a Cat 15, a 1925 model; our first chainsaw was a Solo, 1950 model; two or three Blue Streaks, all two-man, very heavy, I think 1cwt.; and a one-man Danam, also heavy. We used Allis crawlers, two or three, 30 hp, they were power/kero/petrol start. I cut private logs until I got a licence from the Forest Commission for about 400 super feet. I was still able to buy private logs. Fred was the brains, I was the learner. Beryl and I were married, for what was to be a long and happy partnership.
My first mill consisted of two petrol engines, driving the breaking down, and a small bench of cutting studs and short timber. The mill was on an incline, to make rolling the logs easier with cant hooks. A little while later, a 34 hp Blackstone engine was bought for about $300. It was started by air. Sometimes the bottle was nearly empty. There was much trouble tuning the fly wheels, as they weighed about 2.5 tons. That engine was replaced by a MacDonald 70 hp two-stroke. The silencer was an old mine case. My young son Ross was watching when we started it. I did not see him there. The first explosion was full of soot and got him in the face. It squashed an orange he was eating, all over his face. Next were two electric motors of 80 hp, driving bench and breaking down.
Back in the 1950s, Fred and I did the felling two days each week. Dick was the tractor driver. We worked the mill three days a week. Later I got a bush crew. We were still using crosscut saws then. About 1951 I bought my first chainsaw, a one-man Solo, German and good. In 1952 I bought two two-man blue Streaks, heavy, 100lbs each, 12 hp, hard work. One hot day I carried the engine end up steep hill in thick undergrowth. The tree was no good.
More about the 1930s. In 1936 I wanted to make some money (I was 14). I took on a contract to clear 2-3 acres of old stumps (Weda family owns that land). Burning was the only way. We used to dig a hole, light a good fire, cover with green leaves, then cover with dirt, making certain it was airtight. I had 30 stumps burning when it snowed, snuffing them out. Had to relight them. I made 30 shillings a week, tough learning.
The year the power went on, 1963, I got some very good jobs, mostly ash from the clearing. Paid 25,000 pounds in tax, formed a company the next year, also a trust company, which reduced tax dramatically.
Going back to the late 1950s, one day I felled four trees and walked up to one to head it off. Bush bees met me halfway and went mad. I had trouble keeping them out of my eyes. Dick Watson was with me, but he wasn’t experienced enough to drive the loaded log truck down the narrow road. I tried to wash the bees off in the Wee Creek. Some followed me back to the truck, about 200 yards away. I only just managed to get home. Beryl drove me to Doctor Deery in Healesville. It took me six months to recover from the stings.
I had many near misses in the bush. I once felled a tree I considered unsafe. And it was, because, when I did fell it, a rotten limb fell hitting my helmet and cracking it. I had to sit for about an hour before I could drive home.
I tangled with snakes many times. Marginal Road near Glenburn was dry and hot, so there were plenty. I sometimes saw four in one day. I was walking through thick bush when something told me not to take the next step. A tiger snake was coiled up in the sun, where my foot would have landed. Another time I was working with the late Kevin Neale, looking at messmate, when he felt the undergrowth moving. He jumped three feet vertically. We didn’t see that one.
A comical scene occurred in Marginal Road when we started logging there. My fellers were driving home in a 1933 Ford Coupe when a wallaby slid off the bank and through the open side window. In its haste to get out, it scratched them both before they could pull up.
I worked in the bush a lot on my own, carrying a chainsaw, 30-40 lbs, axe, petrol, hammer, plus other tools. While I was walking along a log to avoid going through some tanglefoot, a wild dog, a cross-dingo, jumped out from under the log. I never saw him again. Another time on my own, and miles from anywhere, I felt I was being followed. It was a German Shepherd. The official dog catcher caught it about a week later, miles from where I saw it. Early days logging in Lukes Creek, Glenburn, wild dogs used to follow us, just out of sight, howling their heads off. Hungry, I think.
One day Philip Priestley and I were heading home from the bush, approaching the Glenburn pub. He told me to pick up a stick from the floor of the car and poke it through a hole in the floor, to stop the car as it rolled to a halt.
A final story to add to my wild or scary moments in logging, was rolling the loader. About 25 years ago, in the early 1980s, David Chalmers and I were logging in Johnson’s bush at Kinglake West, up in the Ash country where it snows. David asked me to push a large Ash stump over, as it was dangerous. Every time he felled a tree nearby, the stump would shake. It was about 18 ft circumference, with a height of about 60 ft. With the 13-ton loader I pushed it over, but was not quick enough to back off. A very large root came up under the loader lifting it and me up very slowly at first, and then when it reached the point of no return it went quickly. Lucky for me it rolled onto its side and didn’t flip straight over, but landed on its side. I was wearing a STIHL safety helmet and I credit it with saving me from serious injury. Two large batteries leaked acid on to me. Diesel and oil also splashed over me. David Chalmers was working close by with our D6 bulldozer and we managed to resurrect the loader back on its feet, with no serious injury.
Transcribed by daughter Robyn Wills, 25/8/2007