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Forestry in the Harcourt district

Forestry was once a significant employer in the Harcourt District

A visitor to the area in 1857 described the landscape around Harcourt as being ‘park-like” with big trees dotted on grassy pastures. During 1867 Robert ‘Redgum’ Barbour set up sawmill at Harcourt, near the railway station, part of a chain of sawmills stretching from Macedon to Moama. Barbour employed teams of tree-fellers and sawyers to work in the bush. He had a ready market for timber to be used as wharf piles, mine timbers and railway sleepers, both in Victoria and for export. Using axes, maul, wedges and crosscut saws, the timber getters worked in cooperation with the early settlers, who wished to clear the big trees off their land to establish apple orchards. Timber was also taken to fuel steam engine boilers.

In 1870, William Ferguson, Inspector of Forests, reported that Mount Alexander and its adjoining ranges were almost entirely denuded of commercial timber. He urged the protection of and growth of indigenous trees near the goldfields. If this proved impossible he recommended plantings of non-indigenous trees in order that a constant supply of timber would be readily obtainable.

Fuel for industry

Families  living at Barkers Creek and Woodbrook, obtained contracts to supply hardwood ‘five foot wood’ to Thompson’s Foundry and Castlemaine Woollen Co. The wood was delivered by horse-drawn drays. Rows of wood, neatly stacked, covered many acres adjacent to Barker Street, Castlemaine, to be fed into the firebox of the Foundry’s boilers. Much of this wood came from the bush to the south and west of Harcourt.

The Oak Forest

The bush was devastated by the wholesale removal of wattlebark for use in tanning hides for leather by tanneries. Castlemaine’s George Cunnack successfully agitated for establishment of a valonia oak plantation on Mount Alexander in order to provide a regular supply of tannin. This was based on the valonia oak’s reputation as ‘one of the great tan yielders of the world’. In 1900 the Lands Department cleared twenty acres at the foot of Mount Alexander at Picnic Gully and planted a variety of oaks. The site proved too wet for the valonia oaks but other oak varieties became well established. This forest is a great example of biodiversity, with Algerian oaks, bristle-tipped oaks, cork oaks and English oak trees. Seedling oaks will most likely be crossbreeds as they result from fertilisation of the flowers by wind-blown pollen. The oak forest is a great picnic spot in summer and autumn. It is a great place to stroll, to soak up the peace, serenity and colour that can be found. To find a comparable forest you would have to visit Europe.

Timber for fruit cases

In 1910 the first pine plantation of 20,000 Radiata Pine was established south of the Oak Forest. The pines being planted eight feet apart were very striking, with rows extending for hundreds of metres in straight, even order, right up the hill. Strong demand from Harcourt fruit growers led to an expansion of the pine plantations to provide wood for packing boxes. Up to that time, the orchardists had used kerosene and benzene cases, although these were considered overlarge. Worked out goldmining country at Moonlight Flat was also planted with pines. An ‘endowment plantation’ was created for each school in the district. Faraday, Harcourt North and Ravenswood South each had an endowment plantation next to the school. The schools have closed but the plantations remain. The Harcourt School Plantation, approx two hectares, became the site of the new Harcourt Valley Primary School in 1995. The first pine plantings on Mount Alexander were cut out during the Second World War, starting a process of cutting and replanting which continued until late in the 20th century. Radiata Pine is native to Monterey, California. It grows more vigorously in Victoria than in its native habitat, competing with native vegetation by reducing soil fertility. Radiata Pine reproduces by seed which is dispersed by wind, water and birds. Radiata Pine is now classified as an ‘Environmental Weed’. The area once occupied by pine plantings is now being revegetated with native species.

Saw mills and case factory

Much of the Radiata Pine was purchased by the Harcourt Cooperative saw mill and case-making factory which previously had to rely on supplies of timber from outside the district. Case-making factories and saw mills had previously been operated by A E Horton and by Gartside Bros. These two businesses had used Radiata Pine obtained from plantations at Creswick and Macedon. The Harcourt Cooperative saw mill and case factory (opened 1936) was located in Coolstore Road, near the railway station, producing a constant supply of pine bushel apple boxes. An adjacent sawmill was operated by the Harcourt Fruit Supply Ltd in conjunction with its packing shed. The shriek of the saw and the sound of hammering were familiar sounds in Harcourt well into the 1970s. Bushel cases for transport of fruit have now been superseded by bulk bins and cardboard cartons. Harcourt Forest Industries opened a refurbished sawmill at Harcourt in March 1980 to mill softwood for the furniture and beam market. This venture was relatively short-lived. In a further use of Radiata Pine, Howard Grant operated a pallet-making factory and sawmill on the site of the Harcourt Fruit Supply until 2006.