Chapter 5 Melaleuca Park

In the later 1940's Herbert Nicholls and I bought 2000 odd acres from the mouth of the Forester River, extending some five miles upstream on the eastern side and adjoining 'Barbougle'. This ground was subject to floods and salt tides, and something had to be done if we were going to grow vegetables for the war effort there.

So we banked the river and put in flood gates to let the fresh water out, but stopping the salt tides from entering.

We constructed a road from Barnbougle entrance to about 20 chains east of the Forester River and bridged the river, a distance of about 2 miles. Before we built the road and bridge (under contract to the Public Works Department for £1,500) we had up to 70 helpers, mostly boys and girls, working on the north-eastern side of the river, with the only access a boat on a pulley. The tractors and other equipment had to come over the old Petterson's bridge (now burnt down), some miles upstream and impossible to cross when the river was in flood.

We named the property 'Melaleuca Park', for all the paper-bark ti-tree growing there, and the house we transported from Cuckoo over the Petterson's bridge road is still on the same site and is being used.

Although the flood gate system is common in Holland, it was relatively new to Tasmania, and we had members of both Houses of Parliament on an official visit to see it. Eventually I sold out my area to the then Minister for Forests, Roly Worsley. It is of interest that engineers had reported to the Agricultural Bank that it was not economically possible to reclaim this salt water area. Most of the local people also said it was impossible, or it would have been done fifty years or more before we began work on it.

My mother was very concerned and thought it would break me financially, but it was a simple engineering project for Herb and me to allow fresh water to go out at low tide through flood gates which opened automatically. Then these gates automatically closed with the salt tide coming in and the fresh water built up a pressure to open them again at the next low tide to let large quantities of fresh water out.

The story of the road construction also is interesting. On behalf of Herb Nicholls and myself I had been writing to Hobart for nine months trying to get this road built. We seemed to be getting nowhere and the vegetables were within a few weeks of harvesting. Early one morning I left Scottsdale for Hobart for an interview with Mr. Brooker, the Minister for Public Works (Brooker Highway is named after him). I informed him officially that I intended turning my cattle into all the vegetable paddocks.

He said he was shocked and thought I was a more responsible citizen, especially as I had two brothers away fighting in the war and because of the shortage of food for the war effort. But, I replied, I understand you cannot grant the new road and, without it, we cannot get our vegetables away from the area. This, of course, was all bluff; there was no way I would turn the cattle into the vegetables. I had been sent home from the army to grow food and this would have been a waste of much needed food.

Mr. Brooker declared You can have the road, to which I replied Now you have granted the road, one day it will probably be part of a highway system. You will most likely build a road from Bell Bay to Bridport and around the coast.

His reply was The Government has agreed to build the road from the Barnbougle entrance to the eastern side of the Forester River, but neither the Government nor the Public Works Department will ever buy the argument that it will be part of a coastal roadway system.

I said to Mr. Brooker, I guess you are right, Mr. Minister, but I was sure in my mind that he was wrong and that it would be a vital link in this coastal road system, extending through the North-East and down the East Coast to Hobart.

Now, 40 years later, it is a vital link, joining up the Bell Bay, Bridport, Waterhouse, Tomahawk, Gladstone and St. Helens roadways. No-one, not even a member of Parliament, would now dare to suggest its closure.

Call and see the Director on your way out said the Minister. This I did, and the Director, Mr. Balziel, told me, There is no way we can start building the road on Monday morning, because there are no qualified bridge builders available. I asked, If we could procure these could we start? Certainly, he said, but just call and see the Secretary on your way out. The Secretary said, It does not matter what the Minister says or what the Director says, can't you read the papers? There is no money available for new roads.

I pulled out a cheque book and wrote out £1,500 to the Public Works Department and the Secretary asked what the cheque was for. To pay for the road until the Government has enough money to refund it to me, I replied. He claimed he could not accept the cheque, for the road could not be financed under such circumstances.

I know nothing about finance or politics, I retorted, but it would look very bad in 'Smith's Weekly' on Monday morning were it pointed out that the Government cannot construct the road themselves, nor will they accept free money on loan. Yet they are going to allow tens of thousands of bags of perishable vegetables, urgently needed, to go to waste. Put the money back in your pocket; we will finance this somehow, he replied.

I was never so pleased in my life to put the cheque back in my pocket, as I had no spare cash whatsoever at that time!

We began building the road on the Monday morning. Albert Moore, a Public Works Department bridge builder, was on holiday from the PWD and he took control of the job for us. The Government Surveyor arrived after the road was built. (We had tried to contact him, but without success.) He was furious to think we had built the road and bridged the river without it being surveyed. He refused to survey the roadand it was some two years before this was actually done, although traffic had been using it all the time.

It is interesting to know that the road alignment and the bridge site have never been altered, although the road has since been upgraded and sealed! The bend near Bambougle is where we followed the old raised tram track (used in the early days to transport timber from the Forester sawmills to Bridport) and then struck east to the Forester River.

On the western side of the Forester River was Barnbougle Estate and on the eastern side was the new country we developed and banked, and named 'Melaleuca Park'. The area had to be 'picked up, burned and ploughed' before vegetables could be grown, because it was undeveloped virgin country.

The 70 employees, mostly youngsters mentioned earlier, were employed in the growing of vegetable crops, mainly cabbages, parsnips and carrots. The numbers were necessary because in those days there Were no sprays to kill the weeds, a nd all the weeding and thinning out had to be done on our knees. With some hundreds of acres of vegetables planted we had hundreds of miles of crawling, weeding and hand-hoeing to do.

When new boys or girls came working on the property they were not as efficient as the ones who had been doing the job for some time, and I used to help all the slow ones with their weeding to enable them to keep up with the gang. There is nothing more heart-breaking than being left behind on your own. After a few days helping them to keep up, their limbs became seasoned to the work and some of them were very good. This same principle applies to men and women starting a new activity in competition with a seasoned, experienced staff; they can soon grow disheartened by the feeling that they will never be able to keep up with the others.

Even animals can be encouraged in the same way. For instance, when a sheep is lagging behind the rest of a mob being moved, a good drover will put it on his horse and carry it to the front. This gives it a psychological lift, and it is a long time, if at all, before that sheep is at the back of the mob again. This is an old drover's trick, and when I have shifted sheep I have tried it and found it works every time.

When the boys were digging carrots and parsnips I paid them so much a bag for the vegetables dug, and took their word for the number of bags. This honour system of paying them on their own word for the number of bags dug or for the number of chains of vegetables weeded worked out very well. Of course, my help was disregarded in the count! The contract price for weeding was twopence a chain.

I remember one little chap who dug a rickety bag of carrots for a day's work while his little mates of eight to twelve years were digging four and five bags. I sewed up his bag of carrots with the others (they were marketed in hessian bags) and when I came to pay him and asked him how many bags he had dug, he told me three.

It wasn't that he was dishonest; he just didn't like to say one bag when his mates had dug four or five. A couple of little chaps dobbed him in, however, and I replied to them, If Jim has made a mistake in his count I am sure he will check and tell me.

Of course, they went back and told him I knew he had not dug three bags and he came vely shamefacedly and said he doubted that he had dug three bags. I praised him for being a very honest boy, adding that when I was his age and started digging I could not dig half a bag. I suggested he go back and count them again and he said he had dug just one bag. I told him that was terrific for the first day's work, and there would not be very many men who would have admitted their mistake. I added that I was sure when he grew up he would become a great worker and a great man. He went away feeling justified and proud to be part of the team.

Because I personally worked with the boys and girls, as well as the men and women, they became interested and part of the overall gang, and they were proud of their achievements. I let them know they were the best gang in Australia and I am sure this helped make them good at their jobs in the future - and better citizens because they were trusted and taken into my confidence.

I remember when the Department of Agriculture asked Herbert and me to grow an extra 50 acres of carrots, a major undertaking when one had to crawl between the rows to weed them. We were more than committed without this additional acreage. I went into the Launceston High School and asked could I get 30 boys for the school holidays. They asked where they would sleep and I replied, In your clothes in a barn of hay. I added that this was better than some of their elder brothers, who were in the War, had slept in.

One little chap asked me where I was going to sleep and I replied, In the barn of hay where you are going to sleep, so they were quite happy. But they were a real problem when they wanted a smoke at night amongst the hay!

With a mob of boys like this, fun is contagious. On one occasion when we were going home for the night I had 16 boys in the back and in the front of an old Chevrolet car. We could see a gate in the distance after crossing Petterson's Bridge (before we built the Barnbougle road) and Peter Ricketts said to me, Mr. Farquhar, George Formby could drive straight at that gate, do a somersault and keep going. Well, I replied, whatever George Fonnby could do we can do.

I drove faster and faster towards the gate in the distance with the kids packed tight, waiting for one of them to tell me to stop, but no-one spoke and as we got closer to the gate they clapped their bands and yelled, He's going to do it. So I had to put on the brakes and say I didn't think it was safe.

Another experience, however, was not such fun. Peter was cutting cabbages one day as he talked to the other boys, and as he bent over a cabbage he found a big snake curled upon top of it to keep cool! He was lucky he wasn't bitten.

During this time I was trying to put in eight hours every day at Barnbougle. The travelling time there and back was about two and a half to three hours, from West Scottsdale through the back roads, over Petterson's Bridge, and through a bush track to the vegetable growing area at 'Melaleuca Park', which is now owned by Richard Satler. And in addition I tried to do all my bokwork when I got home, working until midnight. I became very thin, but I was very fit and could work really well.

One morning the phone rang at 6.30 to say there had been a big rain overnight, plus a big tide and flood in the river, and everything was under water. My men said they would get the cattle out and advised me to go back to bed, because I would never reach the property if I tried. This news was a mixed blessing and I went straight back to bed. The two or three years of extremely long hours and hard work caught up with me when I relaxed. I slept for two days and practically all the third day, and even when I got up then, for the fourth and fifth days I would just fall asleep wherever I was. So the flood did me a good turn, for if I had gone on at my previous pace, I might have cracked under the strain. As it was, we lost hundreds of tons of vegetables, but probably it was a cheap loss, after all.

We did not seem to make much money at this time, because we were trying to grow extra vegetables under difficult circumstances in places which were not proven vegetable-growing areas.

On one occasion we planted 50 acres of carrots in an area which had been covered with salt. The carrots came up very well and, because of the previous salt tides, there were no weeds, and I thought they were going to prove a much needed financial bonanza. We viewed them every week and were very proud of them, and even discussed them with the bank manager. Then a big wind storm blew up and completely wiped them out. If we had had time we would have been heart-broken!

The rate for weeding and thinning, out carrots and parsnips, done mainly by the hour, was twopence a chain (20 metres); hand-hoeing cost two shillings (20 cents) a mile, and the horse hoeing cost tenpence (slightly less than 10 cents) a mile. At that time wages were ten shillings for eight hours, or nearly £3 ($6.00) for a 48-hour week.

At a public meeting a man from Canberra asked in my absence, Where is this man who used to crawl hundreds of miles and had it all costed out at so much per chain?

Examiner: North-East's potential riches amaze parliamentarians.