It was quite the gathering at the Mount Tarrengower tower’s 100th birthday last Friday, especially when you consider that it was an impromptu event put together in a matter of days. There was a crowd, three fire tower operators, a politician, speeches, a plaque and a cake.
Former fire tower operator Peter Skilbeck pointed out that he had spent almost a third of his life – 26 years – working on top of the tower.
According to Peter, it was only five months between the time that the tower (an old poppet head) was purchased in Bendigo, construction was completed and the tower was opened to the public on 26 January, 1924. It was no easy task. “These days, it’d take longer than that to get a planning permit for the job!” Peter joked.
The Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) owns the tower and upgraded it in 2018 at the cost of $1.48 million. Peter paid tribute to the part that Bendigo West Member Maree Edwards played in securing funds for the upgrade. “At one stage, it looked like the tower might have been dispensed with altogether,” he said.
Peter described how in the early years the first and then the second levels of the tower were used to look out for smoke on days of high fire danger. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a cabin was placed on the top level.
On duty on Black Saturday in 2009, Peter experienced 47 degree heat in the cabin on top of the tower and 135kmh winds. “All I could see was dust until the wind died down,” he said. “Then I could see the fires in Bendigo and Redesdale. I spent the entire day talking to planes, relaying messages. There has been a vast improvement in radio communications since then.”
It may be a solitary job, but a fire tower operator is also part of a team, with other towers that can be brought into play. The tower operator is also in radio contact with local brigades.
Maldon Museum & Archives President Derek Reid revealed that in order to make Maldon a more attractive destination in the early 1920s there were plans afoot to either build a chairlift up the Mount from Fountain Street or to construct a lookout tower.
“The lookout tower came out a winner,” Derek said. “There was a thriving second market in mining equipment in those days, and so the tower was purchased in Bendigo and shipped down to Maldon by rail. Then a road had to be constructed for horse teams to drag the tower pieces up the Mount.”
What must have been almost half the town – 400 to 500 people – were there on the day that State Premier and local Member H.S.W. Lawson officially opened the tower. In 1924, Miss McArthur donated the directional plaque that can be seen on the first level of the tower.
Maldon Easter Fair President Peter Thompson spoke of the tradition of lighting up the tower for Easter. “It really is a beacon for Maldon at Easter,” he said. Kerosene lamps were eventually replaced with electrical lighting, and Peter acknowledged the part that electricians Bill Telford and son Chris played over the years in rigging up the lights each Easter. These days, Casey Cain does the job.
“The lights are a spectacular sight, and everyone knows that the tower is the Easter Bunny’s house,” Peter said.
Bendigo West Member Maree Edwards spoke of the historical and cultural importance of the tower, as well as the part that it plays in the State’s fire management network. She also spoke about strong community support that Maldon residents have for their natural as well as their built environment.
“It’s a great honour to have been invited here today,” she said, “and I’ll certainly be bringing all of my 11 grandchildren to Maldon at Easter to show them the Easter Bunny’s house!”
Following the speeches, Ms Edwards unveiled a plaque and everyone was invited to enjoy a piece of Lil Skilbeck’s excellent chocolate and strawberry cake.
Here’s hoping the tower is going strong in 2124!
This article appeared in the Tarrangower Times, 2 February 2024.
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