Machins Sawmil 1914 – 2014

Henry Machin at the Elands Mill
Henry Machin at the Elands Mill

One hundred  years ago Henry Machin took the first steps to creating a Manning Valley Icon, which today remains one of Wingham’s largest employers and contibutors to the local economy.

An advertisement in the Wingham Chronicle on the September 14, 1914 read “Machins  Sawmill Killabakh. This mill has now commenced work. I am prepared to supply timber of any kind at lowest cost. Local Builders should send for quotes H.J. Machin Proprietor.”

Henry founded Henry Machins and Sons, which despite having undergone name changes since, has continued an unbroken ten decades of service involving four generations of the one family.

Henry had first entered the sawmilling business earlier in the Dubbo area, where his first mill concentrated on the production of Cypress timbers.

In 1914 he was attracted to the Manning with its vast undeveloped forests with his wife and two sons, Wilfred and Mervyn.

They operated the mill at Killabakh until 1918 when it was sold to a Mr Chambers who was the builder of the Wingham Town Hall.

The concrete foundations for the steam boiler can still be seen by the creek at Killabakh.

The big mill at Elands was established in 1918 while the two boys were away at the Great War.  Henry and Mervyn showed great judgment arriving in France on Armistice Day.

 A wholesale yard was established at Mascot in Sydney, run by a Scotsman, Johnnie Gardiner, who later moved to Elands to run the main mill.

Johnnie’s wife Ruth, only passed away in 2012 at over 100 years of age.

The family were very forward thinking and established kilns at Elands for drying flooring in the 30s (well before “value adding” became a catch phrase) and purchased a Caterpillar crawler tractor for logging.

Both of these were firsts for the growing north coast timber industry.  

Wilfred also developed the bogey log jinker which would track behind the lorry without cutting corners.

The big mill at Elands was steam driven and contained a no. 1 and no. 2 bench.

 Logs were broken down by a vertical frame saw which could cut logs up to 17’ girth.

The mill remained in existence until 1957 when it was rebuilt when electricty arrived on the Bulga Plateau.

Depression times were very challenging with very few orders.

There was great elation when the mill received the flooring order for the David Jones Market Street store.

Such was the jubilation that eight men managed to get drunk on one bottle of sherry that night. 

I remember my mother saying that potato sandwiches were the norm among the children at Elands school for lunch.

Even at remote Elands there was a steady stream of men coming by looking for work.

One man my mother recalls had travelled from south of Sydney on a motorcycle with a side car with his wife, baby and three year old on the whisper that that there was work available at the mill.

Henry Machin was a colourful character.

He was well known around the district and drove a small bull nose Morris from which he had lost the radiator cap.

In true bush ingenuity this was replaced by a corn cob.

 Upon arriving at the mill at Elands he had a ritual of placing the Morris in neutral and coasting down the mill yard to park in the mill workshop which had a pit in it for greasing the lorries.

On one occasion someone had not replaced the planks covering the greasing pit and the little Morris fitted neatly in the pit.

Henry was chairman of the Manning Shire for a period during the 30s. 

The mill earthmoving machinery was often lent to the shire for road construction and maintenance. Colling pass between Elands and Comboyne was constructed using Machin’s bulldozer. 

Henry had an on-going  feud with the shire engineer.

The shire Clerk called a meeting to resolve the issues.

 Henry agreed to “bury the hatchet  but wished to retain the right to dig it up again if he needed to.”

During  WWII despite a shortage of labour the company expanded to meet the demands of war to be become a collection of five mills.

On the site at Elands was the big hardwood mill, plus a scrub wood mill cutting rainforest timbers,  a mill at Blacksand Creek, another at Doyles River plus one at The Den (Mooral Creek). 

A variety of timbers were sawn to meet the demands of the war.

John Machin used to shudder at the memory of the rainforests being slaughtered.

The Den mill largely cut Flooded Gum for ammunition boxes, where as the Elands Scrubwood mill cut coffin boards, coachwood for rifle butts and coachwood for the framework of the Mosquito bombers.

During the course of the war the mill cut an expensive order for the Pacific.

When the Defence Authorities placed the same order a second time, Wilfred said “No we have just cut that order” to which they replied “we know . It is at the bottom of the Pacific.”

The wartime was a busy period. There was not a lot of money in it due to the government controls.

Prior to the late 40s sawmills with a Crown License could cut as much as they wanted from State Forests. 

The then Forestry Commission realised that their yield modelling was somewhat wrong.

Despite setting aside massive tracts of land into State Forests to provide for the timber needs of the State their modelling was based on European and American Forests where yields per hectare where ever so much higher than a Eucalypt bush.

A quota system was introduced where mills were restricted to removing a set amount from their allocated forests each year to maintain a sustained yield.

In 1948 the company amalgamated with Duncan’s Holdings which then became a listed company on the stock exchange.

John Machin, the third generation had joined the company by this time.

Apart from the Manning operations the group had mills at Goondiwindi,  Sandilands and Eden. 

In 1954 Machins left the group.

The management of the North Broken Hill mine, a major customer of Duncan’s Holdings read of Wilfred’s resignation from the board in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Wilfred and John were summons to a meeting at Oberon with the Broken Hill management and offered all of their work.  

They had to accept or decline the offer on the day. 

They accepted and within a week they had purchased a small mill at Marlee from Mears and Silver to obtain a sawmill license.

Over the first six months Wilfred established the Wingham mill on the current site.

Dallas Reeves ran the mill at Marlee supplying part of the Broken Hill mine’s order. 

Dallas spent the rest of his working life with Machin’s retiring in 1983.

The rest of the order was sourced from other mills in the area.

 John Machin spent his time obtaining log supplies from private property.

This was the start of John’s love of the bush and the natural environment.

The Broken Hill mine provided 50 to 60 per cent of the mill’s orders from 1954 until the mine closed without notice in 1992.

The mine work was very good business.

Smaller, lower quality logs were used which opened up access to more logs.

The mine timber was only expected to last six months.

I often wonder what volume of Manning timber is buried underground at Broken Hill.

The timber to Broken Hill was loaded at Wingham siding for shipment by rail.

In the 50s and 60s there would be a major rush of orders in late summer which had to delivered  before the rail line was cut by flooding.

The railways could accurately predict when the line would cut.

 In later years, the line was lifted.

Other major customers were Thatcher and Oberg, a large Sydney timber merchant.

Ralph Oberg was a director and shareholder of Machin’s until his death in 1986. Ralph was well known at the Wingham Golf club bringing a team of golfers up from Sydney to play in the May Wingham Open for over 30 years.

When Machin’s left Duncan’s they lost access to crown logs and had to rely on supplies from private property sources.

This has made any long term planning difficult as we never knew where next year’s logs would be coming from.

To give some security of supply John Machin set about buying timber rights off land owners.

Timber rights were only a medium term measure.

Freehold properties were bought for the longer term.

Changes to the crown lands act in the early 70s meant that leasehold country could be converted to freehold.

In 1972 John’s beloved Eaglehawk property was purchased and this property has been a major source of logs for the mill since.

 Over the 50 years he was in the industry John Machin developed an unparalleled knowledge and love of the bush throughout the Manning Valley.

He spent countless days walking or on horseback searching for logs to supply the mill.

One of his notable quotes was “a reasonable knowledge of the bush can be obtained in about 15 Years. It is a very complicated subject”.

He also could see large areas of regrowth forests developing on once cleared land.

This land had been cleared after the first war as soldier settler blocks or during the depression for people to scrape out a meagre living on.

With rising living standards and industrialisation these farms were neglected and nature took over to re-establish forests.

John had little mechanical ability.

I joked he couldn’t recognise a shifting spanner but he could be quite ingenuous.

The aerial on his utility broke and rather than use the traditional coat hanger he used a chainsaw file. He was passionate about the timber industry.

He took great pride in the products we produced and was very particular about quality.

He took it as a personal affront if there was a complaint about quality.

He also excelled at Golf, winning the Lower North Coast foursomes Championship 10 times, the singles eight times and the Wingham Golf Club Championship 22 times.

He also played in the Australian Open in Perth in 1968, missing the cut after 36 holes

John was always nervous about committing too much capital to sawmilling machinery due to our insecurity of resource.

As a result the mill remained largely unchanged for 40 years.

Major upgrades were eventually undertaken in 1991, 2004 and 2005.

The 1990s were a nervous time for the company.

The North Broken Hill Mine closed without notice in 1992.

Overnight 50 per cent of our work disappeared. 

With the breakup of the USSR former member states were left with little currency reserves but stock piles of minerals which they dumped onto the world market forcing prices downwards which made the North mine unviable. 

The company adapted by focusing on value adding and built their first kiln on the Wingham site.

 The planning section of the mill was revamped in 1998 and more kilns were constructed.

Now days over 50 per cent of production leaves as a dry dressed product.

The 90s were also the height of the anti- logging movement.

Neville Wran started the lock ups of productive forests.

He saw votes in this and took advantage of the naivety of urban voters  whom believed the industry was raping and pillaging the forests leaving behind Sahara deserts.        

Bob Carr further decimated the industry with quotas being halved initially and then further reduced. Over half of sawmills in the state shut down.

Machin’s survived these challenges and this year celebrates 100 years of unbroken sawmilling in the Manning Valley.

Over the past one hundred years  major changes evolved in the industry most notably markets.

On looking around new housing developments in Sydney and the Hunter the vast majority of houses would not have a stick of hardwood in them.

Prior to the 80s frames, trusses and subfloor timbers were all hardwood.

Now days these markets have been replaced with pine, concrete, steel and composite products. The hardwood industry has changed focus to markets where the strength, beauty and durability of hardwood can be capitalised on.

Machin’s have been very involved in the community with numerous sporting groups and community organisations benefiting from donations and sponsorship.

John Machin was a member of Wingham Rotary Club for 50 years.

He was the driving force behind the establishment of Dundaloo Foundation and Valley industries. Both of these organisations provide services to the disabled.

John served as president of both these organisations for a number of years.

He was awarded an Order Of Australia Medal in 1991 in recognition of his services to the community. 

In my 23 years working with John I would estimate he spent 50 per cent of his working time on community work.

Our involvement with the community has been a two way street.

The district has supported us well with patronage. 

Notable support came in the 90s when Allan Carlyle, former Wingham Mayor and business man, organised a rally in support of the timber industry in Central Park at the height of the anti- logging protests in the area.

This was attended by hundreds of people.

In 2003 we suffered a major fire.

Fanned on by 100kmh winds I initially thought we were going to lose the lot.

Three Fire Brigades supported by numerous community members bought the blaze under control and we only lost eight days production.

 I remember a bucket chain being formed from one of our dams which contained the losses to our drying stock.

A number of suppliers offered help in the aftermath in the form of extended trading terms and loans.

Over the past 100 years Machin’s has provided jobs to hundreds of men.

Staff have been the backbone of our business.

One man retired in in 2002 with 45 years of service up.

Two retired last year with 32 and 25 years respectively.

One current staff member has 41 years up.

 The Long Service Leave payout when they retire hurts.

When we started in the Manning Valley in 1914 was pre some major events that have shaped Australia.

Since then we have had Gallipoli, two world wars, the great depression and woman were given the vote.

Machin’s have been around for all of these events.

Some of the key factors  that have ensured our longevity have been a focus on quality, service and integrity.