Dangers and pride: ‘The history of my family’s establishment in the 1840s’

Feb 12, 2020
John writes about how his family established themselves in Tasmania more than 180 years ago. Source: Getty Images

Recently, I saw a photo of a ‘top dog’ standing on a log ready to be pit sawn. It jogged my memory. Over time, I’ve attempted to find enough information from family sources to write about how, in the 1840s, my Scots forebears were granted 120 acres of mainly steep, hilly ground, heavily timbered and how they went about clearing it. That their work — unbelievably difficult, even dangerous, by any modern standard — finally provided a property of abundance is perhaps the greatest credit they could wish.

Family records are incomplete, so what follows is fiction. In part…

The young bloke was 18 and solid. Tipping the scales at 14-odd stone (89 kilograms), he was perfect to be ‘bottom dog’, or the one down in the pit when sawing felled logs. His father, on top, marked the length of the log once it was brought across the pit dug in the ground for cutting purposes, pulling the double-handed saw blade on its upstroke and ensuring the cut was straight. He was known as ‘top dog’, while the poor bugger underneath, in the pit, was forever ‘bottom dog.’ He was the one who had to put up with the damp, a constant fall of sawdust in throat and eyes, the frequent appearance of wolf and huntsman spiders, and the occasional tiger snake or copperhead. His sole purpose was to provide the weight, an effective pendulum, to draw down the saw on its cutting stroke, then ease his grip as the top dog drew it back up before again lending his weight for the next down stroke.

Trees were commonly felled from a height of one to three metres, generally with a pair of axemen working opposite sides of the trunk, alternating stroke by stroke while standing on toe boards at higher levels. These were strong, five-foot lengths split in the main from the long-grained eucalyptus nitens, with a tapered end, or toe. Standing at ground level, each axeman would cut a suitably tapered notch in the trunk at about chest height. A toe board would be inserted and the axeman spring up to stand on it, bringing up his axe and a second toe board to repeat the process at the next level. Dependent on many factors, including common hollows in the lower trunk, the shape of the tree itself and the site, that might be enough, but sometimes third or fourth notches would be needed until they stood at a height at which they could chop.

The whole operation was fraught with danger. I am not aware of a family member losing his life cutting down trees to clear their land, but it was a common occurrence among those felling for a living. As a bigger tree falls, it often snags and brings down adjacent limbs or whole trees, with kick-back common. I know this is how my family brought down the trees on their land but lack continuous family records. In this instance, I include an excerpt from Trove, quoting an article in a 1932 issue of The Mercury:

“…the axemen stand many feet high, and jump down with the agility of an opossum at the first sound of the tree going to fall. When the trees are in thick formation, the trash is often a very big one, and many trees go besides the one selected.”

There were many dangers involved, including possible loss of balance off the toe board, an accident with a razor sharp axe, a heavy and frequently fatal blow from a widow-maker, a bad landing when jumping down, but the work was essential for both the timber-getter making a living, and for the landowner attempting to establish a cropping or grazing property. Felling the trees was only a start, of course. They then needed to be removed for sawing or for sale, with stumps and roots burnt. One factor that always amazed me was how our early settlers, mine included, would clear-fell endemic native species, leaving a bare landscape, then plant macrocarpas for the provision of windbreaks. Nowadays, of course, macrocarpas are acknowledged as a pest species and are being removed.

Interestingly, the timber-getting of our early Tasmanian generations led to national and international competition, for Latrobe is the very place wood chopping competitions commenced. A memorial hall was established some years ago on our north-west coast in tribute to those early axemen and all who followed. It was an amazing place, run by none other than big David Foster, the man who won more awards in his chosen sport than anyone in any sport. Ever.

Timber cut on the family farm was put to use building two houses, a byre, a barn, a butchery, a smokehouse and other utility structures. I remember the main house well from the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up. It had served the previous four generations well as a home but, already a century old, was forever dark. Each of its eight rooms — a lot for its day — had but a single window and the interior was dressed in blackwood and sassafras, both dark timbers.

I loved that old place, and it still stood when I was a boy, as did most of the other buildings, although the byre had given way to a bigger dairy. That was again enlarged when grandfather could afford to install a nice new Alfa Laval milking machine about 1952.

There’s a truism that you never go back, something I did 20 years ago. The old house was no longer there, nor the barn, the dairy, the smokehouse, all knocked over and probably burnt to make way for a new crop. And that new crop, covering the entire property, plus several others around it, was a plantation, with thousands of tall, straight Eucalyptus nitens being grown, almost certainly for export; no value-adding here. All those thousands of hours’ backbreaking toil to create a rich class-1 cropping and grazing property gone. I love trees, but these are no more than scrawny excuses for the giants and the variety that originally existed.

In both heart and mind, I continue to rejoice in the knowledge of the incredible effort put in by those people 180 years ago, the love and the dedication they showed in becoming established. The pride in their accomplishments flows strong in my veins, and I know I am the person I am today because of their spirit, and from the amazing produce that came from the rich, red-brown volcanic land they turned from bush to farm. Saddened perhaps at how that land has now been desecrated, but thankful for all it came to mean to our family over the ensuing generations.

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