John O'KEEFFE , 18981988 (aged 90 years)

Given names

Jack O'Keeffe reminisces:

"It never ceased to amaze me what the bullocks understood. For instance, one day there was a man with a team loading logs at Strathcedar and he had a team of sixteen bullocks. So he got eight bullocks on each end of the log to roll the log onto the truck bolsters. One leader's name was Boller. He wanted to pull the little end of the log up, because the big end would gain. So he said,

"Cut over, Boller."But the other bullock moved off, the bullock on the big end.

''Woo, woo, back. Your name's not Boller." He turned round then,

"Get over,Boller." The other bullock moved again. He swung round,

"Bugger! Your name's not Boller!" Then he turned around again and said,

"Get over, Boller." The other bullock didn't move. He'd been told that his name wasn't Boller! The bullock would seem to know.

Another man had a team of fat, healthy bullocks, not a whip mark. He'd walk along and jab them in the ribs with the end of the whip handle and he'd say,"I only want to go a couple of feet. "And the old bullocks would shuffle up into their yokes. They'd only go a couple of feet. The bullocks would seem to understand just what their driver was saying to them.

One fella was loading our logs near Purfleet and he had no control over his bullocks at all. Every time he started them he'd have to run in front of them to stop them. They were like race horses. I said to him," I don't like the idea of this, Charlie. You'll finish up breaking the pole of the truck. These bullocks, they're mad." "Oh, I can handle them. "

Anyway they started to roll the first log up and the bullocks went off at a mad gallop. Fortunately, the tail chain pulled out of the link where we had it fastened. Away the team went through the bush with the driver after them. I just sat down and laughed.

A sawmill had been shifted from Tinonee to Taree. They built it on the river bank so that they could get their logs by log punt.[A punt is a flat bottomed shallow boat, usually pushed along by a pole] The punt used to pick up the logs at Mitchells Island, Oxley Island or up towards Wingham.

The log punt itself was not powered in any way. They relied on the tide to take them along. When the tide turned and run the way they were going, they up anchored and away they went. When the tide turned, they dropped anchor.

When I came to the mill, they used to contract a fisherman to hook his motor boat alongside the punt and tow it along. He'd take it to where it had to be loaded with logs, tie it to the bank, then he'd go about his fishing.

When the punt was loaded with logs, there would generally be up to about 15 or 16 logs and big logs. Some of them up to 60 feet long, lying crossways, across the punt. The punt itself would be under water. The deck would be awash with the weight of the logs. They had a short mast, a derrick pole and a crab winch to help with loading. The winch was turned by a handle, by hand. If you weren't using the crab winch, you'd have to use a wallaby jack. You'd probably have to do that in any case, with some of the logs, to get them straight.

We didn't use the punt a great lot after I came to Taree, only just now'n again. The management bought a log truck.

I was tailing-out in a sawmill in Taree. I was an all round sawmill hand. I could do anything in the mill whatever. When the driver got sick the boss came to me and he said, "Jack, you've got a licence to drive and you've been out a few times, do you think you could carry on?" I said, "No problem." I wanted to drive the log truck. It was only just a truck really. It had three forward gears. It could do eight miles an hour in top gear, empty, along the flat. The engine was governed, you couldn't drive any faster, which is a good idea. It was a White truck, magneto ignition, crank start. You had to start the engine by hand with the crank handle. It was a big four cylinder engine, big enough to drive the"Queen Mary'', I reckon!

The boss was impossible. He sent me home from work too much. No work, y' see. He had to save money. I understood, but it was a bit hard on me. In 1927 I left Taree for Sydney and returned with my wife in 1938. We came back here to look after the old people.[ parents]

My brother and a few other mill men formed a syndicate and rented the mill [in Victoria street on the Manning River] from the owner at that time, Mark Connell. Eventually, we bought it from him. The main difficulty was getting enough money. We had no capital to start with. We'd all been through the depression and out of work. We had a very good friend, a farmer, and he lent us the money to pay a deposit on it. That's how we acquired the mill. We never made much money out of it.

We only used to pay about two pound a week to each member and try to build up some capital. Everybody was on the same wage, didn't matter what job we were doing. We were all shareholders and we ran it ourselves. We didn't employ anyone else to start with. After a while a few pulled out, they weren't getting enough money. Then we had to employ a few men and pay them award wages.

I was a sawyer mainly, for those years. We were working 44 hours a week, but that didn't apply to the management, only to the men we were paying. We worked longer hours. Sometimes we worked all weekend, depending on the size of the repair job. It might be a bearing that needed re-running. We had a little forge where we could melt white metal, so it could run. Sometimes it would blow up, if a bit of steam got into it. It would blow white metal everywhere. I got burnt a bit, never badly hurt.

We cut everything, right down to oyster sticks. We didn't waste anything. The spare wood was cut into stove lengths and sold around town. We burnt the sawdust in the boiler. It was steam fired. It was only the last couple of years [1960 -1963] that we had electricity. Until then it was a steam driven mill, much to my disgust. The steam engine was badly worn and had lost its power. If you're going through a cut about eight inches deep, you'd have to stop and wait for the engine to pick up its speed again.

One of our big problems was weather. A bad run of rainy weather and the mill would run out of logs. We never had enough money to buy large tracts of private property and that was a bit of a handicap. We were on a quota of one million feet a year off Kiwarrak State Forest. We generally cut more than a million feetin a year. If we couldn't get our cut out of Kiwarrak, we'd go out to Yarratt Forest, or perhaps down on Mitchells Island or Oxley Island. Now'n again we got private property timber. If someone was buying land that the Forestry Commission had control over, the forester wanted to get all the timber off before they sold it. He'd take me to see the timber. Some of the stuff, they weren't mill logs, not big enough, not good enough. I had some wonderful quarrels with the forester! I am still good friends with him.

The main expenses were wages, royalties and a lot of hidden expenses, such as wage tax. We had to have wages compensation insurance. And holidays were always an expense. It's so difficult to make money and as soon as you do and you think, "Good, easy man. Surely my greatness is a' ripening!" then the tax man steps in!

The freight cost to get timber to Sydney on the steamer was exactly half the railway freight. But as soon as the steamers stopped running to the river the railway freight went up 100 percent. So, it was costing us as much, to get 100 feet of timber to Sydney as it cost to produce 100 feet of sawn timber. That was when we sold the mill. We were just turning our money over the last 18 months or so. The last few years we got our wages, but we didn't make any money. Lysaghts wanted the crown licence on Kiwarrak, so they said they'd buy our mill. Like an angel from the sky, Lysaghts came and wanted us to put a price on it. So we sold out. [1963] It was like winning a lottery, as far as I was concerned. I was 66."