Sawdust and Steam (Part 1 The Case Mill,1936)

Sawdust and Steam: The story of the Flaxton sawmill, 1936 to 1963 by Gordon Plowman is a delightful account of the history of the sawmill along with entertaining anecdotes of the many folk his family encountered while living in Flaxton. This 9000 word story has been divided into 7 parts for ease of reading online.

Part 1 begins – ‘The Case Mill, 1936’

For over 100 years the clump of bamboo at the confluence of Flaxton Drive and Mill Road in Flaxton has served as a landmark, a beacon to guide residents and visitors alike. In years gone by when none of the roads in the district were officially named, these bamboos, planted in the late 18oo’s by pioneer settler, Joseph Chapman Dixon, served as a reference point for travellers. As you turn into Mill Road and pass by the slender, swaying, whispering bamboo canes painted by nature in yellows and greens, the leafy arms of pine trees and camphor laurels dip dwn towards the road on the opposite side. Breathe deeply here for nature has perfumed the cool mountain air with the mingling of pine and camphor, fresh and invigorating.

Bamboo and pine tree grove, Mill Road, Flaxton

Bamboo and pine tree grove, Mill Road, Flaxton

For all those who once lived here sixty or more years ago, passing through this green glade is not just the beginning of a trip along Mill Road, it is a journey back in time to a vastly different era. The once nameless road, now known as Mill Road, leads west and away from the panoramic vistas along the eastern edge of the Blackall Range. It once meandered by grassy hillsides where dairy herds spent lazy days grazing on rich pastures or crouched in the shade chewing their cuds. Wending its way west it passed citrus orchards, pineapple and banana plantations, pig sties and cow bails until the open farming country gave way to shady forests. Even today, the road continues through avenues of trees and bush until it comes to an abrupt halt where the western edge of the range drops sharply away into the deep valley carved out over millennia by Obi Obi Creek. Beyond lie the pastures and forests of the Mary Valley. This road, once nothing more than a narrow dirt track, headed into the sunset and passed by a forest clearing opposite the boundary of the Flaxton Forestry Reserve, the place where the Flaxton sawmill once stood proud.

Today, most farms have disappeared, replaced by suburban style housing estates and small acreage holdings. The forests, once alive with the sounds of trucks and tractors and the screech of circular saws and the crash of falling trees, victims of timber cutters’ axes, is now devoid of the din of industry. A house now graces the spot where, for 27 years, the Flaxton sawmill produced a variety of timbers for a far-flung portfolio of customers.

This is the story of the Flaxton sawmill from its commencement in 1936 until our family left the district in 1950. Raymond (Ray) and Edith Plowman came to Flaxton in 1928, having purchased a dairy farm at the end of Ensbey Road. Back then, the road had no name and only became known as Ensbey road after my father, Ray, sold it to the Ensbeys. None of the Flaxton roads had been officially named. There were so few residents, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone’s address was the same, “Flaxton via Palmwoods.” The mailman knew exactly where to drop off every resident’s mail and the local carriers knew every house and packing shed in the district. Only a handful of farmers lived along Ensbey road: Plowman; Iago; Bratton; Collins; McGowan and Goodwin. My sister, Pat, and brothers David and Harold, spent their earliest years here. I came along later.

In the early 1930’s, Australia fell into deep economic depression. Unemployment reached as high as 40% in some places. Displaced families who could no longer afford to keep their homes lived in rough-built shacks and tents. In the cities the sight of men, women and children standing in long lines in the hope of getting a bowl of soup or a little bread was not uncommon. As the situation became even more desperate, riots broke out and politicians feared the spread of civil disobedience. These were some of the toughest peace-time years in Australia’s history.

In 1934, at the height of economic uncertainty, Dad and his friend, Horrie Hingston, decided they could make a reasonable income supplying wooden packing cases to the many farmers in the district. Depression or not, people still had to eat and farmers still had to get their produce to market. At that time, fruit of all kinds was packed in wooden boxes (cases), for transport to the markets. Dad and Horrie intended to cut the timber to make the cases.

Dad bought a large acreage of heavily forested land opposite the state owned Flaxton Forest Reserve. This land, described by some as ‘mountain goat country,’ did not lend itself to agriculture. But Dad did not wish to harvest crops, he wanted to harvest the millable trees which thrived there. The steepness of some of the country presented difficulties but, as we will see later, none were insurmountable.

The two ‘would-be’ sawmillers began their project. With their collection of second-hand equipment, shafts, bearings, pulleys, belts and saws and a heavy dose of bush ingenuity, they built their case mill in the Flaxton bush. Powered by a Dodge petrol engine it was soon ready to cut the first logs sourced from Dad’s bush block. Mostly they used flooded gum (Eucalyptus grandis), because this timber is light weight but very strong and ideal for making into packing cases. Dad’s sawmilling enterprise albeit so humble, had begun.

Regulations required packing cases to be made in standard sizes convenient for handling and transport and this gave the sawmillers a blueprint to follow. Thicknesses and lengths for sides, bottom, tops and ends could be pre-cut to the specifications. As orders came in it was just a matter picking out the correct number of pieces and bundling them together. Gordon Mayne or one of the other local carriers then delivered each bundle to the farmer’s packing shed. Here, the farmer assembled the cases using flat headed case nails or corrugated fasteners to hold them together.

While Dad busied himself building the case mill, he camped in the burnt-out hollow of a huge tree.  Far from comfortable it did at least afford shelter from the wind and the rain. Even after he completed the case mill project, he retained his basic dwelling place while he built a weatherboard cottage for the whole family to live in. That drab, little unpainted cottage standing alone in the bush, reminiscent of the gingerbread house of fairy-tale fame, endured for many years and later served as accommodation for the families of sawmill workers.

We relied on tanks to store rain water collected from the roof. The metal guttering usually used to channel water from roof to tank was either unavailable or unaffordable so Dad solved the problem in the good old bushman’s way. He cut down several piccabeen palms growing in a moist gully not far from the house. He split each one lengthwise and scooped out the centres to form troughs. These served for several years as a no-cost substitute for guttering.

Life for the young family living in the bush far away from neighbours and miles from the nearest towns was far from dull. Here are a few of the stories of that time: About once each month a minister held a church service in the Flaxton Provisional School. Dressed in their Sunday best, the entire family trudged the two miles (3.2 kilometres), to church. Dad noticed that every time they attended church, some of the petrol he kept on hand to fuel the sawmill engine disappeared. His business operated on a shoestring budget and they couldn’t afford to lose costly fuel. He substituted water for petrol and left the drum handy in an obvious position. On the way back from church that day he caught the culprits. Their vehicle had only gone a mile or so before it conked out. What Dad said to the thieves is not known but he had no more trouble after that.

In another incident, Dad confronted two men who were illegally shooting koalas in the Flaxton Forest Reserve. He had previously witnessed the mass slaughter of koalas and found it totally abhorrent. Although he had no authority, with a few threatening words he ordered the offenders out of the State Forest. They took to their heels and went and, as far as we know, never returned.

Koala fur, popular in the United States as hat, coat and glove fashion accessories, prompted the Queensland Government to licence koala shooters in a bid to boost rural employment and 10,000 licences were granted. Records show that in one single month, August 1927, an incredible 600,000 koala pelts went to market. Realising the terrible carnage and the possible extinction of the national icon, a massive public backlash supported by newspaper articles finally succeeded in forcing the Queensland Government to overturn its legislation. By then the koala population had already been decimated. This excerpt from the Evening News, Sydney, is typical of the articles of support for the cessation of koala skin exports:

“The fight on behalf of the native bear, which is threatened with annihilation in Queensland by a recent decision of the State Government there to declare an open season, is being actively conducted by friends of the quaint little firry (sic) animal which is so typical of the Australian native fauna.”

Koala Skins

Koala skins piled high (Koala Foundation)

A patch of well-watered green grass grew beside our house tank overflow. To this place and to everyone’s amazement, came an animal which simply should not have been there. Munching away contentedly and seemingly unafraid, a sheep grazed upon its new-found bounty. The whole family stared in disbelief at the stray animal as they tried to work out how it found its way to our bush home. Even more remarkable, it would have come through at least half a kilometre of dingo infested forest, a mightily dangerous journey for a sheep. How it made it to our place and where it came from would remain forever a mystery.

No one in Flaxton kept sheep so we asked friends and storekeepers in Montville and Mapleton to ask around. The rightful owner, Dad said, could claim the wayward sheep from the Flaxton case mill. After a couple of months with the sheep still in our care, Mum said we must have been meant to have it. The rest of the family agreed and for the next week or so the family enjoyed several meals of mutton.

Sawmills erected close to the supply of logs are, of necessity, located in the most out-of-the-way places. Despite the remoteness of our bush cottage, we welcomed a number of regular callers and a few surprise visitors as well. A Mr Chadwick used to ride his horse around Flaxton, including to our secluded home, to take grocery orders for the Montville general store. He arrived as regular as clockwork.

Bananas, citrus and pineapples grew to perfection in Flaxton and a vendor called now and again selling apples, pears and stone fruits. The Palmwoods butcher, Mr McKillop, took orders and delivered to Percy Dixon’s cream shed about a kilometre from our place. Occasionally, a fish vendor called. Ned Drury, the baker in Mapleton, kept us supplied with fresh bread. So, even in our remote bush location, shopping wasn’t such a problem.

My favourite visitor, the Rawleigh’s man, called two or three times a year and sometimes stayed at our place overnight, such was the bush hospitality of the time. He’d come to our front door with one sample case in each hand. One contained salts and seasonings and flavourings and culinary additives we had never even heard of. The other, personal items, shampoos, cosmetics and the most important of all, Rawleigh’s ointment. It came in a round tin in two sizes, large and small and, so it informed us, was suitable for cuts, abrasions sores and goodness knows what else. This universal panacea could often be found in dairies and cow bales where its use ran to the treatment of lacerations or infections on cow’s udders and teats.

Our weatherboard cottage could only be reached via one road, Mill Road. One afternoon when Mum went outside to bring the washing in from the clothes line, she got the fright of her life. “Ray,” she yelled. “There’s someone walking up from the creek.” Sure enough, a man emerged from the bush smiling like a Cheshire cat.                                                            “Ray Plowman?” he queried.                                                                      “Yes, and who are you.”                                                                          “Jack Lahey. I’ve been wanting to meet you for ages.”                                            Every sawmiller knew the Laheys. Back in the late 1800’s they ran a cedar, beech and pine cutting sawmill in Maleny and now owned sawmills in Beaudesert and in the Brisbane suburb of Corinda.

Jack had taken public transport to Montville then walked through rugged bush and forest country to our house. He loved the bush and liked to explore places he had never seen before. Treated as a kind of sawmilling royalty, he was made most welcome and he stayed the night. He repeated his walks from Montville several more times over the years and on one occasion stayed long enough to teach David how to sharpen and ‘doctor’ saws.

The story ‘Sawdust and Steam’ continues in  Part 2 – ‘The Hardwood Mill, 1938’