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Boarding house chemistry: a romance

The Boarding House, and former Teacher’s Barracks at Pemberton (photo courtesy of Joanna Drake)

A young man starting out on a life in forestry in the late 1950s faced two big challenges.

The first of these was that nobody, including usually the young man himself, knew anything about forestry – from the viewpoint of one’s schooling and life experience up to that moment, it was virgin territory. But that story – my education as a forester – can be set aside for another day.

The second great challenge for a young forester was looking after himself in one-horse towns somewhere deep in the forest country of the South-west. One of the conditions attached to my Forestry Scholarship was to work for the Forests Department during all of my university vacations. This meant living in one of the Department’s single men’s camps, and batching. So, before my first day at University and only a couple of months after my 17th birthday, I was instructed to travel to Dwellingup and join a forestry gang and work there over the summer until university commenced in March the following year. On arrival I was pointed in the direction of the single men’s camp, across the yard beyond the office, and down behind the sawmill.

I had never looked after myself in my entire life up until that moment, and I had been given no training in the essential life-skills involved. When it came to cooking and household duties at home, this had been done by my mother, with a lot of help from my father, who did all the family washing, made the school lunches, peeled the potatoes and “did the beans” at the kitchen table after work. He also invariably did the washing up at night after the evening meal. As soon as I was old enough, I did the drying up, later helped by my younger brother, but this was the start and finish of my domestic duties. My mother was an efficient and skilful cook, and my two elder sisters both became excellent cooks from an early age under my mother’s tutelage. I wasn’t completely ignorant: my grandfather had taught me to make johnny cake (a sort of fried damper) and toffee, and I could make toast and open tins, but that was about it.

My mother in action at the kitchen stove in about 1960

To give an idea of my culinary ineptitude, on my first night in the single men’s camp at Dwellingup, I had to go to the next-door hut and ask the occupant for his advice on how to boil potatoes. These were in a box of provisions my mother had packed for me. The man in the next-door hut gave me the recipe, and on that first night of batching I (eventually) had quite a fair repast: fried sausages, boiled potatoes and a tin of pineapple.

The bloke next door was very good to me over succeeding weeks. He was the first person to teach me the elements of cookery, and I learnt to boil and scramble eggs and other gastronomic refinements. This chap was some sort of remittance man, or perhaps he was on the run from the law. Most of the residents of the single men’s camp at Dwellingup at that time were rough bushmen, but my neighbour was beautifully spoken and well-educated. Each evening after a day’s hard work in the bush or the sawmill, he would come home, have a hot bath, change and then cook a substantial meal, like a roast dinner or a stew, the aroma of which would drift tantalisingly across to my hut, to mingle there with the that of boiled potatoes and fried sausages.

This phase of my batching career had some notable disasters. A low point was the night I decided that fried rice would be very good, put on the frying pan and heated up the dripping, and then tipped in the rice straight out of the packet. It browned up quite nicely, but you would have needed teeth and jaws like the rock crushers at the State Battery at Leonora to make a meal of it.

A great advance in my batching career came when my mother gave me her old copy of The CWA Cookbook, and I found to my amazement that if I followed the instructions, and if I was prepared to put a bit of effort into it, I could actually make quite a decent meal. The principal difficulty was never having the ingredients for a promising recipe, and there were ingredients I had never heard of, or thought were the same thing, like baking powder and baking soda. I remember once going into the grocery store at Dwellingup and asking the man behind the counter for one egg, which I needed for a recipe I was planning to cook that night. He looked at me briefly and then asked: “To eat here, or take away?”

Four years later, by then having finished my forestry studies and been appointed to the staff of the Forests Department on the lowest rung of the professional staff, I spent time in various single men’s camps around the South-west, including Mundaring Weir, Harvey and Dwellingup. It was while I was at Harvey that I witnessed one of the most revolting bits of batching I had ever seen. My mate Frank Batini was living in one of the other huts, and one evening I popped around for a chat just as he was cooking his evening meal. He was grilling chops in his electric toaster. Hot fat dripped from the machine onto the table, and thick smoke, shot through with darts of flame, coiled up to the roof of his hut. Nearby, on a cord from a double-adaptor, he had the contents of a tin of peas bubbling in his electric kettle. I felt that here was a man from whom even I could learn nothing of the niceties of the culinary art.

Late in 1963 I was transferred to Pemberton, where I was in charge of a group of trainee field staff, and also working as a junior forester under the direction of that great man Barney White. Being a single officer, I lived in the small hut under a spreading cork oak tree, just down the hill from the office, known as the SOQ, or Single Officer’s Quarters. The hut was three metres by four, with a wood stove, a bed, a table and chair and a door and a window. I had a blue heeler cattle dog at the time by the name of Cassius, who accompanied me everywhere, and things used to get quite cramped in the hut when both of us were inside at the same time. The hut was small, but not as small as one Barney had lived in once – it was so cramped, he told me, he had to open the window to put on his jacket.

A forester and his dog, surveying regeneration in the karri forest

For a while I did my own cooking on the wood stove, but it wasn’t much fun, especially as I often used to get home late and in the dark, having missed the shops, and I had nothing as sophisticated as a fridge, let alone a microwave. It seemed to rain every evening in those days at Pemberton, and dry wood for the stove was always at a premium. I fell into the bad habit of eating mostly tinned food and bread and butter.

One day one of the blokes in the forestry gang took pity on me: “Why don't you eat at the Boarding House?” he said. “You can get a three-course meal there for 2/6 and they’ll also give you breakfast and cut you a crib”. So that night I headed down to McCall’s Boarding House, at the misty end of town, just across from the mill.

Looking down the main street of Pemberton on a winter morning, towards the misty end of town

Country town boarding houses were a wonderful institution. They largely filled the niche now occupied by the motel, or the Bed and Breakfast accommodation. Almost every large country town had a boarding house when I was a young man. They provided an alternative to living at the pub, and a “home-away-from-home” for itinerant businessmen, travelling salesmen, schoolteachers, bank johnnies and various single men and women. The speciality of the boarding house was a cheap room and cheap meals, but they also had a certain ambience about them; this was positive or negative depending on the personality of the landlady. I heard about a boarding house at Manjimup in which conversation at the dinner table was forbidden, but the ones I knew were clean, happy, bustling places with friendly staff and opportunities for fun and games.

At that time Pemberton had two large boarding houses. These were great rambling old weatherboard and iron-roofed buildings, with a huge kitchen and dining room, a rabbit warren of single rooms and a unique backyard ecosystem of old stables, giant woodheaps, rusty implements and puddled yards around which dwelt a variety of cats, dogs, chooks, rats and snakes which lived off food scraps and each other. The boarding houses did a thriving business. In those days, Pemberton was a prosperous town by most rural standards, with a large sawmill providing full employment, several banks, a district forestry headquarters, a junior high school, trout hatcheries, national parks and a well-established horticultural industry. All of this was serviced by a cadre of travelling salesmen, single schoolteachers, bank officers, fisheries and forestry officers, policemen and visiting public servants, and most of these lived or ate at a boarding house. In addition, there was a small band of old retired timber workers who lived in the huts behind the mill, and who like me, discovered that life was so much easier when you ate at the boarding house. Not only were the meals substantial, tasty and cheap, but there was no shopping to be done, no cooking and no washing up. The latter was always a trial when you lived in a single man’s hut, because the huts didn’t have a sink (or any form of plumbing), so you had to wash your dishes in an enamel basin on the table and then set them to dry on a tin tray. This completed, tradition demanded that the waste water be tossed straight out the door.

After only one night’s test run at the boarding house, I re-arranged my life completely. Henceforth I continued to live in the SOQ, but I had my evening meal and breakfast each day at the boarding house, and they made me a crib, which I picked up after breakfast, and took out to the bush with me in a box in the rear of my forestry jeep. (If I put it on the passenger seat, Cassius would sit or trample on it, as this was his preferred spot). All of this cost me less than five shillings (50 cents) a day, so you couldn’t complain about the cost.

At McCall’s Boarding House, you entered by stepping right off the front verandah into the dining room. This was a large low-ceilinged room, poorly lit, and made darker by polished jarrah flooring and oiled dado walls. Beyond was the kitchen with its great cooking table and massive wood-fired range. After I had insinuated myself with the cook (who was also the landlady), I was always allowed to eat my breakfast in the kitchen, which I loved to do on winter mornings. I would eat my bacon and eggs in a glorious atmosphere of warmth and the heavy aromas of hot fat, bacon and coffee, and look through the window at the rain sheeting down across distant hills. The cook, a jolly, buxom Englishwoman with mighty arms and curly hair, would chatter away cheerfully to me, as she bustled about preparing the breakfasts for the other guests, who mostly came in later than me.

The Pemberton Backpacker Hostel photographed in 2022 – little changed from the days when it was McCalls Boarding House (photo courtesy of Joanna Drake)

On my first night at the Boarding House, I was immediately introduced to the rules of the place. The first was that meals were served “on the dot”. If you were late, you missed out. On the dot, you were expected to be seated, with knife and fork poised; the kitchen door would swing open and out would come the young ladies employed as waitresses, neatly uniformed, bearing steaming plates of food to the tables. I was eventually able to win a small concession on the “on the dot” rule, being allowed a slightly later evening meal on the nights I went to football training after work. The boarding house staff were all fanatical supporters of the local football team.

The second rule involved seating arrangements. There were four large tables in the dining room, and you couldn’t just sit where you liked. You were allocated to a table by the management – and there was a rigid hierarchy. The table nearest the door (“Table One”) was for casuals – tourists, for example, or people not known to the staff who just popped in off the street for a meal. I started there. Table Two was for travelling salesmen. These were regulars who came in on their circuits of the bush, and would turn up like clockwork on the third Monday of the month or whatever, as they moved around the country towns soliciting buyers for their wares from the local shopkeepers. There was a surprising number of these people – their table was nearly always full.

After a night or two as a casual, I graduated to Table Three. This was closest to the kitchen, and was reserved for local regulars, mostly the old retired mill workers and one or two bachelor shopkeepers, including “Rick”, whose real name I never knew, but who was the manager of the Mill Store. Rick was said to have a wife and family in Perth, but he never mentioned them, and mostly would sit at the end of the table in morose silence, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Table Three also boasted the presence of Old Paddy, the boarding house’s odd job man. Paddy spent most of his lifetime chopping wood for the kitchen and the hot water system. He was a tireless worker. Over many decades of chopping from dawn to dusk, he had got well ahead of the demand for wood, and his pile of chopped mill ends had developed into a pyramid that Ramses II would not have been sorry to call his own. Another Table Three regular was Alec Evans, who for many years had been in charge of building the logging railways that ran out from the mill. Alec had a fund of wonderful bush yarns, and could endlessly entertain me.

But it was to Table Four that I aspired. They were all young people, mostly schoolteachers, but also a bank johnny and a fisheries officer, all about my age. Every night I would watch from afar as they skylarked, roared with laughter, flirted, chatted, and generally had a grand time. One young lady caught my eye immediately, with her flashing brown eyes and charming manner, and my interest in moving tables intensified. I put in for the first available transfer to Table Four. This I eventually achieved, but not until the start of the new school year a few months later.

I loved the substantial and tasty evening meals at the boarding house, especially the hearty roast dinner followed by steam pudding with custard, but breakfast was my favourite. It was invariably bacon and eggs. Perhaps there were other options, but I never felt the need to inquire. They were cooked in a huge black frying pan, containing about 5 centimetres of bubbling fat, into which the eggs and the bacon slices would be plunged. When breakfast was over, the frying pan would be simply set aside and the fat would congeal, ready for re-heating to boiling point the next day. I don’t know about the healthiness of all this, but I do know that nothing has ever tasted as good as those deep-fried eggs and bacon, eaten in a warm kitchen on a winter morning, as a watery sun pierced the misty morning smog which hung low over the sawmill, just across the road.

Just before Christmas in my first year at Pemberton, school broke up and all the teachers suddenly departed. A gloomy silence fell over the dining room at the boarding house, broken only by the old-man-eating noises made by Paddy, who would wolf down his meals as if every one was his last. Paddy also had an unattractive way of buttering three slices of bread at once by laying them up his left arm, and applying the butter with his right with a sweeping flourish, rather like a concert violinist completing the last bars of a Beethoven sonata.

Luckily, I didn’t have time to become depressed by this new situation. At this moment Barney asked me to transfer for the summer down to Northcliffe to take charge of the next phase of the survey and construction of the Northcliffe-Walpole Road (today known as the Chesapeake Road). In those days, Northcliffe was an unsophisticated little town, especially compared with the bustling metropolis of Pemberton. It had a pub, but no boarding house. So, moving to Northcliffe meant a return to batching, which I undertook in the single officer’s quarters, an iron-roofed weatherboard hut under a pine tree at the back of the forestry depot.

This was the best I ever lived in. It had two rooms, pine lining, electric light, an excellent wood stove and a good supply of dry jarrah firewood brought in for me by the wonderful overseer Mick Evans and his gang. The nights were cold, but Cassius could be relied upon to hop up onto my bed as soon as the heat from the kitchen stove died away, and he would curl around my feet, and we would keep each other warm. Nor did I lack for entertainment. This took the form of Assistant Forester Jim Loverock, who used to invite himself to tea with me when his wife locked him out for coming home late from the pub, which was surprisingly often. Jim would eat a hearty meal, borrow a cigarette, and settle down to regale me with stories from his young days on the Groups, or his war experiences in 2/11th Battalion in the Middle East or up in “the Islands”. This was better than television.

With the arrival of the autumn rains, I transferred back to Pemberton, and fell back into the routine of living in my hut under the cork oak, learning my trade as a forester, overseeing the cadets, playing football for the local team, and taking my meals at the boarding house. And I wasn’t just going there for the food. The charming young schoolteacher with the flashing brown eyes had returned to Pemberton after the summer vacation and, having achieved a transfer to Table 4, I soon got to know her. Her name was Ellen, and she turned out to be intelligent, vivacious and beautiful, and to share my love of the bush and my sense of values and humour. She even seemed to return my interest in her!

One day I made an uncharacteristically bold move. I was constructing a new road down in the Dombakup Forest at the time, and needed to pop out on a Saturday afternoon to check on the culverts after a heavy downpour. On my way I stopped at the Boarding House and knocked on Ellen's door, and when she appeared I mentioned I was off to the bush to check on a new road, and asked if she would she like to come along for the ride. She accepted with alacrity.

The sun came out, and everything sparkled, as it does after rain in the karri forest. There was a marvellous sense of promise in the air. We had a splendid walk in the bush, chatting happily, making those little discoveries about each other that new friends do. The same evening, we went on our first date, to "the pictures" (as they were still called in those days) in the old Pembi Cinema (now long gone) to see Breakfast at Tiffany's. Ever since then, Moon River has been ‘our song’.

Where it all started: my forestry jeep on the new road in Dombakup Forest, autumn 1964, the day of our first date

And so a great romance began. There was a joyful chemistry at work. Love blossomed and it was as if it was the first blossom, in the first spring, of the first year.

From then on, we were inseparable, especially on weekends when we used to go exploring down along the coast, or take trips across to Augusta or down to Walpole, even venturing as far as Albany. We ate our meals side-by-side at Table Four in the boarding house, talking long after the others had left, and danced together at the football socials and balls. Then (as now), we could always make each-other laugh, that essential ingredient in a love affair. We even, daringly for those days, cooked a meal together for ourselves on the wood stove in my hut. This was Ellen’s first exposure to the depths of my culinary incompetence, but to her credit, she was uncritical, appreciative of my efforts as a chef (as she is to this day), but not beyond putting forward the odd gentle point of advice.

Courting days: dressed up to the nines at a formal ball

Our backgrounds were very different, and in many ways, we were very different people, but the differences seemed to complement each other, to create interest. And we had many shared interests, especially the love of the bush and the coast, and of animals, books, poetry, music, history, adventure.

At the end of 1964, Ellen was transferred to Perth to commence the 1965 school year teaching at Mt Lawley State School, and I was transferred back to Dwellingup to wind up the cadet’s training course, so that we met only at weekends when I would drive up to the city. In addition to my work with the cadets, I was also, at that time, pursuing my ambition to go back to University to further my education. My eyes had turned to opportunities in the USA. Eventually I was accepted to study for a Master’s degree at the University of Washington. The Fall Term started in September 1965, and I would be away for at least two years, possibly five years if I decided to go on to a PhD.

As the time for departure drew near, nothing yet had been resolved between us about our future. I have always been hopeless at making personal commitments, being someone who likes to keep his options open, and I found it hard to imagine what might or should be done. Eventually, Ellen took things into her hands, as she has so often done since. I will never forget how one day we were sitting on the grass at Hyde Park, trying to ignore Cassius who was rounding up and terrifying the ducks, and she came out with her own bold move: "Roger" she said, "it's time to decide what we are going to do. I could wait until you return from America, or maybe I couldn't ... or maybe we could get together and share this adventure, and other adventures to come".... or words to that effect.

Instantly, it dawned on me. This was more than a proposition, it was a proposal. Jeepers, I thought, its commitment time!

And, of course, I agreed (with alacrity). It was all settled in a heartbeat, and later I wondered why I had ever had any doubts about what should happen, or when.

The plan was that I would go over to Seattle and get started on my studies, test the financial waters and see what might be possible. Everything went well, and in 1966, Ellen joined me there. We were married on April 9th, which was also Easter Saturday that year, thereby ensuring that henceforth we could celebrate two wedding anniversaries nearly every year. This we have done, and we are still sharing adventures, love, laughter and tears, 56 years later.

Wedding day: Seattle, Washington, April 1966

Fate had two more tricks to play. When we came back to Perth and I re-joined the Forests Department, I was appointed DFO of the forestry district at Mundaring Weir, where I had started my forestry career. Unfortunately, there was no house available for us, but as we were required to live on the job, we moved into the Single Officer’s Quarters, which like so many others all over the South-west, was a tiny hut crouching beneath the pines at the back of the depot. This was the same hut I had batched in and it was really old – it had been built in the 1920s. The hut had two rooms, but was primitive in the extreme, with an ancient wood stove whose oven did not work, zero furnishing and no hot water. Luckily, we were in love, and we were young, and our expectations were not all that high either. Ellen had been raised on a Group Settlement dairy farm near Manjimup, and she was undismayed by inconvenience or hard work.

The second twist of fate came a year or so later. The phone rang one morning and it was Head Office on the line. “We want you to move south and take up a new position as the Officer in Charge of one of our most important areas. There will be a removal van at your place on Monday and the destination is Pemberton.”

So, with a baby, a dog, and little else, we moved back to Pemberton, shifting into the lovely old DFO House next to the office. This was the very house in which my great friends Barney and Jenny White had lived when I was a single man camping down the road under the cork oak tree. I didn’t mind. I loved Pemberton, and I loved the karri forest, and it seemed to me that the door had opened to another adventure and it would be better yet than any other. For I was no longer just an itinerant forester posted from one single man’s hut to another, but a family, travelling with my woman and my child, and this added value to everything else.

It was raining when we reached Pemberton late on a wintry evening. A chill wind with a whiff of icy grapeshot swept up the valley from the One Mile Brook, and the dark trees around the house dripped and swished. The house was bitterly cold, the stove was out, there was no hot water, and the woodheap was drenched and poorly stocked.

“I wonder if the boarding house is still open,” I said. We didn’t check, but simply laughed, and Ellen decided we could cope if we took things one step at a time, starting with me getting a fire going in the lounge and another in the kitchen stove, which I did. Mind you, I can remember thinking to myself at the time that a great frying pan full of bacon and eggs, hot from the range in the boarding house kitchen, and maybe followed by a roast dinner and steamed pudding with custard, would have gone down rather well.

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