The Heyfield Story

This article is in the early stages of development, but the extracts below from Howell (1995) may help those wishing to contribute their experiences.

This article contains an extract from "A New Beginning. The Story of Heyfield and the Sawmilling Industry, 1945-1995". This book by Brian Howell was written for, and published in 1995 by, the Heyfield Community Resource Centre. The FCRPA has permission to use extracts from the book. 

"Two major events in Australia's history were important for the Heyfield sawmilling companies. An understanding of these events helps us appreciate the achievements of the companies and why they were established in this small Gippsland town.

The first was the series of disastrous bush fires in January 1939 which destroyed vast areas of timbered country, homes and sawmills and caused the loss of 72 lives. Many of those who died were trapped in isolated sawmilling settlements. The fires killed practically all the ash forests within a hundred mile radius of Melbourne.

The second event, which followed a few months later, was the outbreak of World War II in which Australia immediately became involved."

A principal recommendation of the Inquiry held by Judge Stretton following the fires was that sawmills in future should be established, where practical, in the nearest town rather than in the forest. It also required that where this was not immediately practical dugouts should be provided for protection of those at risk.

One of the areas ravaged by the fires was the Ash forest to the east of Noojee and extending to Mount Erica. Unlike the mixed species timbers of the foothills, the ash eucalypts cannot withstand a burn of the magnitude of the 1939 fires. Therefore, it became imperative that the fire-killed trees be har-vested for timber before they deteriorated through weather and insect attack.

The need for a quick response was further emphasised by the demands of the war effort which required ever-increasing quantities of timber. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate how much of this resource would have been left to fall over and rot had it not been for this unprecedented demand. It is hard to see how the housing industry, still recovering from the depression years, could have utilised the enormous amount of material harvested and processed from the fire-killed ash forests during the 1940s.

Nineteen fifty was an important year in the development of the Victorian sawmilling industry. A group of eight ash-species sawmilling companies com-menced production of seasoning quality timber in North Gippsland, seven of them at the rail-head town of Heyfield and one at Licola, 53 kilometres to the north.


The companies had, with one exception, been involved in the logging and processing of the fire-killed ash forests of Tanjil Bren, Tooronga, the Upper Thompson and Erica. They had also, led by the Victorian Sawmillers Associa-tion, unsuccessfully lobbied for access to the stands of Mountain Ash in the Melbourne water catchment areas under the control of the Melbourne Metro-politan Board of Works. The establishment of the Heyfield group of mills was significant. It was the first time such a large number of mills had been simultaneously granted licences to log from a common forest area.

The Pioneering Sawmills

Information on the first sawmill to be built in the town of Heyfield is not available but there is evidence of activity as early as the 1920s. A number of older houses it the town were demolished from about 1950 onwards to make way for the new en of sawmilling. These dwellings were almost exclusively built using red gum timbe and it is likely that the timber was locally produced, probably before or during World War 1. There was sawn timber produced in the district much earlier, however. Linda Barraclough and Minnie Higgins, in their book A Valley of Glens  - The People am Places of the Upper Macalister River, state:

The Glenmaggie sawmills came into their own in the 1880s. By then many of the farms had been established for at least ten years, and had been profitable enough to allow more substantial homes to be erected. The magnificent red gums on the flats were eyed off, cut down and hauled by bullock teams to the mills. There they were cut into the weatherboards that were used to build some of the oldest homes in the Glenmaggie area. Their tenure was short, as the authors state:By the beginning of the 1890s all these mills had ceased to operate. Either they had satisfied the main demand, or, more likely, they had cut out as many of the giant red gums as were to be available.

The New Beginning Saw the Creation of the Macalister Forest District

- with Heyfield as the headquarters. It was created from parts of the former Briagolong and Neerim districts and extended from the Great Dividing Range to the north and Princes High-way in the south. It was opened for harvesting in 1949 and licences were issued to eight sawmilling companies to log a total volume of approximately 40 million super feet (120,000 m3). The principal timber species was Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) - common name in Victoria Woollybutt. One of the finest hardwoods in the world it is used for joinery, furniture, mouldings, floorings and interior trim for housing. Following the Royal Commission recommendations after the 1939 bushfires, seven of the new sawmills were established in Heyfield and one at Licola, away from the forest and the risk of bushfires.

Allocation of Licences and Areas (Connors Plain)

Following the allocation of the eight licences to log the Connor's Plains area the Country Roads Board engaged in a major road reconstruction project to up-grade the road between Glenmaggie and Licola. The Forests Commission then made arrangements with the CRB to construct the logging road from Licola to Connor's Plains and beyond to Cullen's Creek. During the 1950s the North Road was extended to Lazarini's Spur and the South Road from Connor's Plains to the vicinity of Mt Useful.

In the early planning, it was proposed that Wilbur Saxton should undertake most of the logging operations to supply sawlogs to the Heyfield Mills. Wilbur later withdrew the proposal for group logging but, judging by a letter from Forests Commission Secretary G.K. Cockburn, this may have sown the seed for eventual group logging and the formation of the Heyfield Sawmillers Logging Co in 1959.

The letter reads:

23/12/49
Mr JW. Youl With reference to the logging operations shortly to be commenced by the Licola group of millers, it is understood that several group meetings of the millers concerned have been held to discuss various matters associated with logging in the area. The Commission was interested in a recent state­ment by you of the possibility of logging being carried out by one logging organisation for the whole group of millers in the locality and would fa­vour logging being carried out in this manner. It is felt that such procedure would be more efficient than individual log­ging operations by the millers, would facilitate fire protection and silvicultural work and should result in the most equitable distribution of logs obtained in the area. Sec. FC/Vic.

Tamboritha - Bennison - Moroka Roading

The Tamboritha Road was begun in 1959 and the main road network com-pleted by 1963-64. For this undertaking, the biggest single roading project at-tempted by the Forests Commission, it transferred its roading equipment and men from the Mansfield—Jamieson projects. Les (Bull) Kennedy, the senior over¬seer was in charge of the base camp about four miles beyond Licola on Kevin Higgins' property. Later the Commission built a second roading camp at Breakfast Creek where Ray Brown was overseer in charge. When the road reached Mt Arbuckle a further camp was built at Surveyors Creek.

Approximately two million dollars was spent on the road construction trom Licola to Point Q at Little Round Plain and Arbuckle to Carey Creek on the Mt Howitt road. The agreement was that the three parties, Government, Forests Commission and sawmillers, would bear the cost of the main road network equally. Secondary roading would be the responsibility and the role of the Heyfield Sawmillers Logging Company.
Following the completion of this section the Forests Commission ceased road construction within the district except for two miles of costly roading at the Barstard's Neck, at the head of the Dry River ..........

The Logging Company then undertook a substantial roading program to provide access to the King Billy, Peters Creek and Mt Clear timber stands as well as those at Mt Kent and Mt Dawson. During the sawmilling life of the Heyfield mills, it has been estimated the Company built 1500 kilometres of main extraction and secondary roading.
Considering the road construction equipment available in the 1960s, the Forest Commission did an outstanding job in building the roads, especially from Licola to Tamboritha. Much of the going was in steep country, with many road batters up to 50 feet high in hard rock. The bulldozers were all cable blade machines. There were no rear mounted rippers, and up to 30 men were used for rock drilling with hand-held jackhammers. 'Bull' Kennedy was known to be a pretty tough overseer and bush lore said he always had one crew coming on to the job and another going off. (Howell B, 1995)

The main Tamboritha road construction was 36 kilometres long, running from Licola to Tamboritha Saddle at the head of the Bennison Spur. From Licola the road followed the Macalister River for three kilometres then the Wellington River valley for a further 19 kilometres. Alternating cliff faces and narrow river flats in this section necessitated crossing the Wellington River in three places by high level concrete and steel bridges. At a point 22 kilometres from Licola and at an elevation of 1164 feet (350 metres) the road left the Wellington and commenced the long climb up the side slopes to a point on the Bennison Spur, beyond which it closely followed the old cattle track until it reached Tamboritha Saddle at an elevation of 4243 feet (1273 metres). The rise in elevation from Licola to the Saddle was 3578 feet (1075 metres) over only 36 kilometres. This stretch of road required the installation of 248 culverts. Originally the target time for completion was three years, but it was completed in two years and ten months, with the first load of logs carted on 6 November 1961. The average number of men employed to build it was 60.

Reaching Tamboritha Saddle was significant. It meant that the south end of the highland plain country had been reached, and that road access to the various timber stands would be economically possible. The next stage, a connecting link between the Bennison Plains, Mt Arbuckle, Doolans, Moroka and Little Round Plain timber stands, would also provide access points for subsidiary roading to pick up timber in the Carey's Creek, Mt Reynard, Snowy Range and Macfarlane's areas.

The total length of the Bennison Plains road was to be 73 kilometres. The Commission would construct 38 kilometres, to link the various stands of timber, while the Logging Company would build the 35 kilometres which passed through these stands. In addition it would be responsible for access roads. This meant that the longest haul of logs to Heyfield from the extremities of the access roads of the Moroka and Little Round Plain area would involve a round trip of close to 200 miles (320 kilometres). The performance of the truck fleet was exceptional as these areas yielded a much higher volume of timber than had been previously estimated.

The initial target date for completion of the Moroka section of the main road network was based on future logging requirements and was provisionally set for 1966. In fact it was finished much earlier and was in use by 1964. The elevation of the Bennison Plains road varied from 3500 feet (1050 metres) to 5400 feet (1620 metres). An average of 45 men was employed on this section.

Opening

The Chief Secretary, the Hon Arthur Rylah, officially opened the Tamboritha road. The official Government/Forests Commission party also included the Minister for Forests the Hon Lindsay Thompson; Forests Commissioners A.O. Lawrence, H.D. Galbraith and A.L. Benallack; the Chief Engineer J. Longmuir; and George Pearson, resident engineer.

Fires

Regeneration burnings by the Forests Commission at Mt McDonald and The Nobs in March 1964 broke away when unforecast gale force winds swept the district. The fires swept across the Macalister River country to blacken the Alpine Ash resources of Mt Tamboritha, Dingo Hill and McFarlane's. They were finally stopped by rain late in the evening when about half way into the Moroka timber. It was a miracle that nobody was trapped by this fire as on the Bennison Spur there wasn't a green eucalypt leaf to be seen — only a blackened mass. This fire badly affected the closer forest resource. It entailed a 34,000,000 super feet fire salvage operation during 1964-65. (Howell B, 1995)

The following year, 1965, there were further serious fires. One started near Gay's, north of Glenmaggie, and burnt right through to Bruthen before weather conditions and fighters contained the blaze. A second fire, burning in the Valencia Creek catchment, was threatening the important Alpine Ash resources in the Little Round Plain unit. Although this fire had the advantage of burning uphill towards the Little Round Plain there was also a strong northerly wind blowing against the fire. With logging machines and crews to assist the Forests Commission, a fireline was built from the Pinnacles to Mt Wellington and the fire was generally contained along the divide between these two mountains, about ten miles apart.

As a result of this fire the Company had to mount another fire salvage plan during 1966 in the heads of the catchments of the Freestone, Valencia and Turton creeks and the Avon River. The Forests Commission officers and staff, the logging contractors and their employees demonstrated much courage in the containment of wildfires in remote and difficult bush country and deserve the highest praise. To the uninitiated the solution to such fires is aerial bombing with water, but the most effective response is containment by getting a fire-break cleared around the burn. Because their machines are already in the area, the response of the loggers has often meant the prevention of an outbreak of disastrous proportions with potential loss of life and the destruction of valuable timber. Also of incalculable value is their knowledge of the country and expertise in machine handling.

Foresters

The offices of the Macalister forest district were located at Heyfield from 1949 to 1985. During this period there were nine District Foresters, many of whom went on to serve in other areas or at head office. The first was Ian McDonald, who transferred from Briagolong. Ian resigned in 1952 to take up a position as Forester with the State Electricity Commission in the Latrobe Valley. Val Cleary was in charge from 1952 until 1958. A keen golfer during his years at Heyfield, he later in his career became the Commission's Chief of Division of Fire Protection. He was followed by Brian Williams who stayed until 1962. Brian later served in head office as Chief of the Division of Economics and Marketing, and was for some years a Forests Commission representative on the Victorian Timber Promotion Council. Murray (Moray I think - RR) Douglas served a two-year term at Heyfield, followed by Jeff Brisbane from 1964 to 1967. Joe Adams was in the position until 1970. Joe paid the penalty for having no children, sent to Cann River with no secondary education facilities. Another keen golfer, his fellow club members were horrified that he was sent to a place with no golf course, but they were reassured that Orbost was only 45 miles away. One of the longest serving District Foresters at Heyfield, John Donovan served for six years. Norm Cox, who followed, also a golfer, was very active in the Marysville Golf Club from 1979. Andy Beveridge was the last District Forester in Heyfield. He stayed until 1985 when the Regional Office opened in Traralgon with Frank Noble as Regional Manager.

Some well known identities served as Assistant Foresters at Heyfield or Licola. They included Brian McNeil, Max Boucher, Alan Eddy (later Principal of the Victorian School of Forestry and Land Management at Creswick), Mark Stump, Graeme McIntyre (on summer Saturday afternoons Graeme opened the bowling for the Timber Workers cricket team), Alf Sebire, Ted Stuckey, Jim Waayers, Frank Noble and John Slorach,
Forest Foremen/Overseers were: Ian Thomas—from 1950 to 1955 (later with the Logging Co), Doug Williams, Bill Simmonds, Don Wallis, Basil Reid, Brian Sharp and Col Collings.

Following a reconnaissance of timber resources in 1956 (using pack horses for access as no roads existed), a detailed timber assessment was undertaken in 1958. The original jeep tracks into many of the timber stands were constructed to assist the assessment. Some of the foresters involved in this work were Bob Allen, Jack Gittens, Brian Woodward and John Wright.

No consideration of the part played by Forests Commission personnel would be complete without mention of the men who manned the checking stations. The first checking station was built at Licola, opposite Saxtons mill, now the site of the Lions village. The station was moved beyond the junction of the Licola and Tamboritha roads when the trucks began to operate from Arbuckle in 1961. Well known personalities of this period were Ted Gibbs, Charlie Short, Tom Townsend and Ron Bell.

The checking station was later moved to a position one kilometre north of the Heyfield township near Broberg's paddock after the mill at Licola was closed. Station checkers over this period were Danny Sheehan, Manfred Jaelka and Don Clinton.

 

 

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