Memories of John Lawrence Kirkman

by Doug Kirkman (son)

After arriving in Australia, Dad journeyed by train to Colac and then took the Ballarat train to the Ondit station. He then walked west along the Ondit-Warrion Road to the farm of Walter (Wattie) Lawrence on the north side of the road, close to Warrion. He worked there for the Lawrence family until he enlisted in the army and served in the First World War.

Upon discharge he returned to the farm until he was granted an allotment on Cockrill’s Road, Dreeite by the Closer Settlement Board. The land was unimproved except for boundary fences, so a two-room hut was built and a four bail dairy.  Then the land had to be fenced into paddocks, which was no mean feat considering the rocky nature of the terrain, every posthole had to be won from the ground with pick, shovel and crowbar. Next was the construction of pigsties, as the dairy factory only wanted cream, so the milk was separated and left the farmer with waste skim milk, which was fed to the pigs, providing an extra source of income.

In 1930, Jack married Eunice, the pretty, strawberry blonde haired girl who lived next door, and a start was made on a family home called “Milton”, after the village in Derbyshire where he was born. This consisted of kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and a skillion washhouse (in those days no one had a laundry). In later years, as family arrived, another bedroom, a lounge and a vestibule, with a front door on the east side of the house, was added. The last extension at “Milton” came when my mother’s father, who had been living in Colac in a small house on the north corner of Hewitt and Armstrong Streets, became unable to care for himself, and came to live with us at Dreeite,

He was given the second bedroom, in which a coke burning room heater had been installed, as he was “nesh”, that meant he felt the cold. Mr. Walter (Wally) Alderson was engaged to build two bedrooms and a wraparound veranda on the south and east sides. Unfortunately, Mr. Alderson had only completed the foundations when he was killed in a motor accident, and Dad had to request Peter McBride & Co. to complete the job.

From the early days his cows were milked by hand. The milking stool was a block of foot (30cm) firewood, stood on end, and padded with a folded jute pollard bag and with a bucket clamped between your legs, you would coax the milk from the cow whilst avoiding getting kicked or a flick in the face with a mud laden tail. So the development of the milking machine was welcomed.

Dad bought a two unit, four bail Mitchell Milker and there had to be radical change to the cow shed. A Lister duel-fuel, petrol, kerosene engine was installed in a new engine room, a vacuum pump in  the vat room was powered by a power shaft, pulleys and belts and a large wash trough connected to a steam and hot water pipe coming from a boiler room again a separate building.

The boiler was a double walled vessel with water between, an opening in the top allowed the burner to be removed and a wood fire lit inside, the burner was then inserted and a perforated plate inside became red hot, then a container of sump or waste oil set above the burner with a small delivery pipe set to slowly drip the oil on to the red hot plate, which immediately vaporised and burned fiercely, very quickly producing hot water and steam to keep the milk vessels and pipes sterile.

Entertainment was limited at Dreeite, although the fairly regular card nights and dances were well attended. The advent of wireless or radio was welcome into most homes. Ours was a H.M.V. His Master’s Voice cabinet model, a piece of furniture about three feet (90cm) tall, one foot six inches (50cm) wide, and one foot three inches (45cm) deep. This was powered by a 6 volt car battery and when the battery went flat, had to be taken to Ball and Croft, 145 Murray Street, Colac for recharge. It was very common to see on a Thursday (market day) a line up of batteries on the kerb of the footpath in front of Ball and Croft with the owners name chalked on them, waiting for Billy Simmonds who worked there, to come with his little trolley and trundle them to the back of the shop where there was a bank of recharge points.

We did learn that when the battery was almost flat and you were listening to a favourite serial, Dad and Dave or Martins Corner, that if you turned off for a short while the battery would revive enough to hear the end of the episode, but that would only work a couple of times. Some neighbours powered their radios with dry batteries which were used until they were exhausted and then discarded and replaced. These early radios needed an exterior aerial to pick up distant broadcasts, so Dad erected a sapling pole about 15 feet (4.5m) high at the end of his garden and from the top of that a copper wire to the side of the house to a lightening conductor, and then into the set.

A very welcome addition to the dairy room was a generator, mounted on a concrete block and driven by a belt and pulley from the milking machine drive shaft. This was improvised by brother, Mervyn, overseen by local handy man Syd. Harrison. So now we could charge our own wireless battery and also a battery enabled an electric light to be connected to the kitchen and retired our faithful Aladdin lamp.

Mum wanted to have a telephone connected, so Dad approached the PMG and was told that the existing line followed Corangamite Road but did not have a Cockerill’s Road branch. The PMG would tap into the existing line and install the first half mile of line but Dad would have to provide the remaining mile. He did this by fixing timber to the existing posts of the fences. He went to Gordon Chapman to get phone wire. Gordon had an ex-army disposals yard and wreckers in the east end of Dennis Street, where Dalgety’s sale yards were.

Gordon supplied Dad with enough ex-army signals wire to complete the connection, which Dad had to present to the PMG for approval and upon presentation this wire was rejected. Dad promptly returned with the wire to Gordon’s yard and related the account of rejection. Gordon took the wire and telling Dad to wait at his yard, stormed off to the PMG. Ten minutes later Gordon was back, handed Dad his wire saying, “Go install your phone!”. So Mum got her telephone, a wooden box attached to the wall with a large dry battery inside and a handle on the side to call the exchange and say “Hello, Dreeite One Seven”.

During the Second World War petrol was rationed so use of the car was curtailed. Dad had a two-wheeled trailer, which he had bought from Parker Bros. It had been made from the front wheels and axle of a Buick car. So to conserve fuel he decided to remove the drawbar of the trailer and fit it with a pair of shafts. We had a cart horse for work on the farm so it became a one horsepower prime mover.

I recall once when the pump on the bore in the back paddocks refused to pump probably because the valve and strainer at the bottom were blocked with silt. So the piping down the 30-40 foot bore needed to be raised to repair the problem. To do this an endless chain and pipe clamps were needed. Dad didn’t have these, but he knew his old boss and friend Wattie Lawrence did. So he harnessed the horse to the trailer-gig and we set off for Warrion.

I was born after the use of horse travel, so I had only experienced car travel, but it was quite exhilarating trotting along in the open air. We soon got to Warrion and a warm welcome from the Lawrence family, a bite to eat and a cup of tea, loaded up the equipment and off home again. Uncle Frank and Dad soon had he bore pipe above ground, cleared the problem, replaced the pump and all was back to normal.

In 1949 our family left Dreeite and moved into a house at 32 Alexander Street, which automatically became Milton. My brother, Mervyn left school several years earlier and had worked on the farm, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was happier when the little Lister engine failed to start and he could stay in the engine room and tinker with it, while Dad milked the cows. An apprenticeship as a motor mechanic was arranged with Parker Bros. and he left the farm.

At the end of 1948, I left High School and Dad asked me what I wanted to do. Did I want to work on the farm or get a job in Colac as Merv had done. I chose the latter. I have thought since that it must have been a disappointment to him that his two sons didn’t want the farm that he had worked so hard to make a go of, but it was a measure of the man he was that it was our choice and he didn’t try to influence either of us.

Dad’s first job after leaving the farm and moving to Colac, was working for Mr. Bob Trew who had a poultry processing business at the back of his house in David Street, Colac. Bob and Dad would load a truck with all the empty poultry crates it could carry and in the early hours of the morning head off to the big poultry farms in the district north of Colac. There Bob would buy the culls of the flock, both hens and roosters, and hopefully when the crates were full they would return often late at night.

Next day the poultry was brought into the processing shed, where there was a metal “V” shaped trough with a slot in the bottom. The birds were placed head first down through the slot and beheaded, after bleeding out they were scalded, plucked and gutted. Dad was quite used to this as he had learned how to kill and dress a cow, a sheep or poultry during his years on the Lawrence farm.

After leaving the poultry processing job, Dad began work at the Cororooke factory of Colac Dairying Company, working on the hydraulic presses that recovered the ‘sugar of milk’. The presses had banks of canvas filters through which the liquid milk was forced and then the canvas filters were scraped to recover the ‘sugar of milk’ sediment. Quite often the canvas filters would rupture from the pressure exerted upon them and it was part of Dad’s job to sit down at a sewing machine and repair them. Another Colac man who worked at the factory was Mr. Donald, and he and Dad took week about driving their cars to Cororooke.

Dad’s last job before retirement was at Kincaid’s timber mill on the south-west corner of Queen and Hearn Streets, now the site of the library and Colac College. His job was to stack the timber as it came off the saw, with 2 inch x 1 inch (5cm x 2.5cm) spacers between each layer to promote air drying. On one occasion while Dad was at the mill a giant log, 21 feet in circumference and containing enough timber to frame a house, was transported to the mill. It was carried on a low loader because it was too big to fit on a normal log truck and was the largest log ever handled by the mill.

Jack Kirkman died in 1969 and is buried in the Colac Cemetery with his beloved wife, Eunice.