1939 Fire. An Eyewitness Account

In 1939, Omeo was hit by a devastating bushfire.
I recently found a letter written by my father to his future wife, Olive Kracke, who was holidaying in Tasmania, describing the catastrophe:

15th Jan, 1939.

Dearest Olive,

I suppose you have heard all about the excitement we have had here by now.

I believe all sorts of rumours have been in circulation and you probably felt anxious about your people, but they are all well; your father was scared but he is his old self again.

I suppose I could write for a week of the different fires, but as you know, men have been out for a few weeks to different parts trying to stop them and burning breaks; but last Wednesday was the first really dangerous fire.

 After Faithfull’s, it came over heading for Hinnomunjie Station and Charlie Scott’s flats caught, but the fire was stopped at the road there, then it seemed to be coming over the hills right along from this side of Ganci’s house, right out past Lloyd Kelly’s place.

All the men from Omeo were there and also Benambra. However, just before the flames reached the grass, the wind changed to the south and relieved the situation.

Kelly’s got a fright. They thought their house would be burnt.
The grass burnt within about 100 yards on Tom Kelly’s and it jumped right across the hills over Hinnomunjie Station, the station is not burnt though.

I thought it a terrible experience.

Tuesday was cool and the fires seemed to be safe but Wednesday the wind came from the north and they all began again.

At about 4:30 that afternoon there must have been a dust storm high up, because from daylight it changed to darkness and it seemed as though the fires were getting nearer.

Men went to a big fire at the Swamp and also to Cobungra.

The Cobungra fire must have been awful from the tales told.
Cliff Bant and Vic H ..(?) were there. They spent the night in the river.

Fires came from all sides, with the main fire with a howling gale heading straight for Omeo, but there was no way of warning the town.
Everything’s so burnt out there including the Station.

Well, that fire came straight over Dry Gully and over the top of Mesley.

I had just gone to Round Hill with some chaps and had just reached it when we noticed a blaze which happened to be the Cemetery.

Immediately on reaching the top of Mesley with such a gale, it jumped to there and burnt up to the hospital and on.
It also broke out opposite Les Du Ve’s house just across the road and flew up the hill.

We came back to the Cemetery but it was burning right round the town except the Hilltop corner by then, and no-one knew where to turn.

It was terrible, with such a wind a spark set it going in a moment.

From the top of Mesley, it flew to the pine plantation and then to the blacksmith shop and of course that part of the town was an inferno immediately.

The firemen did a marvellous job in stopping it at Sandy’s Store by pouring water on Slater’s shop.
All that portion as far as Sandy’s and the Age are burnt.

McCoy’s and Haylock’s houses were saved, and the houses down near the swimming pool, …. (?) escaped too, the sparks evidently passing over them.

A shed in the school ground behind the National Bank was burnt and the grass in that hollow.

Lots of people did good work in putting out sparks and bark along the main street behind Bradley’s garage on the higher portion, in fact all over the town.

All of the women and children were rushed to the Hilltop Hotel which was the only safe place.
I believe sparks were extinguished round the Park too which saved the higher portion of the town.

I believe everything is burnt from St Bernard to Omeo. There is a tremendous loss of stock.

If I knew all the names, I could tell you lots of hair-raising experiences and of losses.
…(?) Perry lost everything and escaped only by driving the car in the water race and staying there all night.

Fears have been held for lots of chaps but all are alive except a chap named Richards from Cobungra.
He tried to save his family(…?) and rode back into an inferno.
He was buried today.
His wife had a child about three weeks ago.

By the way, a child was born to a Mrs McNamara during the fire, while at the Hilltop Hotel and both are well, I’m told.

Benambra is alight and also Swift’s Creek.

It was a terrifying night and everyone is feeling it but there is no danger now, as there is nothing left to burn.

Fifty or so men from Bairnsdale arrived early next morning and have been out fighting the Swamp fire since, and a big bus load from Maffra-Sale arrived yesterday but all have returned.

The Memorial Hall is being used as a centre for food and the Church of England Hall as a hospital; all the patients were saved and taken to the Hilltop.

No-one closed an eye all that night and everyone looked a wreck next day.





Harold Bolitho was a Commercial Bank of Australia teller, aged twenty-nine at the time of writing the above letter.

He and Olive Kracke were married in March, 1940.



During WW2, he served in RAAF No 4 Wireless Unit, Central Bureau.
Central Bureau was under the direct command of General Douglas MacArthur, and was set up to detect, record, and translate all messages transmitted by Japanese forces in the Pacific.
It was headquartered in Brisbane, but its Wireless Units worked in the field, moving forward with MacArthur, constantly intercepting and deciphering enemy messages.

RAAF No 4 Wireless Unit was formed as a highly mobile unit, and served at Hollandia, Morotai, Labuan Island, and at Luzon, Philippines.

As the war progressed, the units became so efficient in their work that they were monitoring all enemy radio traffic, and in fact frequently knew the Japanese intentions before the messages reached their intended destination.
The U.S. High Command highly praised the Wireless Units of Central Bureau, stating that their work effectively shortened the War in the Pacific by at least two years.

At the end of the war, Central Bureau was dismantled. All personnel signed a lifetime secrecy order to not speak of their wartime activities.
No promotions applied. No evidence of their Central Bureau service was recorded, including overseas service. No medals were struck.
Central Bureau personnel worked diligently and efficiently when called upon, and when the job was done, quietly went home.

It was only in the 1990’s that the Australian Government allowed the release of details of Central Bureau and its activities.


Further reading:
MacArthur’s Secret Bureau by Jean Bou ISBN: 978-0-9872387-1-9
The Eavesdroppers by Jack Bleakley ISBN: 0-644-22303-0
Katakana Man by A. Jack Brown

Web: http://www.ozatwar.com/sigint/cbi.htm

Harold and family left Omeo in 1956, moving to Bruthen, and then to Bairnsdale in 1960.



Rabbits and Governors

Omeo, 1984.
The banking crisis of 1893 that saw several of the commercial banks within Australia collapse, was over.
Many settlers at Omeo, unable to meet their bank’s demands, had walked off their land, resulting in the Commercial and Colonial Banks being the largest landholders in the Shire.
The farmers of Omeo Plains and Benambra were the most fortunate, having managed to hold on to their land.
A flour mill, established in Omeo, provided a ready market for their produce, its flour and by-products being far cheaper than Melbourne products that had to be hauled over vast and difficult terrain to Omeo and surrounds.

The winter of 1894 saw heavy flooding with extensive damage to roads and bridges throughout Omeo Shire.
Heavy rains had made the Tambo Valley road impassable. Flooding had resulted in Omeo being entirely isolated for ten days. The telegraph line was cut, and mail unable to be delivered. Bridges were completely washed away.
The council fought hard to finally secure funds from the State Government to make necessary and vital repairs and improvements to roads throughout the Shire.
With the economic crisis behind them, and a harsh winter over, conditions seemingly appeared to be on the improve.

Unfortunately, a new element was about to enter the picture.

Approximately fifty kilometres west of Omeo, and just north of what is now the Great Alpine Road, lay Brandy Creek Mine.
The mining operation worked an area of about twenty acres, both with deep mines and later, hydraulic sluicing.
Over its lifetime, the mine produced an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 ounces of gold.

However, it was not gold that was to be of concern in 1894.
In June of that year, it was reported to the council, that rabbits had been seen at the mine.
Two had been shot at Bindi, approximately twenty kilometres east of Omeo.

A new crisis was about to begin.



The release of twenty-four wild rabbits by Thomas Austin for hunting purposes in October 1859, on his property, Barwon Park, near Winchelsea, Victoria, was about to impact on Omeo.

Experience in other parts of Victoria, had made the Omeo council realize that if the rabbits were not checked, the vast majority of land in the Shire would become useless.

It was a complex problem. Most properties had been fenced with logs, providing a perfect haven for the rabbits, and no netting was readily available for vermin-proof fencing. The banks, who owned large tracts of land, were reluctant to fund any purchasing of wire netting.

In 1896, the council, desperate to control the growing rabbit menace, requested people from as far away as Dargo to report any rabbit sightings.
It appointed a rabbit inspector, Mr W Hollonds, and offered a reward to anyone finding and reporting a rabbit burrow.
Over the next few months, Inspector Hollonds, armed with traps supplied by the council, tackled rabbits at Boucher’s property at Uplands, and Gilmore’s holding at Omeo.
Despite much enthusiasm and gusto, he faced a man-sized job.

In 1897, rabbits were on the increase in the Tambo Valley.

In 1898, a well supported public meeting was held at Omeo to form a Rabbit Suppression League, and that year, the bonus on rabbits was discontinued.



The following year, 1899, the Omeo Rabbit League was formed, with the council ordering two cases of poisoned jam and two cases of phosphorus for use by its members.
Applications called for a rabbit destructor to destroy rabbits in the Omeo riding.

The turn of the century saw the gradual unyielding advance of the rabbits.
There was a general disquiet throughout the region, as the realization that these pests could render the grazing and farming areas of the Shire useless, began to take hold.

The council rescinded all previous bonuses paid on rabbits and a bonus of one penny per scalp was substituted, and the secretary was instructed to keep landholders supplied with poison.

The rabbit invasion was not only effecting grazing and agriculture.
Rabbits, along with hares and foxes were having a detrimental effect on native marsupials.
Native koalas, native cats, bandicoots, wombats, and opossums began to decline.
Once numerous monkey bears, who gave their name to Monkey Creek, began to disappear.
Over a very short period the native animals became almost extinct as rabbits, foxes, and hares, all pests, began to take their place.

In 1902, men employed in rabbit suppression in the Hinnomunjie council riding were dispensed with. It was deemed that the rabbit plague was beyond the capabilities of a few men, and that each individual land holder had better start to look after his own property.
The council purchased two poison carts that could be hired by farmers to poison rabbits with pollard and phosphorus. This method was partly successful in very dry weather, but had very little effect in average seasons.
The Omeo Shire, as well as the shires of Orbost and Towong, began to float special loans to buy rabbit-proof wire netting that could be resold to landholders, on long repayment terms.
By this stage, farmers and graziers were seriously concerned and alarmed.
Rabbits were now appearing in the Shire in their millions.

Rabbits around a waterhole during myxomatosis trials at Wardang


In 1904, the Government advanced much-needed funds in the form of a loan, enabling the council to purchase all the wire netting they could afford.
At this stage, the rabbits were winning, attacking not only pastures, but crops as well.
In March of 1905, the people of the Shire of Omeo were provided with a slight reprieve from the battle with the rabbits, when the Governor of Victoria, Sir Reginald Talbot paid a visit.
Sir Reginald was sworn in as Governor of Victoria on 25 April 1904. He was born into English aristocracy in 1841, and after being educated at Harrow, pursued a career in the British army, as well as serving as a politician. He served in the Zulu War, led the British army of occupation in Egypt, and also served as a military attache in Paris.
The Governor attended the Omeo races on Thursday, March 06, and was entertained at luncheon by the president of the club, Councillor Brumley.

In January of 1906, the Sir Reginald Talbot again visited Omeo, this time arriving over the Alps from Bright.



Equipped with tents and camping gear, the vice-regal was on a two weeks fishing trip that would take in Omeo and Jindabyne, New South Wales.

The good Governor drove via Harrietville and St Bernard’s Hospice, arriving in Omeo on January 24.





He visited the state schools at Omeo Plain and Benambra, had lunch at Mount Leinster with the Pendergasts, spent the night camped by the Benambra Creek, and then on the morning of the 26th, pushed on through the bush toward Mt Bogong, and eventually Jindabyne.
The Governor may well have had a good time, but not so the people of Omeo and throughout the Shire.

The rabbits were in control, invading even the township.

In the evening, thousands of rabbits would move from the cover of blackberries and of fences, and advance on the town to cause great destruction to gardens.
Vegetable gardens and fruit trees were destroyed and pastures were cleaned out.
Dogs would not bother to chase them; they were content to catch and eat one or two and leave the rest alone.
Eventually half the houses in Omeo had a rabbit warren under the floor.

Hunting rabbits had become a part of life.
Even on this Sunday outing in the picture below, one of the men has brought along a rifle.



Many people who had struggled through the land boom now abandoned their properties.
All the land from Hinnomungie to Tongio, with the exception of a few blocks in the Upper Livingstone and Dry Hill areas, was held by the banks.

In an effort to turn the tide, the council ordered 20,000 pounds of wire netting for resale.
Wire netting was the only solution to the problem but, unfortunately, was hard to obtain.
The demand was so great, manufacturers simply could keep up.

The Governor Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael visited the Omeo region in 1911, among other things, skiing on Mt St Bernard.



Meanwhile, the fight against the rabbits continued.
They had infested the grazing areas of the Shire to the extent that the productive value of the land had been reduced by at least sixty percent.
Some of the best properties were now almost of no value.

The river flats at Hinnomungie Station were one huge rabbit warren, and land at Bindi and the Tambo Valley was literally crawling with rabbits.

The council had no choice but to continually write off rate assessments as land owners abandoned their properties.
At Omeo, at least seventy-five percent of original selectors had walked off their land.
The banks,now holders of thousands of acres of rabbit infested land, had done a lot of netting fencing, but were not attempting to eliminate the trapped rabbits.

Rabbit drives were frequently held.
This social occasion involved netting-in a paddock, then driving the rabbits towards an enclosure or trap in a corner of the property.
The event saw men on horseback, yelling and cracking stock whips, all the while assisted by numerous barking and yelping dogs. As many as 15,000 rabbits were often slaughtered in these drives.



Many men worked as rabbit trappers, selling their skins to local dealers.

Prices were low, about three pence in the summer months, and nine pence to one shilling in the winter.


Despite the work of the trappers, and the poisoning attempts by the rabbit inspectors, the vermin continued to breed, the only successful method of containment being the long and arduous task of netting-in, paddock after paddock.





By 1912, the population of the Omeo Shire had declined by twelve hundred people in three years.
The decline in mining, and the effects of the rabbit plague produced a steady stream of people vacating the district.
An attempt by the rabbit inspector to have the council clear the Lake Omeo Common of rabbits fell on deaf ears, as councillors had enough on their plate, trying to clear their own properties of the menace.

In the midst of struggle and despondency, Omeo was again visited by the Governor, this time, Sir John Michael Fleetwood Fuller, who described himself as ‘just an ordinary type of English country gentleman and a good sportsman – fond of hunting, shooting, stalking and the rest’.
He was a British Liberal Party politician and colonial administrator, and along with Lady Fuller and an entourage visited Omeo as part of a trip that took in the Buchan Caves and Bruthen.

They arrived by motor-car on Thursday November 21, after travelling a distance of sixty miles and were met by Councillor J.W. Brumley and a large number of councillors and residents amid much ado.




The vice-Regal party enjoyed a lunch, then drove to Omeo Plains where they were entertained at afternoon tea, before returning to Omeo for dinner. An address by Councillor Brumley was given at a well attended function at the shire hall.


In January of 1918, amid the rabbit battle, Omeo was visited by the Governor, Sir Arthur Stanley.

After spending a couple of days at Bindi Station, Sir Stanley arrived on Saturday, January 12, at 10 o’clock at which time he visited the hospital where he was shown the recent additions and was entertained at morning tea by Matron Cameron.

At 11 o’clock he attended the Shire Hall where he was welcomed by council dignitaries and many towns folk, before heading off to Hinnomungie Station for afternoon tea, and then on to Angler’s Rest for the night.


The Governor returned to Omeo Sunday evening in time for dined off to Bairnsdale to catch the train back to Melbourne.



Later in the year, Omeo was visited by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, arriving on Saturday , November 4, via Swift Creek, Bindi Station, and Tongio. Much needed heavy rain accompanied the Governor-General as he paid his visits.

A dinner was held at the Golden Age Hotel, followed by a well-attended function at the Shire Hall that involved music, singing, and speeches.

Sunday morning saw Sir Ronald visit the Plains before returning to Omeo for lunch, and then departing for Bairnsdale.




Throughout the following years, the battle against the rabbits continued unabated.

In 1927, bridge and culvert heads were invaded and government inspectors were continually demanding that the council eradicate the vermin.

In 1936, unemployed persons were given some relief, by being engaged to trap the still numerous rabbits for their skins. Rabbit carcasses at this stage had no commercial value.

In 1944, the Department of Army was urged to release men to expedite the manufacture of wire netting.

The rabbit pest was hard to cope with in the steep hill country that exists in the Swift’s Creek, Cassilis, Tongio and Bindi localities, but by 1948, the grazing industry of Swift’s Creek was showing  progress, albeit slow.

In 1959, the Soil Conservation Authority held a Field Day at Bindi Station, which for many years had been infested with rabbits. Extensive sheet and gully erosion had taken a heavy toll of its soil surface, yet implementation of control measures showed that badly eroded land could be successfully reclaimed.

Progress against the rabbit menace was slowly being made.

Myxomatosis, a virus disease of rabbits, was eventually used in Australia to control the population.
The initial release of the myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of the rabbit population and within two years of the virus’s release in 1950 Australia’s wool and meat production recovered from the rabbit onslaught to the tune of $68 million.

The impact of myxomatosis gradually declined over time as both the myxoma virus and the rabbit population changed genetically and a new rabbit control agent, calicivirus, was introduced in the 1980s.
Its impact has generally been greatest in arid and semi-arid zones, with a lesser effect in   wetter areas.
Scientists are also aware that because myxomatosis was only effective for 15 to 20 years, rabbits could also become resistant to calicivirus.

Whether it was a solemn duty or a passion for fishing that motivated Governors to visit the remote and isolated regions of Omeo is unknown.
It is also unknown as to whether the vice-regals and their parties hunted, shot, or even saw any rabbits, or were even aware of the desperate struggle that was being undertaken.

One thing is for certain, however.
The rabbit war continues.



References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/

The producer supports the intellectual property rights of others and every reasonable effort has been made to respect the historical significance of images used.

Where the attempt to locate copyright owners has not been successful, the producer apologises for any accidental infringement where copyright has proved untraceable, and has made every attempt to respect the historical significance of images used.





Omeo, Cars, Trucks and Bikes

In Omeo’s early years , the only method of transport in the  region was by horse or bullock.
Supplies had to be brought into the town by pack-horse and it was only in summer months that bullock drays could make the journey.
There were no roads, there were no bridges.
Loads had to be taken off and reloaded time and time again to enable the team to get through the mud and get up steep inclines. And wheels had to be continually chocked to stop the wagon rolling backwards.
The entire trip was hazardous.


On the tops of ridges, there was always the danger of going over the edge. Some hills were so steep that the only way of going down safely was to tie a tree behind to steady the wagon.
Creeks and rivers had to be continually crossed and horses and bullocks had to be rested along the journey, sometimes for days.
Bullocks were used to haul heavily laden wagons over some of the roughest roads and tracks in the country.


A good all-weather road system within the Omeo Shire, and beyond, was vital to its residents.
The town was always hindered and hampered by its isolation. It was not only always a task to get equipment to the area, but also to get funding from a state government so far away.

If the council was not battling against the elements – rain, snow, flooding, and bushfires, it was fighting state bureaucracy for necessary funds to carry out vital infrastructure works.

At the time Omeo was declared a township on April 7, 1885, a road, albeit the worst in the state, was in place connecting it with Bairnsdale.

The road, however, was barely fit for horses and bullock wagons, the latter frequently becoming bogged in wet weather. Flooding in the Tambo Valley regularly made the road impassable, and bridges were frequently washed away.

Over the coming years, construction of the Omeo Highway was to prove to be one of the toughest road construction projects in Australia, and one of the most costly per mile.

In August of 1890, Omeo streets and roads were named. They took their names from local eminent citizens and local councillors. Bazley Street, Bilton Street, Coughlan Street, Crisp Street, Gill Street, Hamilton Street, McCoy Street, and Margetts Street were all named by sitting councillors.



By the turn of the century, although constantly battling a lack of funds, the Omeo Shire had put hundreds of miles of roadway in place, and most streams had been bridged. The roads, however, were still bad, with construction being limited to the use of local material, as gravel could not be hauled long distances by horses and drays.

Horse teams were now being used to transport goods on the Omeo road, rather than bullocks. These proved faster, and were often provided by local farmers along the route. Bullock teams were reserved for carting heavier loads.

In 1905, a government regulation, the Width of Tyre Act was brought in requiring all vehicles to have tyres of a certain width, according to the load carried.
The Act was implemented with the aim of trying to avoid heavily laden vehicles travelling with thin tyres, and hence cutting up the road surfaces. It required heavy enforcing, and over time, did little good, with the mostly dirt roads eventually having to be strengthened with the inclusion of road metal.

By the time the first cars began to appear on roads in the region, the condition of roads was far from ideal. They were unsealed, and still prone to damage from rain, and flooding.



In time, however, motorcars began to appear on roads in the area.

At first, people were sceptical, and they were regarded as something of a menace.
Horses were scared of these noisy, strange-shaped, creatures,  and often frequently bolted causing many accidents.

The motorcar was here to stay, however, and when it did arrive and its popularity grew, it began to change Omeo people’s lives.

In 1912, one of the first cars to visit was a vehicle owned by Syme of the Melbourne Age and driven by Mr Clive Watson of Bruthen.
The car was a Sheffield Simplex with a fixed gear that allowed it to race along the flat country, but unfortunately, stop on the hills, resulting in a six hour climb over the Tongio Gap.

State Governor's visit to Omeo, 1912.

State Governor’s visit to Omeo, 1912.


In 1916, the first permanent motor mail service was  established , replacing the old horse-drawn coach.
Mr J. (“Jimmy”) Marriott was awarded the contract to carry mail between Omeo and Bruthen.
This new mode of service was a wonderful improvement for the residents, but because of the condition of the roads, and the mechanical reliability of his cars, Mr Marriott had a great deal of trouble connecting with the train at Bruthen.
Sometimes the cars failed to reach Omeo at all, because of bad weather.



Attempts were made to improve the service, by having the train delayed and the time of departure from Omeo made earlier (6 am), thus allowing the mail cars eight hours to reach Bruthen.
The Postal Department approved the altered train timetable in 1918, but reliability was still an issue.
The often overloaded mail car frequently broke down, requiring the driver to make mechanical repairs along the way, and in bad weather, the roads were so bad, vehicles often became bogged.

In 1919, Mr Fred Condon, Mr Peter McCoy and Mr James Holston were the proud owners of the first three private motor cars in the district.


In 1921, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria held their first reliability rally in the Omeo Shire.



Notices and warnings to drivers were posted along the road from Bruthen to Sunnyside, and local residents journeyed for some distance to watch the cars pass through.
All cars were laden with an array of spare parts, drivers being wary of the reputation of the region’s roads. Many had to call on the road foreman with his horses after succumbing to the Glen Wills – Sunnyside section of the route.



In 1923, the Alpine Transport Coy., started operations between Bruthen and Omeo, using Sentinel steam wagons.
Drivers of horse-drawn vehicles protested at the introduction of these steam trucks.
Horses were scared to pass or go near the hissing steam machines.

The first stream powered truck arrived in Omeo in 1932, carrying 14 containers of kerosene tins.




The steam trucks made a difference, but only enjoyed limited success.
Improvements in motor-powered trucks meant better reliability and faster transport, and consequently, they began to be the mode of choice, although horse wagons and an occasional bullock wagon still handled most of the heavy cartage for a time.


There were very few cars privately owned in the district.
Kracke’s store has purchased a motor truck and was the first to venture out as a motorist.
Mr J.O.Holston soon followed, but always rode a horse if he was in a hurry.

T model Fords were the most popular of the private cars, giving excellent service considering the rough state of the roads.



The first motor truck was purchased for use on the roads by the Omeo Shire, but it was some years before motor vehicles superseded the horses and drays for road works

Motor spirit (petrol), was sold in four-gallon tins, and in 1923, the Shire received applications from A.W.Newlands, Taylor Bros., Ensay, and Sandy’s Stores, Swifts Creek, for permission to install petrol pumps.


In 1927, motor vehicles were now more numerous on the highway, and Messrs T. Doolan, L. Pendergast, W. Kracke, S.N. Clark and Taylor Bros were operating commercial vehicles.



In the early 1930’s, Lorrel (Lorrie) Kracke  rode  the first motorbike to Omeo.
Children were running up and down the street sniffing petrol, such was the excitement generated.


The modern era had arrived, and Omeo and its surrounding districts were no longer as isolated as in the past.
Gradually roads and motoring facilities were improved,  for residents, travellors, traders, and tourists benefited all.




Circa 1932, the first aeroplane arrived Omeo, 7:15 pm, after a 25 minute flight from Bairnsdale (Written on Benambra House note paper). The type of plane and exact date is uncertain.

References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
“Omeo Standard”newspaper, 1935, 1940.
“The Gap” Magazine, 1924, 1926.
W.A.Kracke, original photographs


The Twisted Tree

I was intrigued by comments about “The Twisted Tree” in my recent Facebook post July 13, 2017, about the pine trees and Mt Mesley, also posted here on this blog.
After a little searching through family archives, I found a couple of my late mother’s old photo’s, labelled “The Crooked Tree”, dated Jan, 1936.
This, in fact turns out to be the better known “Twisted Tree”.
In the pictures are: Olive Kracke (aged 24), Beth McCoy, and Elaine Cowper.

Judging from the Facebook comments, the “Twisted Tree” had many a tale to tell!


Unfortunately, the tree was destroyed in the 2006 fires that engulfed Mt Mesley.


A Medical Chronology

Falling ill or suffering injury no matter to what degree, was a serious business.
From its humble beginnings as a district hospital, the Omeo District Hospital has grown to a modern health facility

Below is a  medical chronology through Omeo’s golden years.


In 1854, an estimated fifty diggers sought their fortunes in the Omeo region.


By 1860, there were approximately six hundred men working on the Livingstone Creek, at what was to become the town of Omeo.


Omeo, circa 1862

The town, once described as the roughest and toughest goldfield in Australia, consisted of a collection of tents and log huts. The Commissioner and his troopers had a few tents and a couple of huts, and the iconic Golden Age Hotel was no more than a log and slab construction with a shingle roof.

Gradually,   more people arrived, and buildings, with slab walls and shingle or bark roofs, appeared along the twisting cart track that was to become Day Avenue.

It wasn’t long before the town had stores, hotels, a butcher shop, boarding house, blacksmith, and even a cafe. The Omeo Log Gaol was built.


Omeo’s first council meeting was held.

The only medical person on the gold field was an unqualified practitioner by the name of Robert J. Fisher.

Falling ill or suffering injury no matter to what degree, was a serious business.

Following the council meeting, Dr Warren, Omeo’s first qualified resident doctor, commenced practise.


Omeo was declared a township on April 7, 1885.


Omeo had no water supply system and no galvanised tanks, with rooftop water being collected in wells. As a result, diseases such as typhoid, scarlet fever and diphtheria were common with many deaths.


The erection of a hospital was proposed, and fund-raising efforts were conducted.

The Public Health Department requested a report on the Omeo Hospital site and also requested that the council form a road to the hospital by the time it was completed. Council agreed.

A site for the proposed hospital was selected, and the Public Health Department requested a report on it, as well as a request that the council form a road to the hospital by the time it was completed. Council agreed.

Dr Diamond took up practice and was appointed Health Officer.


Hospital Fund-raising


The selected site for the proposed hospital was reserved. The hospital was incorporated on  October 19, 1891.


Australia was hit by a recession. The boom had burst. The Omeo Council was caught out with a 5,000 pounds overdraft.
To put this into perspective, the cost to build a four bedroom house was 100 pounds.

A motion was put forward in the Omeo Council that no further grants be made to the hospital until the committee provided beds.
The committee had their setbacks when the boom burst, and had not been able to find the finance to equip the hospital.
The motion was challenged on the grounds that the committee had no chance of finding beds without funds. Eventually 10 pounds was granted.


Dr A.M.Ford and Dr J.L.Henderson were appointed Medical Officers.


Dr J.L.Fenton was appointed Responsible Medical Officer.

The hospital had a daily average of three patients.


The Health Dept forwarded plans for a new wing to be built at the Omeo Hospital.

The barn-like structure was completed, but was short of staff, accommodation and conveniences.
Most admitted patients were filled more with the fear of death than with the prospects of ever being cured.
Dr Fenton resigned as Health Officer, and Dr J.R.Lee, who would later become a Harley St., London, surgeon, was appointed.


Omeo Comedy Club was formed, active for forty years to come. The Hospital funds benefited from their activities.

The hospital had accommodation for eight male and six female patients.


After the decline of mining in 1911, the Omeo Hospital was in financial difficulties. The council granted 100 pounds to help keep it open.

Hospitalization was still very primitive, and the local medical officer would not do any surgical work.
By the time any urgent cases reached Sale or Bairnsdale, they were in such a state that they were extremely lucky to survive.
No provision was made at the local hospital for maternity cases, these being handled by so-called midwives in their private homes.


A night nurse was employed, with a tent made available as a bedroom for her.


For some years, Omeo had been able to keep two doctors busy. The population had so dwindled that a doctor could not be found to take up the practice.

Public meetings were called in all built-up areas of the Shire, to arrange for a public guarantee that a doctor would be paid a subsidy to practise in the district.

Dr Woinarski eventually took over the practice from Dr Tulloh, but never called on the guarantors; his earnings were evidently satisfactory.

The Public Health Dept ordered that all premises being used as maternity hospitals be registered, and that such premises must comply  with the Health Act.

Several women were conducting maternity hospitals in their own homes; one was also receiving patients at the Hilltop Hotel. The Health Dept condemned these arrangements and insisted on the council enforcing the Act.

One private home complied with the conditions of the Act, but had accommodation for only two patients.
The problem was beyond the control of the council.
Some years later, a maternity wing was established at the hospital, and this solved the problem.


Dr Woinarski resigned as health officer. Dr Luke was appointed. The Shire gave him a guarantee of a minimum income from the practice of 800 pounds per annum.


Dr Luke resigned as M.O. of Health, and Dr McCarthy was appointed.


The total population of the Shire was now 2,369 people, an average of one person per square mile – an all-time low since the Shire had started to function.

The medical officer applied for a guarantee of 800 pounds a year. Dr McCarthy considered the Omeo practice no longer payable. No action was taken. Many people were seeking medical treatment elsewhere and the councillors considered no guarantee was justified.


Staff at the hospital included Matron Trantor and Nurse Doolan. Dr C. Langdon was the medical officer.





Standing: Dr C. Langdon, Matron Tranter, Nurse Doolan,
Front: Dorrie Kracke,  ….?….,  Zillah Kracke





The Bush Nursing Centres had been operating at Benambra, Swift’s Creek and Ensay districts for several years, and they had provided a very worthwhile service.

Road travel was by no means reliable, and with no ambulance available, a patient often had to wait a whole day before the doctor could arrive.

The bush nurse, although often travelling on horseback, was readily available to give first aid.

With the improvement of the roads and the increasing reliability of motor vehicles resulting in the establishment of an ambulance service, the need of the bush nursing service somewhat diminished.

The Benambra centre eventually closed, but Swift’s Creek and Ensay retained their centres and provided temporary accommodation for patients. These centres also provided facilities for the medical practitioner when he made his regular visits to the districts.


An infectious diseases ward was built on the hospital ground.
No heating arrangements were provided and both patients and nurses suffered from extreme cold during winter.
The walls were constructed of calico and the wind would rock the whole flimsy structure.

Many complaints were lodged by the patients, but the council would not spend the money to improve conditions.

The position was shocking and the patients had to face the ordeal of being cooped up under conditions that could only aggravate their sufferings. The council would demand payment for this treatment.







The building of a maternity wing at the hospital was supported by the council.









The treatment of infectious diseases was still being handled in a very primitive manner. The council paid the hospital committee four shillings per day per patient, the hospital committee finding nurse, food and drugs, etc.
This regrettable lack of consideration for the unfortunate patients took some years to remedy, and the Public Health Dept did nothing to improve the situation.

It was little wonder that most patients refused to pay for the treatment received.


Council faced with shortage of money because of the worldwide recession.

The health inspector’s services were dispensed with and the Medical Officer of Health had his salary cut by 20 pounds.

The first maternity hospital was opened.
It was built on the grounds of the Omeo District Hospital with funds provided under the will of the late John Miller.
The new wing was named the Lady Mitchell wing, and it was the first time in almost a hundred years that such a facility was available in the Shire.




Cr Langdon, the Honorary Medical Officer, reported very adversely on the present accommodation made available by the council for the treatment of infectious diseases.

He urged that the council proceed with a campaign to have all children in the Shire immunized against diptheria.
The result of this drive greatly reduced the incidence of this disease which had been a scourge in the Shire for over sixty years.

Cr. Langdon also urged that an isolation block be constructed of solid materials, and heating and a kitchen block be provided. This proposal was submitted to the Public Works Department, with the request that the funds be made available to proceed with the building.


The Hospital Committee requested that something be done immediately to provide reasonable accommodation for infectious cases, and that a new agreement be drawn up with the council as to payment of treatment costs.

The present rate of 6 shillings per day was inadequate. The hospital had paid travelling expenses and salary for special nurses to care for the recent diphtheria cases, and the average daily bed cost had to been 15 shillings per day. Both staff and patients had complained about the primitive accommodation.

Dr. C.S.B.Langdon gave notice of his intention to retire.

Dr Heard was appointed M.O. to the Shire.

Dr Gordon Little took up practice in Omeo and was appointed M.O. to the Shire.


The Omeo Hospital was completely burned out, including the new infectious diseases wing.
Patients and staff were evacuated to the Hilltop Hotel, then under construction, but as yet, without a roof.

Dr Little did a good job and had to work under most difficult circumstances. The chemist shop and hospital being destroyed, he had very limited amounts of drugs and bandages, but somehow he got through a very busy couple of days.

Rev. Regnier offered the Vicarage and Parish Hall as a temporary hospital.

Within twenty-four hours, beds, bedding, boots, clothes, cooking utensils, drugs, bandages, etc., were to hand.
Sister Hodgson, assisted by nurse Murphy, has a temporary hospital functioning, and within a few days had twenty patients housed.
These didn’t include fire casualties; they had been evacuated to Bairnsdale.

Yet another effort was required: the Omeo Hospital had to be rebuilt.
The secretary, Mr Joe Rennie, who was also the local chemist, had his business premises burnt out and had been hit so hard that he was unable to start up business again.
The hospital books were burnt and records destroyed.

Applications were called for the position of secretary, but without success.

A.M Pearson resigned the position of president and took over the duties of secretary.
Mr T.H.Davison was appointed president and, with the support of a very ken and able committee, the task proceeded.

Leighton Irwin, architect, of Melbourne, drew up plans for the new building; these plans were amended by the president and secretary to suit local conditions and were adopted by the Charities Board.

A site for the new hospital as selected and purchased. When an estimate of costs was received and tenders called, it became apparent that the committee would have to find some thousands of pounds to meet the cost involved. This did not deter the committee from proceeding with the building, and by the time the structure was completed all but 1500 pounds of the total cost of the building, furnishings and equipment was in hand.


Hospital Fund-raising



A new and modern hospital, together with nurses’ quarters, was officially opened by Mr C.L. McVilley, M.C. Inspector of Charities, early in 1940.




The council was now faced with the task of building another infectious diseases block at the hospital.
Because of excessive costs, the work on the buildings was eventually done by day labour, with concrete bricks made in the Shire yard.
Some of the heating that involved copper pipes was not completed until after the war.


An Infant Welfare Sister was appointed to the Shire, and eventually Omeo and Tambo Shires combined and a regular infant welfare service was instituted, a sister travelling throughout the remote areas of both shires.


Dr Little resigned and abandoned his practice at Omeo.

The Director of Emergency Services appointed Dr Roman Zeeher to set up a practice at Omeo.


A dedicated doctor’s residence was provided by the Omeo Council.


Dr Roman Zeeher resigned as medical officer, and Dr E. Jan was elected to the position.


An ambulance service was started in the Shire, the ambulance being housed at the Omeo Hospital and driven by volunteer drivers.


A new agreement between the council and the hospital committee to treat infectious cases was entered into, the price being 7 pounds, 16 shillings and 3 pence per day.


Omeo Hospital Equipment Fund benefited by 2,000 pounds, and the Omeo Baby Health Centre benefited by 600 pounds, both bequeathed by the late Cr. J.O. Holsten.


Dr Howell resigned as medical officer to the Shire.


Dr J.B. Hawke was appointed medical officer to the Shire.


Dr Hawke resigned as medical officer, and Dr Cantwell was appointed to the position.


Since the resignation of Dr Cantwell, Dr Hansen took up practice after some months delay.


From its humble beginnings as a district hospital, incorporated in 1891, the Omeo District Hospital has grown to a modern health facility, fully renovated and officially opened in December 2005.

Omeo District Health now services an area of 5,567 square kilometres, encompassing Omeo as well as numerous small communities such as Cassilis, Bindi, Benambra, Glen Wills and Anglers Rest.



Echoes From The Mountains by A.M.Pearson
Omeo’s Golden Year by Dianne Carroll ISBN: 0 646 183052

Omeo District Health: http://odh.net.au/




The Pine Trees of Mt Mesley

A fascinating article published in The Gap magazine, dated 1924.

If you have wondered where the pine trees on the slopes of Mt Mesley came from, and why they are there, here’s the answer.

As described in the article, fifty acres extending from the frontage of the Livingstone Creek, some distance up the slopes of Mt Mesley was secured for the establishment of a pine plantation.

The planting of 1200 Pinus Insignis trees began in 1924.
Two acres of land were allocated for the 1924 school year, and the job was undertaken by senior boys and girls from Omeo State School.


Senior students tree-planting


The original article


Here’s the context of the article:


The residents of Omeo have undertaken the work of constructing a pine plantation for the benefit of the local school, and for this purpose, an area of fifty acres, extending from the frontage of the Livingstone Creek, some distance up the sloping sides of Mt Mesley, has been secured.

A school concert was held to defray the cost of wire and netting to be used in fencing, and the posts were donated by the local progress association.
The erection of the fence was carried out by “working bees’.

An area of two acres was fenced this year, and the work of planting the 1200 Pinus Insignis trees, obtained from the State Nursery, was done by the senior boys and girls of the school, under the supervision of the head teacher. It was found that 30 children can dig holes for and plant 200 young trees in three hours.

 This work proved pleasant and interesting, and there was keen rivalry between the various groups of children, regarding not only the quantity but the quality of the work. The children, working in twos, soon became expert tree-planters.

Two additional acres are to be planted each year, until the whole area is planted. The plantation is in a prominent position, and although the main objects are to provide a school endowment, and to assist the State in the production of softwoods, within a very short time the scenic effect will be noticeable.

– D.Furey.

Mr D Furey was the school principal.



Omeo State School





Pictures are from The Gap School Magazine, 1924.


First Gold Discovery

In 1833, a Galicia-born Austrian naturalist named Johan Lhotsky arrived in Sydney. He was an author and artist, specializing in botany, geology, geography, zoology, and politics.
Lhotsky was born of Czech parents, and after studying in Munich, returned home to find his country under the rule of the Tsar of Russia.

Lhotsky escaped a bloody revolt against the Russian oppressors, and fled to Munich, where he excelled in biological and zoological research to the extent that he was awarded a grant by Ludwig I of Bavaria to explore and describe the ‘new world’.
After a period in South America, he landed in Australia.

Lhotsky arrived in Australia virtually broke, and after having no luck in applying for the job of Colonialist Zoologist, tried unsuccesfully to make a living by giving lectures.

Although Lhotsky was outspokenly critical of the Governor of the day, he managed to convince the Administration that be given a commission to explore and document the unknown lands to the south of Sydney. Four convicts were assigned to his party.

Lhotsky’s first stop was in what is now the Canberra region of New South Wales. He spent some time there staying at Limestone Cottage, the homestead of Robert Campbell.

During this time Lhotsky documented in detail the Kimberley Plains and the Molonglo River Valley. He befriended local Aboriginal tribes and compiled a dictionary of the language of the Monaro tribe.
This was the first time such a dictionary of the indigenous population had been done.

Heading further south and guided by local Aborigines, Lhotsky arrived at Cuma Hut, the present-day site of Cooma.
He then proceeded around Mt Kosciosko, to the present location of Jindabyne, where he crossed and named the Snowy River.

Although the end point of Lhotsky’s journey is unknown, he is credited with having reached the Livingstone Creek at the present location of Omeo.

Lhotsky’s convict companions refused to travel further south because of dwindling rations, and he was forced to retreat, and head back to Sydney.

At some point on the Livingstone Creek, Lhotsky found an ounce of gold, washed from the sand.


He returned to Sydney in 1834, where it is said he smelted the gold into buttons, and paraded the streets.

Lhotsky again tried in vain to apply for the vacant position of Colonial Zoologist after having brought back a comprehensive collection of botanical, zoological and mineral specimens.

He was eventually employed by a Sydney newspaper and began agitating the Governor and Administration, to the extent that the newspaper became unpopular, and his creditors began chasing him.

Lhotsky managed to escape his creditors, and in 1835, along with much of his specimens, left Sydney, only to appear in Hobart.

He again fell into financial difficulty, and with his fare paid for by friends, returned to London.

Lhotsky died at the Dalston German Hospital in London on 23 November 1866 in apparent dire poverty.

Ref. and further reading: Echoes From The Mountains by A.M.Pearson.