Midgely Ogden - Wombat Sawmiller
"Fred and Ada Ogden left Yorkshire with their four young children, Midgely, Charles, William and Ernest and arrived in Melbourne in March 1914. After taking farm labouring positions in the Acheron and Alexandra districts they moved to Eildon where Fred gained work on the new Sugarloaf Dam, the precursor to the present Eildon Weir. Following a brief move to Avenel they acquired land in Spring Hill and moved there in Nov 1922.
In 1923 Fred purchased a spot mill from Jack Kays, which was located at Enders bridge on the main road near Trentham. Other mills in the Spring Hill area followed. In 1938 the brothers decided to go their separate ways. Midge bought a mill in the Cobaws and Ern worked there. Bill began his own mills around Spring Hill with Ern joining the business later. Charlie and Fred worked the family farm at Spring Hill with Charlie occasionally working for the brothers.
As the recommendations of the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 fires began to be implemented, which removed mills from within State Forests, Bill bought land in East Street Daylesford, building an electrically powered mill there. The mill was sold to Barkers and the Ogden Sawmilling Company was wound up in 1988.
All told the Ogdens, at one time or another, operated 13 or 14 mills in the Trentham–Spring Hill–Daylesford district. Midge and his son also operated mills in the Cobaw/Malmsbury/Kyneton area." (David Endacott, May 2022)
As David has described, Midgely Ogden was a sawmiller who spent most of his working life in sawmills that took logs from the Wombat State Forest and surrounding private property. In the mid-1970s he completed an extensive story of his working life which, although it has a focus on his sawmilling experiences, also provides an insight into his life and times more generally. There are some extracts from that story below.
"My family's first connection with forest life and the sawmilling industry took place in 1919 when my father and older brothers carted timber by horse drawn wagons to Yea Railway Station from a timber mill 18 miles away in the upper reaches of the Murrindindi Creek. The mill was steam driven and in the heart of the virgin forests which were mostly mountain ash. The logs were brought to the mill on wooden tram tracks and snigged out to landings by the old 'high lead' method."
"The mill itself was very isolated, as most bush mills were then, and nearly all the workers would have lived at the mill during the week and go home to their families at the weekend, although often the whole family lived at the mill. I can remember some of the neat little cottages with the flowers and vegetable gardens, for there was plenty of water for such things."
"My family lived about halfway between Yea and the mill, and it took a whole day to go to the mill and load the wagons, every piece by hand. The next day the teams would journey to Yea so that it took two days with two wagons to complete the round trip of approximately 40 miles. The road was virtually a dirt track and the dust in summer was appalling. Cartage in winter was impossible and all the mills had to close down. In the spring time the roads, especially in the lower places, were shocking, and to illustrate the trials of teamsters in those early days I recall the following incident. One day early in the spring the teams had gone to the mill to load the wagons and night had fallen but there was no sign of the returning teams as my mother waited anxiously at home. As the hours went by and still no sign of them my younger brother (who would have been only eight years old) and I saddled our ponies and took off into the darkness of the night to look for the teams. I remember the sound of the wind as it roared through the tree tops as our ponies made their way along the road. About seven miles from home we found the wagons hopelessly bogged at a creek crossing. Later we found the horses which had been unyoked from the wagons and they had been taken to a nearby farmhouse where the drivers had been taken in and given a hearty meal. I could never forget the hospitality of those country folk. My brother and I immediately started back on the homeward journey to reassure our mother that all was well."
"Actually the biggest hardwood trees (apart from red gum) I have sawn in my career came from the Cobaw Ranges in the 1940's. The longest tree fallen there was 90 feet and was 10 feet girth at the base. With its top, it probably would have been 120 feet high. In girth the biggest tree fallen was 15 feet 9 inches at the centre girth of a 28 feet log. These trees were exceptional and by far the biggest in length and girth to any trees I have ever sawn. Few, if anything, like them have been cut in the Wombat Forest for many years."
Charcoal"Another forest industry, and an important one in the days of the horse and buggy, was the production of vast quantities of charcoal. Every tiny bush hamlet or any country place at all had its blacksmith forge. In the large towns there would be many such places, and I remember that there were at least six in Kyneton in 1923. All used forge and bellows and of course the anvil and the main work was the shoeing of the horses. All used charcoal and plenty of it. The method used to produce it was to build large conical heaps of logs standing almost vertical on a plan which allows channels for the ingress of air and spaces by which the products of combustion are carried away. The heap or kiln as it is called is covered with turf or clay with openings for regulating the air supply. The production of good charcoal depends on the air supply being as low as possible and the temperature high. Charcoal burning is an ancient art, the technique of which was handed down from father to son. Italians were well known for their skill as charcoal burners and there were many in the Trentham - East Trentham areas. My only contact with any of them or with their work came in 1924, when after building a big kiln under the supervision of a neighbour, who had burnt a lot of charcoal in his younger days, we engaged an old Italian to do the burning. It was very hard work building a charcoal kiln and the wood had to be more or less of standard size and length and it took us days to cut enough wood and to build it. Then the whole pile was covered with dirt and leaves. A chimney type hollow log had been placed in the centre of the kiln which was circular in shape and hot ashes were poured down this igniting light kindling wood inside at the bottom. When the fire had a good hold the chimney - like arrangement was completely covered over with dirt to stop the air from getting in. From here the old Italian took over. I will never forget my first sight of this character. He could not speak English very well and he was a very little man, only about 5 feet tall. This emphasized his hairdo which was all that modern youth would now desire, only that it was stained by the dust of years of burning charcoal. There was not any need to wonder what work he did as he was as black as the charcoal he burnt. I have never seen a more primitive man, and for the few days and nights that the burning of the kiln took, he lived and slept in the open air. Little sleep was possible as if the fire broke through and let the air in the whole thing would be ruined. However, he certainly knew his work, and he looked after that kiln night and day until the charcoal was ready to be put into bags.
"A few years later I decided to try charcoal burning and in my spare time I built a small kiln, lit it and prepared to stand the night looking after it to make sure that the fire did not break out. However, the cold night air brought on a violent attack of toothache and about 2am I could stand no more and went home to bed. On my return next morning the fire had broken through and the whole kiln was a heap of useless ashes. This episode did make me fully appreciate the dedication of the old Italian to his work. I think charcoal burning would have been very unhealthy as the dank and musty odour that came from the kiln while it was burning sometimes made one gasp for breath".
"As mentioned, eucalyptus distilling was another bushland occupation, and with its very potent scent was a welcome contrast to the rather suffocating aroma around a charcoal kiln. The true eucalypt is the peppermint tree, for while all Australian hardwood trees are classed as eucalypts, the peppermint was the only one that I saw being treated for the extraction of eucalyptus oil. The peppermint is not highly regarded by the Forests Commission for the production of timber. Usually it does not grow to any size without becoming defective, and while other species of trees such as messmate and white gum are subject to selection before being felled for milling, the same restrictions do not apply to the peppermint tree. These trees grow on poor and rocky ground and mostly are rather stunted, no other species growing amongst them in these stony places. It was from these patches of peppermint trees that the leaves were taken to be distilled. The plant was rather simple consisting only of a square iron tank commonly known as a 400 gallon. The leaves were boiled by a small fire underneath, having first been packed into the tank as tightly as possible. The work of cutting the leaves from the tree was rather hazardous. Most of the cutters preferred to cut or lop the branches from the standing tree rather than go to the trouble of falling it. That was understandable but it was highly dangerous work to climb a tree and chop off all its branches without any safety appliances such as safety belts. The work called for very active young men and I have seen trees up to at least 40 feet high with not a green leaf left on them after the lopping of it had been finished. The trees did not die and the leaves grew again. The fallen branches were trimmed on the ground and the leaves loaded by fork onto a horse drawn spring cart and taken away to the distilling plant where they slowly boiled and the eucalyptus oil thus extracted flowed along a small outlet pipe into containers. The crew of these plants usually consisted of two, and the ones I knew would have been as tough as the Italian charcoal burner. They slept in the butt of a huge fallen hollow tree and had their meals in the open."
"In the days before electricity, oil burners and other heaters, wood was the main fuel used for domestic purposes and the cutting of vast quantities of firewood was another important and essential product of the forest lands. In addition to domestic requirements, huge quantities were used to feed the boilers of places like Trewhella's foundry and to a lesser degree Willis Bros. and other flour and chaff mills."
"In those earlier days many more people lived in districts surrounding country towns than do now and in forest areas sawmills would, in most cases, provide one of the few means of employment for those people, although eucalyptus distilling, charcoal burning, firewood, fencing posts and mining timber provided work as well. When the branch railway line was opened from Woodend to Daylesford early in 1880, Trentham became one of the main timber towns in the State, and for a span of fifty years until 1930 millions of super feet of hardwood timber would have been dispatched from there and also Fernhill, which station was nearer to Woodend, and it served as an outlet for the big forest areas of East Trentham and North Blackwood. The proximity of these forests to the railway would have been vital in those days of slow horse drawn haulage of logs and timber. Gradually during the 1930's road haulage by motor truck took over from the railway until after the Second World War when the era of timber cartage by rail had ended."
"Over the years the totals are shown hereunder. These figures will show how well the quota system worked enabling the mill to become very firmly established
Logs Sawn - June 1943 to April 1955
Cobaw - 5,048,432
Blackwood - 6,591,907
Private Property - 4,236,891
Spring Hill, Denver - 3,442,531
East Trentham - 118,057
Woodend - 1,702,069
Grand Total - 21,141,887 super feet"
The Common"In my life as a bushman and sawmiller I have roamed around most parts of the Wombat forest but no single area has ever had the appeal for me, particularly those very first years when as a young man I worked under the supervision of Forest Officers. I think it was the beautiful clear streams of water that ran down the deep fern lined gullies to join the river that I was to remember most. Even in the driest years they never ceased to flow. Many a bushman who worked in the forest would have enjoyed his lunch sitting on the shady banks on a hot day with plenty of cold clear water to drink. In later years when I worked in desert like conditions in the Cobaw Ranges how I longed for a cool drink of the crystal clear waters of these creeks.
The Common was well known for its tall trees, and many piles up to 60 and 70 feet had been fallen for the Melbourne Harbour Trust, also poppet legs for gold mines. In 1937 we supplied four poppet legs to the Wattle Gully gold mine at Chewton. Each of those poppet legs had to be 65 feet long, perfectly straight and with a diameter of 12 inches at the tip or small end. I went to the Forest Office at Trentham to get permission to fall the trees. The Forest Officer was of the opinion that four such trees, even in the Common would be hard to find, and to save his time suggested that I find them myself, with the proviso that if I made any error in assessing the length of the trees to be selected full royalty rates for piles would apply if a tree either in length or size did not come up to specifications. If -this happened it would have to be utilized as a mill log but with the royalty rate for piles being 10 cents per lineal foot as against 10 cents per 100 super feet for mill logs it would not have been a payable proposition. However, I knew. of almost every tall tree that grew there, and we found four almost within a stone's throw of each other and when measured they fulfilled the required size and length. One tree was over 70 feet in length. They were all perfect specimens, and were carted by horses to Trentham and loaded at the railway station."
1939"Saturday 7th - The hottest day for 30 years, being 105 degrees in Kyneton."
"Sunday 8th - Heat wave conditions. Bushfires everywhere."
"Monday 9th - As the heat wave continues, fires take their toll of life and property. Over the weekend 60 houses had been burnt, 40 of these at Dromana, and two Forest Officers were burnt to death at Kinglake. With a likelihood of the intense heat continuing it is evident that the fires which have a big hold in all parts of the State will cause terrible losses within the next few days."
"Tuesday 10th - Hot scorching weather and the toll of the bushfires goes up. Death toll now 19, including a party of 5 caught in the fire on the Acheron Way. The remainder meeting their end in the Rubicon fire near Alexandra. Mills burnt down all over the State and a serious shortage of building timber is expected."
"Wednesday 11th - Still very hot and smoke from the fires hangs low - almost like a fog. Although no more deaths have been reported, many have died because of the intense heat. Reports of Statewide damage reveal appalling loss of property and that the fires are still burning and many townships are in danger of being wiped out if a north wind springs up."
"Thursday 12th - Slightly cooler, but again hot in afternoon. No further loss of life but losses in property goes on as the fires continue to burn."
"Friday 13th January, 1939, must go down in Victorian history as Black Friday. The temperature in Melbourne reached an all-time record of 114 degrees and a fearful hot northerly gale was all that was needed to send the fires roaring through many parts of the State, leaving a trail of desolation and death. The death toll for the week is now 67, many persons are missing, and whole townships have been wiped out."
"During the Depression years our logging activities were greatly retarded and it was not until 1932 that our production of timber increased. It was then that we obtained a defined forest area which eventually took in all that State Forest west of Spring Hill, to the road from Little Hampton to Glenlyon. Between 1932 and 1939 millions of feet of logs were sawn at mills erected at different places, but only the last one, which was at Chinaman's Garden on the Kangaroo Creek, was on forest land. The falling in this area had been just as strictly controlled as had been the case in the Common a few years before and there was a splendid growth of young trees left. It was a great tragedy when, in 1944, the whole area was utterly ravished by the worst bushfire I can recall. Messmate forests recover somewhat from bushfires but the havoc caused by the 1944 inferno was so great that eventually the whole area was salvaged by the granting of "C" class licences under the new quota system which was introduced by the Forests Commission in the late 1940s."