Memories of Toolangi, late 1950s-1990s
I feel very much like a ‘Johnny‑come‑lately’ when you compare the time we have been in Toolangi with the likes of Biggs, McLaines, Dembys and Priestleys, but the fact that I have been asked to talk to you indicates that I am at least regarded as a semi‑local, and I am glad of that.
It was a wet October day in 1958 when we moved with our three young children to Toolangi. We had just finished our carrot season in Monbulk, and apart from the preparation months before of some cleared land, about 5 acres on the 166 acres, there had been no time to prepare the old house which had been built by Mr Spragg in 1893 (or so we are told). A Blue Spruce and Cedar tree near the house seemed to verify that.
Our farm had formerly been owned by one of the Lawrence brothers. Blackberries were enveloping it, so the day before we came my husband did four ‘swoops’ with our newly acquired old Chandler Bulldozer around the house, and we were ready to move in. The house was large but in frantic disrepair. Potato seed had been stored in it, and evidence of rats and mice were everywhere. All the stumps had gone, so that a walk on the floor in parts resembled being at sea. Most of the inside walls were made of hessian and paper, some of the 1900 newspapers making interesting and hilarious reading. My brother helped us move and when he walked inside with me, he said “Jenny you told me it was bad, but I didn’t know it was this bloody bad!” However, we had bought the place for the land which was good and we made do with the house, and by the time we had set up our hydraulic ram for our water, and our 32 volt motor for power, we made the old place once more into a home.
There were many stories told to us of the old house and its owners. One that I like is about the lady of the house having a bath one afternoon. You must realise that the house was made of weatherboard, and the bathroom tacked on the back of the house and unlined (a bit brisk in the winter let me tell you!). There was a clothesline attached to the outside wall and the other end of the line was tied to a pear tree in the adjoining orchard. A visitor on horseback called, tied the horse to the line and started making his way to the back door, when something frightened the horse who reared and bolted, pulling the whole side out of the bathroom, revealing the lady of the house in her naked state!
My father had said “Who would want to come to this Godforsaken place?” when he first saw Toolangi, but he stunned us ‑ within a few years he had up‑anchored from his farm at The Patch and bought a farm here ‑ I think that it reminded him of his early beginnings in the Dandenongs. My mother, Jessie Crerar, taught at the Toolangi School (1959), then at the Chum Creek School, and for many years at Healesville Primary School.
There were many timber mills when we came in 1958. In Spraggs Road, Milners had a paling mill and Evans owned a large mill where Youngs now live. Postlethwaites’ mill was at the back of the school where Ross Demby lives. Dembys on its present site, Cherrys in Castella, and a large mill on the Chum Creek Road. Opposite our house, the remains of the old tram track that ran beside Spraggs Road could be seen. It was a very busy time, with lots of heavily‑laden log trucks to be wary of. Spraggs Road had a narrow, one-lane bridge over the Yea River, and it was our policy to stop the truck and listen for these trucks (or worse still ‑ my brother, who was notorious for his speedy driving) before crossing the bridge in our truck.
In 1958 the Chum Creek Road was the main route for getting to Healesville. Although the Myers Creek Road was formed to the Potato Research Station from Healesville, it was not sealed down as far as the pub corner, where it met the Chum Creek Road. There was, and still is, a road of sorts, the Old Toolangi Road from Priestley’s to Dixons Creek, and a road from Castella to West Bridge Road and Glenburn. Hogans Road in the Kinglake direction connected with the Mt Slide Road at the Guida’s Saddle. If bushfires were cutting the Myer and Chum roads and had not come in this direction, it was a means of getting to Yarra Glen. The Melba Highway as we now know it was built in stages in the early 1960s. The first stage allowed the school children to travel to Yarra Glen for their annual interschool sports day.
Toolangi in 1958 consisted of the Potato Research Station, the Forestry Commission, the Pub, the Infant Welfare Centre, a small church built in 1901, a small hall and a post office opposite the school gate with Mrs Kelly handling all telephone calls before the Healesville exchange took over. Not long after we came, the present hall was completed. The old hall, which had formerly been a school, was used for Red Cross and CWA meetings and for a supper room when we had balls and Christmas concerts for a while, until it was dismantled and sold.
The Seismic Observatory was set up near Biggs corner by the State Government in 1919, to measure disturbances in the upper atmosphere and ionosphere. They wanted a site with no electrical interference and little traffic, so Toolangi was ideal. Alex Cameron, who was the owner of Toolangi House Hotel at the time, was asked to take charge of it. He did so for a while and then sub‑let it to his son‑in‑law Jim Smedley. It quickly passed from him to his brother Len Smedley. During the 1939 bushfires it was burnt down, then was rebuilt in an underground vault. Len Smedley tended it until the 1950s when Ron Biggs took over the job for the next 34 years. In 1962 another site was chosen on solid‑granite foundations at Blue Mount on the Research Station. This time to measure earthquakes and tremors all over the world. Now modern technology has arrived and Ron Biggs’ job has been taken over, the information going by phone cable directly to Canberra.
Toolangi was a timber area, with very few making their living solely from farming in 1958. Ron Biggs, John Priestley and McLaines grew a few potatoes and peas. Tom Biggs had dairy cows and Mrs Konnenenburg and her daughter Diny grew cabbages and other vegetables, Extons had grown potatoes, but had sold out and moved to Kinglake. Rimingtons had a nursery down a little way on the Chum Creek Road. Tom Ebbels, Jack’s father, had grown a few carrots before his death in 1954. We came to Toolangi to grow carrots and the ground was very suitable for them, but there was much clearing of land to be done before we had the quantities we were aiming for.
In those days fire‑danger for the people living in Toolangi was very great. Since the earliest time before the look‑out tower was built on Mount St Leonard, a man was employed by the Board of Works during the summer months to climb up a very tall tree there and keep a look out for fires. If he saw one, he pelted down that tree, jumped on his bike (I’m unsure whether it was a motor or push bike) and went to the nearest phone to raise the alarm. Ron Furmston was one of those men. He is in his nineties now and still lives in Healesville. Watching the old film they had at the Discovery Centre, it was amazing to see the fire‑fighting equipment, just bags, rakes and branches, used in those early days. We have come a long way since then. With the clearing of the land and improved roads, it has lessened the danger, but nevertheless the possibility of disaster is still real.
In 1960 a handful of farmers were asked to grow the very beginning of the Certified Strawberry runners. We were amongst them. Due to Toolangi’s unique isolation, it was made a `proclaimed area, and the present Certified Strawberry Runner Growers Association was established. With the freezing of part of the crop it made it possible to spread our incomes over the year, rather than having to exist from end of harvest to the beginning of the next season.
The Progress Association, headed by Cliff Boswell from Castella and Jerry Chambers (my husband), successfully made a push to get electricity to the area. There had been a lot of resistance initially – in fact, they could have had power here years earlier – but this time it did happen, and in August 1963 we had power at last, with a ‘Switch‑on Ball’ to celebrate the occasion. We farewelled our petrol and flat‑irons, tilly lamps and kerosene‑fridges. We celebrated by building a new house. Our fifth baby was born soon after.
In the early 1960s, 90 acres (35 hectares) of Crown Land was opened up for farming along the Myers Creek Road. The present owners are Eric Binz and Harry Van de Ven. By this time more farms had been cleared, new people were coming to the area, the new roads making it much quicker and easier to get to Melbourne. A high school was built in Healesville. This was good news, especially for the few students who had travelled by bus to the Yea High School.
During the early years we had many seasonal workers in the district. The horse had given way to the tractor. Rather that digging potatoes by fork, diggers behind tractors were used, but labour was needed to pick‑up and bag. In the main they were a tough, hard‑drinking, hard‑working bunch – some very colourful characters amongst them. Many farmers built shacks, complete with a stove and beds, for them to live in during the harvesting season. There are the remains of these huts even to this day. When their drink and wages were getting low, I have heard that they made a brew of powdered‑milk and methylated spirits!! I don’t recall how or if they worked the next day after that.
In 1967 my husband had a horrific tractor accident and I’ll never forget those men presenting themselves (complete with knives) at my door saying “Lady, where’s your spud seed? We’ve come to cut it!!” Not only those men, but many of the locals came and prepared our paddocks and planted our potatoes that year. I will never cease to be grateful to each one of those men.
Like most pioneering areas, the early families eventually became bonded by marriage. The Spraggs, Biggs, Mills, Neils, Priestleys, McLaines, Chivers, Watsons, Lees, Churches, Lawrences, Dembys, Cherrys, Hughes, and McClements. Many descendants of those families still live here. Dembys came from Sydney in 1891, when Charlie Demby was 7 years old. Lawrences came about the same time. Biggs came from Brunswick in 1894. McLaines also from Brunswick in 1894. Priestleys came from England in 1897. Blackmores came to Toolangi in 1915. Sewells first came to Toolangi in 1925 to stay at the hotel for a holiday and came to stay the following year.
The poet C. J. Denis drew many of his characters from the locals, and the Healesville Councillors featured in some of his daily columns that he wrote for The Herald from 1922 until his death in 1938. Mrs Smedley, who was a very old resident and a great friend of the poet, after many years of knowing me told me who different characters were in his writing. It has added greatly to my enjoyment of his poems. His house was still standing when we arrived, but was burnt down in 1965. It’s great to think the public can still enjoy his ‘Singing Gardens’ thanks to Jan and Vic Williams.
Life in the bush and saw‑mills brought with them serious dangers. There were many accidents. Just before we came, Mr McKay and Horrie Carrol were killed in the bush. There were some marvellous doctors in those early times. Their practice ranged from Healesville to Buxton, Warburton, Marysville, Toolangi, Yarra Glen, Christmas Hills, Dixons Creek, Kinglake and Glenburn. Dr Arthur Deery was at Healesville when we came. He even made house‑calls when they were necessary. They were horribly over‑worked, but really dedicated doctors. The old Healesville Hospital was replaced by a lovely new one, and it was here that many Toolangi women had their children. Two of our sons were born there.
Another service that was very good was one provided by a grocer at the Chum Creek Store (opposite the Golf Course). He would deliver a weekly order to your house and also take and return dry‑cleaning.
George and Alice Richards owned the Toolangi House Hotel, and people would come from far and wide to this popular `watering hole’. As well as weekend visitors, it gave the locals a chance to see each other and catch up with news and local concerns. One funny incident I remember occurred in the early 1960s. The wife of one of the young foresters who was very fond of his beer, was getting very agitated as the hours stretched by and her wedding anniversary meal that she had lovingly prepared was getting ruined. He had faithfully promised to be back on time. In a fit of anger, she set a meal tray, complete with flowers, dished up his meal and drove to the pub, and in full view of the drinkers and her husband, found his car parked in front of the window, put the tray on the bonnet, poured the wine, and then speed off in a fury. I’m sorry to say he didn’t reform, even after that.
The pub was taken over by Jack Farr and had been beautifully restored. It was a great blow to the district when in April 1975 the hotel was burnt to the ground. Some local men were said to have cried! One regular patron died not long after, and many irreverently said that it was due to this calamity.
Ces and Don Davis built a shop on the Myers Creek Road/Chum Creek intersection, opposite the pub site. When Kelly’s shop and post office had closed, it was a welcome addition and a place to catch up with local people and news. With the recent loss of our postal service and shop, there is a great gap and need for such a meeting place in the district. My congratulations go to Joanne Priestley and Bob Pockett and others who compile and contribute to ‘Talking Toolangi’, the community newsletter. It is the only means for some of us to know just what is going on in the district.
There are similarities between the Dandenongs and this area, resulting in people coming from the Olinda and Monbulk areas to set up flower‑growing businesses and nurseries. First Jim Hodge, followed by the Blue Dandenongs bulb farm and Van De Ven’s nursery. Haye Haisma introduced witlof growing and Eric Binz was well on the way to establishing his successful business. David Williams bought Churches property and started his pottery. These families, together with the Potato Research Station and the Certified Strawberry Runner Growers Association, have certainly brought attention and fame to Toolangi. Demby’s mill and the Discovery Centre with their school‑tours, and Camp Tallawalla have introduced Toolangi to a great number of people. We even have an author of note, in Jennie Overend. Once we knew everyone in the area, but with the coming of hobby‑farms, house building, commuters and the changing times, it is not so today. Toolangi is not the ‘sleepy old hollow’ it once was.
The history of the school is covered very well in the book compiled by the Centenary Organising Committee, and you children will have either read it or have it read to you. A great number of the early pioneers attended your school. In July 1969 the primary school students came up to our house to view the moon landing on television. You can be rightly proud of your school, with the equipment and advantages that you have available today. The family atmosphere of a small school is a very precious one.
I hope that you come to love and appreciate the beauty and charm of the Toolangi district as much as I do.
Written and presented at the community Christmas celebration in 2000 to mark the beginning of the century. Reprinted in community newsletter ‘Talking Toolangi’, 2001.