We Are What We Stand On, Mud Brick Builders of Colour, Culture and Accomplishment

Mud Brick Builders of Colour, Culture and Accomplishment

Author: Alistair Knox

The journey from Eltham to Tarnagulla was always undertaken by either Ernie Owen or Garnie Burgess, the only local carriers we had at the time. Some five or six workmen would be piled on the back of the vehicle together with materials they needed for building, in addition to sleeping gear and tools of trade. As we only travelled at 30 miles per hour, it took a good half day to make the journey. The Central Victorian farmland country we traversed was generally fiat and appeared as if it had been undisturbed for many years. Our direction lay through Maldon, which had not at that time awakened from its long sleep to find itself the premier historic town of Victoria. We moved on through the wide landscape where the settlements had Welsh names and long, low thatched barns and outbuildings. There were also a considerable number of old mud brick farmhouses that had been rendered smooth on the outside walls, painted red and marked out in white lines simulating ordinary brick wall construction.

The granitic topsoil that formed much of that landscape made excellent earth building material provided you didn't go below the topsoil, in contradistinction to normal practice. The last few miles from Laanacoorie to Tarnagulla was across a vast alluvial goldfield wasteland where the big nuggets once lay. The bush was being restored by the Forestry Commission, who were cherishing it back into an ironbark forest. There is nothing more primeval than the mauve-rose-brown light that is given off where the sun shines through these stands of silent ironbark with the blossoms of the low growing Acacia Rigens glinting like specks of overlooked gold between them. Suddenly, the track would turn a corner and we would find ourselves in the main street of Tarnagulla. It had been a well-established town. The roads were curbed and guttered. There were ancient cast iron street lights at each corner, with the street names cast into each. They stuck out at right angles to each other, announcing the names of the half empty streets as if desperately trying to recall a more salubrious past. Many buildings in Tamagulla had either been wrecked or removed. There were no bitumen roads connecting the settlement with any other localities, but the old gravel ones were much more appropriate and beautiful.

In general, the old shop verandahs leaned awry and a general dilapidation had set in. The railway station and the cemetery remained the most respectable locations in the whole of the town, except for Reid's Store, which was at the far end of the main street, adjacent to the road that comes in from Laanacoorie and the ironbark forest. On the first occasion we entered the town we thumped the roof of the cabin and called out for Garnie Burgess to stop his truck outside Reid's store so that we could buy some food. The owner was a man of about 50 with grey, receding hair. His figure that was just beginning to hang out over the top of the white apron surrounding his waist, approached briskly as he heard the unfamiliar sounds of six new voices at the front door. His calculating glance appeared to assess in a moment what he thought our visit to the district would entail and what we would purchase. In some way we could have represented the glimmer of a new dawn for Tarnagulla, a new breath of adventure and big spending after the quiet of the war years and the parsimony of the depression. Mr. Reid beamed at us from over the other side of his two foot wide kauri counter, on which were arranged, in heterogeneous disorder, cheese, German sausage, bales of unbleached calico, a side of bacon and a box of smokeless cartridges.

Neil Douglas, who was one of the workers and who always considered he had the capacity to look the part in any circumstances, decided he should sport a cherrywood pipe to go with the gold mining flavour of the district. He asked Mr. Reid if he had one. 'Jenny', cried the shopkeeper to a young assistant, 'the pipes'. In a minute or two a large cigar box was brought and ceremoniously opened for inspection. It revealed three pipes of widely differing styles and periods that had been brought together in that place by blind chance. One looked slightly used, as if it had been taken from the pocket of a dead man who bought it a few days before he died suddenly in the street outside. Mr. Reid tried to appear surprised that there was not at least one cherrywood pipe in his stock, but seemed optimistic that Neil would not be able to resist closing on one of those that he offered. There was a sense of eternity and unalterableness in the goods on display. The wooden walls were painted apple green and cream, both inside and out. The windows were wellbarred and great shutters were stacked in a corner ready to be clamped home onto all openings at night.

We were to discover from two men who worked at the store that these great shutters were the nightmares of their lives. They had to be carried around the whole building, put up and locked each evening and unlocked and taken down every morning. Mr. Reid wasn't taking any risks. His merchandising mind was engraved with scenes of wild nights extending down from his father's days when the streets of Tarnagulla were full of cries of drunken fights and roistering events. It did not matter that with the exception of very rare pedestrians, the only vertical elements to be seen in the street in modern times were the ancient alternating lemon-scented and ironbark eucalypts on each side of the road.

As we returned to the truck, one of the men noticed that a life-sized cardboard cutout advertising Old Court Whisky that was situated at the door had a genuine bottle of whisky pressed into the cutout instead of a dummy one. He neatly lifted it out as he went by ... Each time we returned to Tarnagulla over the next year or two we looked to see if the empty hole had been filled up with another bottle. It had not. We half-wondered if Mr. Reid was aware what had happened or had never noticed that anything was missing. Among the men who made up the Murphy's Creek building team were Gordon Ford, who attended on every occasion, Peter Glass (whom Mrs. Ison, the butcher's lady, referred to as the dark gentlemen from the East), Wynn Roberts, the Shakespearian actor, Horrie Judd on one occasion, Tony Jackson, Tim Burstall, Alan Green, Hal Peck and the owner's sop-inlaw, Brian Stack.

Wynn Roberts, had been a foreman on the second house we built in Heidelberg. He was fast developing into a brilliant actor and we were soon to lose his services, but he never lost his love for timber. In his home on the western slopes of the Dandenongs he works part-time making beautiful hand-wrought furniture.

It is hard to conceive of anyone exploiting the social climate to the extent they did in that nostalgic backwater. They began to identify with the place in the way they ate and drank. A baker would come out twice weekly and we used to watch him moving across the landscape in the early afternoon. As he entered the yard we would leap from the scaffold or run out of the house and each would grab a sheet of yeast buns and do a ritualistic dance as we held them above our heads. I remember on one occasion Horrie Judd watching Peter Glass in amazement. He regarded Peter as a steady sort of chap not given to the extremes of Tim and Wynn. On this occasion, though, Peter was lying on his bunk with the bun held to the light as ifhe were looking through a magnifying glass, and was chanting: 'Oh, bun of beauty, bun of joy'.

But of all the occasions the most festive were those that occurred at Mrs Heather's morning and afternoon lunches, which defied comparison. We started work at 8 a.m. and knocked off, famished, at 10.30 for these celebrated repasts. They were quite Dickension in character: the great table groaned with heaped up home-made pies and tarts, biscuits, napoleons, lamingtons, bread, butter, cream and jam. Archer Hancock, who had been employed by arrangement to supervise the brick-making stayed on right through the job. He was a natural builder who was so excited by this Indian Summer building opportunity that he could scarcely contain himself.

When we took our places at the table, he would beam at us with his sapphire-blue eyes and shout out excitedly. In his exuberance he would get a bit confused and call the mud house the 'blood house'. 'Yes, Sir', he would shout, 'the blood house'. At times he would roar with laughter at some joke and such a cloud of lamington and napoleon crumbs would spurt out of his mouth that you needed to take cover until the storm had passed.

I went up when I could get holidays from the bank. In addition, Pauline (Gordon's first wife) and Rosalie (Wynn's wife) stayed for a time at the Golden Age Hotel in Tarnagulla. Everyone worked hard for long hours in order to accumulate some cash but there were occasional nights when we would borrow the farmer's utility and set off for the Golden Age Hotel. The licensees were Irish and the old father was very sentimental about the Emerald Isle and the old days. After a few drinks had been taken, Wynn Roberts would start reciting and playing on the pianola, singing in the most heart-rending tones about crossing the seas to Ireland and Galway Bay. It was all too much for the old man, who would break down completely sobbing: 'And its all so true'.

There were always great jokes when Wynn and Gordon had a bath and groomed themselves before they went to stay the night at the Golden Age Hotel with their respective spouses. The building itself was a pile of fretting handmade bricks and rusty roof iron. It was divided into two sections by a path with some ferns making their bedroom section on the quiet right hand side, and the lounge, dining room, bar and kitchen on the left hand side. That remarkable group of men who built the Tarnagulla Homestead have practically all made a name for themselves and the experience they had in this faraway place with the realistic farming community and the marvellous timeless quality of the landscape was an important factor in their psychological and intellectual make-up.

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