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Clearing of Lake Mulwala

Early in 1937 mention was made by some locals of removing large numbers of trees from the river flats which would eventually be flooded when the weir was completed. However, the River Murray Commission announced that it would not carry out this work and suggested locals should do it. A small group of progressive minded people of the district decided to act themselves and launched an appeal for help.

A Marathon Community Effort

Harry Haebich, garage proprietor of Yarrawonga, vividly recalled the days of the clearing of the lake. This is his story:

“The first person who mentioned the clearing of the lake to me was Ralph Francis. Ralph started clearing the trees at the back of his property before anyone else and it was he who got me interested in the project.

I organised the staff at the garage at first. I would drive them over to the NSW side because that’s where most of the trees were. I also became responsible for keeping the axes and saws razor sharp.

They provided the axes but if a man got an axe with a good fall, he liked to keep it for his own use. They could buy their own axe if they wanted to, and many of the men did. Many of the axes were disappearing so we put a special yellow paint on them so they could be easily recognised.

All the men were volunteers. The whole area was cleared by voluntary labour. Word got around about the working bees and they would just turn up on their own accord. There weren’t many experienced wood cutters when we first started, but the more skilled timber cutters such as Bob Smith and Olly Ferguson soon taught the others how to use an axe.

Jack Rennie was good with the axe. He would spend a lot of time teaching the new blokes and demonstrating the scarf of the tree. It was important to do this as the axe could easily slip off the green bark and cause a nasty accident. 

The area of bark had to be removed before you began to cut the tree, it also directed the fall of the tree when it was lobbed.

The more experienced men cut the big trees; some of these trees were up to 21 feet around the girth. Because of the lagoons, we had to reach a lot of those big gums by boat. Mr John Pigdon worked endlessly building platforms out of planks of timber so the men could be out of the water.

I often drove the men over to Mulwala for the morning shift about a quarter to five. They worked every chance they got, even on their days off and every weekend.

The women supplied afternoon tea and Crothers supplied the soft drink.

Some of the volunteers came along in groups such as the Fire Brigade, the S.E.C men and local sporting bodies. It was an all-out effort by the locals.

Many of the business men put in a good effort chopping the smaller trees. Most of the trees were left lying where they fell. Often someone would help themselves to the wood, but mostly it was too wet. To my knowledge the sawmill didn’t use any of the timber for the same reason. It was too difficult to get out. Cross cut saws were used, but the work was mainly done with the axe.

I don’t think any of us thought too much about  what we were creating. The challenge was there and it kept us fit. It would have cost the River Murray Commission a fortune for them to do it.”

In his later years Jim Pigdon said:

“There were no power boats or yachts in the 1930s when we cleared the forest of trees that became Lake Mulwala. We just thought it would be beneficial to have a clear expanse of water with no trees between the two towns. We could never have envisaged what we now have; this beautiful lake, a mecca for tourists and water sports”.