Oral history project full steam ahead
RAE Norris has heard a few stories in her time.
But few have fascinated the Gympie historian as much as the ones she's hearing from former workers on the old Mary Valley railway line.
Dr Norris is capturing the oral history of the rail link through research, photographs and interviews with a selection of employees who worked the line from the mid to late 20th century.
Trains ran between Gympie, Imbil and Brooloo - and stations in between - carrying passengers, produce and supplies until 1994.
And while the project has been a trip down memory lane for the interviewees, it's opened up a whole new world for the interviewer.
"I've picked up a lot of technical jargon and I've learned an enormous amount," Rae said.
"I'm recording their memories in their own language - it's railway speak from the 1940s onwards.
"It's been wonderful. We've got a good range of occupations from 1949 to 1994. We have people who worked in Gympie and down the Mary Valley in various roles.
"At the start, I naively said we were going to sample all the different (job) categories but you can't possibly do that - there are just so many."
Assisting Rae in the oral history project, which will culminate in an exhibition some time this year, is a small but enthusiastic team comprising local historian Dr Elaine Brown, Mary Valley Heritage Railway committee member Geoff Webber and photographer Tanya Easterby.
Fifteen interviews, of which 11 have already been conducted, will feature in the proposed exhibition along with photographs, including a number of heritage listed buildings along the line, and memorabilia donated by former Gympie and Mary Valley railway workers.
The response to an article in The Gympie Times calling for volunteer interviewees has overwhelmed Rae who says she ended up with a "fantastic array" of people happy to recall their work history.
"For example, we have the memories of former Gympie station master Don Richardson and driver Norm Schafferius," she said.
"Norm kept a diary of every day he worked over a decades-long career. He started as a cleaner of steam engines, worked his way up to a driver and ended as a locomotive inspector.
"A former lad porter, who now lives in Mooloolah, rang me after reading the newspaper article about the project. So did a man from Tasmania who was a porter at Kandanga.
"Three women who worked in the refreshment rooms at the Gympie station - Dawn Doyle, Margaret Soanes and Fay Day - are all still friends today.
"Dawn met her husband Les at work.
"Les started as a lad porter and became a number taker - his job was to work out the loads of the wagons, which he did for the rest of his career. He'd go around with his kero lantern at night checking the wagons.
"We discovered in the course of the interview with the three women that they had photos, including one of a kitchen boy who kept the water boiling and washed the pots and pans.
"We're now trying to talk to him so we can get a full picture of how the catering was carried out in the refreshment rooms."
Other interviewees include Dick Hook, who was a highly-regarded track inspector in Gympie, and Lex Dixon, who started as a lad porter at Imbil and ended up station master. His career then took him elsewhere but he's now living in retirement in the station house at Imbil.
"One of the good outcomes from the newspaper article in The Gympie Times last August was a call I got from Wayne Hewitt whose father was a ganger at Lagoon Pocket," Rae said.
"I went to interview him thinking I was going to be talking to him about his father but Wayne worked signals and points for a few years at Gympie and was able to give me photographs.
"And I'm going to Ipswich soon to talk to somebody who was a guard on the Mary Valley line in the 1960s, so that would have been on the steam trains."
What has impressed Rae about work and travel on the Mary Valley line was its impressive safety record.
"There were very few accidents and incidents on the line in a period of 40 to 50 years," she said.
"Norm Schafferius has written up a piece on why there were so few accidents and how important safe working was.
"Safe working back then was about the safe running of the trains, not the safety of the people working them."
Accommodation for workers along the track was not so impressive.
"It was tents and dirt floors," Rae said.
"We're talking about as recently as the 1970s - there were no conditions in the award about accommodation."
But it took more than a little rough living to break the spirit of the characters who worked the track.
"I've heard some incredible stories and some really funny tales," Rae said.
"They'll often tell me a story and then say, "But you can't tell this one".
"So I have these wonderful stories in my head that I can't include in the exhibition because they're a bit naughty."