French’s forestry years
By Daisy Baker
April 10, 2019
BRIDPORT’S Graeme French learned the ways of the forestry industry from a young age, starting work in his father’s sawmill at 14.
Mr French grew up in Scottsdale and was the eldest son of eight children to Sydney and Nellie French.
The family’s sawmill stood where the library is now in King Street and the block of land ran through to Arthur Street where the squash centre is.
“The old sawmill was driven by a steam engine and we had a big boiler in there and we used to have to stoke the boiler until nine o’clock at night and then light it up again around seven o’clock in the morning to provide the steam to run the steam engine to run the sawmill,” he says.
“We used to use the shavings from the planning mill for fuel for the boiler. It was very, very flammable and naturally we had a few fires.
“When the fire brigade warning would go off the fire brigade knew where to go,” he laughs.
While Mr French was growing up, his father was also the funeral director in the North-East.
“I don’t remember it but apparently they used to have a very nice horse-drawn cane hearse, which I used to play on when it was in the shed.”
Sydney French took over the funeral business after his father died, but over time as his other businesses grew, it became too much to handle and he sold to Charlie Parker.
The business is now Lethborg’s Funerals.
In the early 1960s Mr French went into business with his brother Kevin.
After a reasonably big fire, Mr French says they were not allowed to rebuild in Scottsdale so they closed the mill and bought the property at Ling Siding where the fuel depot is now, which became known as French’s Mill.
The new mill had a small treatment plant and drying kilns, where they operated for some years before it too caught fire.
After fires in South Australia burned out sizeable plantations in Mount Gambier, a modern sawmill was built to run for several years to utilise the burned out forest.
The timber was squared off and sent to Japan.
“When this contract ran out, we put a tender in for that sawmill because it was very modern, I think it was about $750,000 at the time,” he remembers.
“We won the tender and I went with an electrician and three or four guys and pulled the sawmill out and I think we finished up with eight semi-trailer loads of machinery that we salvaged from over there that turned out to be probably one of the most economic sawmills in the southern hemisphere. It was a very modern mill.”
After 40 odd years working in sawmills, Mr French sold his partnership to his brother and went to work in real estate.
“I bought several properties and gradually added to it. Getting involved with real estate was a very good thing,” he said.
“I think I finished up with about six or seven properties – they all finished up with national companies so I was very lucky with that.”
Mr French got out of the Mill prior to the demise of the timber industry in Scottsdale.
“I think when I left the mill out there around about 100 employees, including contractors and it got to the stage where I don’t know whose fault it was, but we couldn’t seem to get an allocation to keep the mill going,” he says.
“The forestry commission advertised a volume of timber for sale and we missed out on the contract and the timber went to Timberlink in George Town.
“They won the contact for the volume that Forestry was selling and they didn’t even have the mill built.
“It was a couple of years before they could utilise it, so Kevin had no quota and no option but to sell out. He had 120-130 people working for him. That was a real blow.”
During his years working in the mill, Mr French helped a colleague work his horses every morning.
His days started at about five in the morning working the horses and finished around nine at night stoking the boiler.
“That was my introduction to work. I worked long hours and worked hard.”
Outside of work, Mr French was actively involved in the community through the Scottsdale Football Club as a player, and he was also the president of the Rotary Club and Trotting Club for several years.
Eventually, Mr French started breeding horses, some of which he says were very good.
“I gave my brother in law a half share in a couple of horses and they turned out to be pretty handy,” he says.
“We won the Tasmanian championship in Hobart with Paleface Tiki, a beautiful stallion, a very honest horse.
“We raced another one in Melbourne and got horse of the year over there and overall, I think we won about 80 odd races during my short time with the horses.”
Mr French also worked at the steak stand at the Scottsdale Show for 50 odd years, cooking steak on a circular saw over a little homemade barbecue, before the Rotary Club built the show stand where it is operating now.
Today, Mr French lives in Bridport with his wife Carol, admiring the seaside views from their light-filled home, where they are visited by their three children and six grandchildren.