THE recent death of 83 year-old Barry Rhodes at his home in Mundaring has brought an end to an era in Western Australian forestry.
Barry spent his entire working life at Mundaring Weir, working for the Forests Department and then the Conservation and Land Management Department. He was the son of Watty Rhodes (a former woodcutter for the pumps, later the famous and long-serving forestry storeman), and Jessie Rhodes (for more than 40 years the matriarch of the forestry settlement at the Weir).
Barry went to school in the one-teacher school for forestry and PWD kids at Mundaring Weir, left at age 14 and got his first job with the Forests Department as a stable boy. He then did an apprenticeship at the forestry workshops, but did not go on to become a mechanic, as he wanted to work in the bush.
He joined one of the forestry gangs, and then moved to a pine logging crew driving a jib crane. When the daywork pine gangs were replaced by pieceworkers, Barry was one of the first to switch to the new job, and he was a master of the trade. He knew the plantations, the pines, and the log specifications, he could fall trees, and snig, cut and load logs, he could operate a chainsaw, a log truck and a jib crane, and fix them when they needed fixing. It wasn’t long before he was single-handedly doing the work of a whole gang.
At the same time, like all the pine logging pieceworkers, Barry was part of the department’s fire control system, and was one of the best heavy duty fire truck drivers in the business. He was a firefighter at the time of the 1961 fires, WA’s worst-ever bushfire summer. People still talk about the Dwellingup fire, but forget the massive fires out in the Dale and the Canning and later at Gidgegannup in the same summer.
Those were the days when a forestry gang went to a fire, slept under the truck in the bush, ate tinned food, and did not come home for four days. When they did come home they were immediately sent to another fire.
Barry and his wife Betty lived in one of the forestry houses in the settlement at Portagabra for more than 30 years and in all that time he did his weekend standby and night-time call-outs with the rest of them, every summer.
When old Watty retired, Barry applied for and was appointed the department’s district storeman, a job he could do with one hand tied behind his back, as he knew the whole business frontwards, backwards and sideways. Under his management the district store was always immaculate, everything exactly in the right place, and every piece of equipment or material clean and dusted. Barry’s mother Jessie had been famous for not allowing anyone into her house, not even the Minister for Forests or the conservator, unless they took their shoes off – almost the same rule applied in Barry’s store.
Barry was a great sportsman, first as a player, later as a fan, and he especially loved cricket and for years he opened both the batting and the bowling for the Forestry team in the Eastern Hills competition. He was a nervous starter, but once he got going he was a tornado at the crease – he was a typically lean bushman, a slight figure with a mop of blond hair, but he had enormous wiry strength. I didn’t see him playing football, but I heard he was a fierce little rover, one of those bush footballers who love a stoush as much as a win. In later years he put a huge amount of time into the district’s juniors, coaching under-age cricket and football.
Both of Barry’s boys, Wayne and Alan, followed him into ‘the forestry’ as it was once known and became valued members of the departmental family. Through Wayne and Alan, Barry retained a day-to-day interest in the goings-on out at the Weir, and if ever I wanted an update on a bushfire in the area, I only had to ring him.
Like many forest workmen of his time, Barry loved and was proud of the local forestry history – he had a magnificent collection of old photographs and even some old departmental files that had been destined for the incinerator, but which he kept for their historical interest and later donated to the Mundaring Historical Society. His memory for people and places was phenomenal; he knew every road or track, nearly every tree, in the Mundaring plantations, the Helena catchment and the Julimar.
He helped make an excellent video about forestry at the weir, and he assisted me (and others) many times with historical research. One interesting snippet is that the legendary forester George Brockway initially stopped Barry’s first appointment on the grounds that it was not good policy to have a father and son working together as firefighters. Luckily, the wonderful old district forester Frank Mullumby did not share Brockway’s concern, he knew a likely lad when he saw one, and quietly gave Barry his first job. Fifty years later Barry was instrumental in the recovery and conversion to DVD of Frank Mullumby’s fascinating home-made movies about life at the Weir and in the forestry.
Barry Rhodes was the last I knew who had started in forestry straight from school and worked for his entire lifetime for the department and in the same district, moving through the ranks from stable hand to apprentice mechanic to gang member, including a period as an overseer, to pieceworker and to storeman, all the time being also involved in every aspects of bushfire management.
Like the best of the traditional forest workmen, he was a true all-rounder: he could drive anything on wheels or tracks, and probably on hooves for all I knew – certainly I recall his passionate interest in the trots and the gallops – and he could operate anything with an engine. When he sharpened my chainsaw for me, it would cut through cast iron.
He was utterly loyal to his fellow-forest workmen and would die for them if called to do so, and he nearly did, in a bushfire at Chittering.
He was, for many years, one of my staff. But he was always one of my mates.
It is wonderful that the Rhodes legacy at Mundaring Weir lives on into the third generation through his sons, but in many ways his passing is the end of an era. The forestry life that he lived has also passed, and we will not see it, or men like Barry Rhodes again.
Roger Underwood is a former DFO at Mundaring Weir and is now a forestry and bushfire historian.