Sunday, September 13, 2015

Managing Dr. Westaway’s Sugarcane Farm at Smithfield, North Queensland.

Here is another story from my life. By taking the position as manager of the “Smithfield Farming Company” at the Captain Cook Highway Smithfield brought me and the family from the south side of Cairns to the north side, and eventually to Yorkeys Knob. I hope you find this story interesting. Also read a relating story and click on the "Prawn" link.. Click here. - Werner
Dr. Lesley Westaway, a millionaire, bought a cane farm at Smithfield. The farm is 90 hectares and produced around the 4000 tons of cane.  Part of it was located along the Captain Cook Highway and the other part was along Yorkeys Knob Road. John, the 17 year old eldest son of Lesley & Margaret Westaway was working there to learn the ropes, and take over the farm eventually.

When I took over as farm manager in October 1969, I didn’t know what I had let myself in for, but that is a long story and I will shorten this considerably. Despite being a very rich man Dr. Westaway was reluctant to part with money, except for his own use. It was customary for farm managers to have a free hand in spending up to a thousand dollars on machinery repair or purchases needed for the farm, but not me; I had to ring him for anything that was more than ten dollars. I had a hotline to his office: as soon as I told the secretary who I was I got through to him. If, for instance, I needed 20 bolts, I had to first ring the business in Cairns to ask how much the bolts were, then I would ring him and say that I need 20 bolts and they cost $15.00, and he would immediately say to me, “Are you sure that you need 20 bolts?  Wouldn’t 10 be enough?” So, I had to argue with him that we need the 20 bolts and tell what they were for and, eventually he would say, “OK, get them.” This was always such a waste of time.

John and his siblings were not on good terms with their father, mainly because he wanted his children to also become doctors and they all rebelled against him. One daughter became a ladies hairdresser, the other girl married a businessman and the other boy became a motor mechanic.

The previous farm manger liked to go to the pub at Redlynch after work and took John along. This was one of the reasons he got the sack. John was living at his parents’ place at the Cairns Esplanade. John told me that very often there was an argument with his father as he accused them of not doing enough work on the farm. Lesley often used his lunch break between 1 and 2 o’clock to drive to Smithfield and drive around the farm to see if they were working. Because John befriended himself with the farm manger, there was constant nagging by his father about the manager and the work on the farm. So one day John had enough of this and knocked his father down with a couple of blows with his fists.  This resulted in his father getting two black eyes and having to employ a locum tenens for a week, as he couldn’t go to his surgery until his black eyes had disappeared. John then moved into one of the two farm houses and the manager was dismissed. John recounted this incident to me later saying, “The (expletive) just remained lying on the floor without fighting back.”

The farm and the tractors were a bit of a novelty for Dr. Lesley Westaway, and he derived great pleasure from coming to the farm on the weekend and driving around on the tractors – very much to my chagrin. When we finished on Friday or Saturday, I had stipulated to John and a casual man working on the farm to have their tractor greased and the right implement attached on the tractor so that we would have a good start on Monday morning. However, to my shock and horror, when I arrived on my first Monday morning at the job, there were two tractors missing from the shed and some implements that were on the tractors before were dumped somewhere in the yard. 

So we had to look for the tractors and often found them somewhere on the other side of the farm, bogged down in soggy soil. Lesley never rang to tell me where he left the tractors. Very often the implements he used for some mucking around on the farm were damaged or bent, and we spent Monday morning looking for tractors and repairing implements. This happened just about every Monday and just about drove me crazy, but I could do nothing - he owned the farm and was the boss.

One morning, shortly after 8 am, the rear tyre of the tractor driven by our casual worker received a big gash caused by some object in the ground and consequently a flat tire. Other farm managers would have simply called the tyre company and have the tyre replaced, but not me - I had to ring Lesley. When I told Lesley that we had a damaged tyre and I asked if I should call the tyre company, he said, “No, I’ll be out at lunchtime and have a look at the tyre.” He finally arrived shortly before 2pm and after inspecting the tyre, he was now finally convinced that a new tyre was needed and I could now ring the tyre company. Dunlop could only come out the following morning and the tractor was idle in the paddock for more than 24 hours.

Margaret, Lesley’s wife, was a completely different person and I got on well with her.
Lesley was absolutely money hungry.  He was the only doctor in Cairns at that time who made house calls day and night, and his motivation was undoubtedly money. I asked him one day how much he paid for the farm and he replied, “I don’t want to reveal this.” A few days later Margaret told me in the course of a casual conversation that they paid one hundred and eighty thousand dollars for the farm and at the same time told me that they just made their first million.

Without fail, every weekend I got a phone call from Lesley telling me that they were coming to the farm and asking if I had five minutes time to discuss farm matters with him. Of course these “five minutes” often became two hours and often finished up with an argument between us. One day he showed me a book on cane growing in which he had certain things underlined with red, blue, or green. I told him in no uncertain way that I know how to grow cane and that was the reason he employed me. To show me a book about cane growing, I told him, is tantamount to me showing him a book on surgery procedure - of which I know as much as he knows about cane growing. I used to say to Karola after such weekend discussions that if I were here too long I’d finish up in a psychiatric asylum.

Lesley derived great pleasure in buying new big tractors and the newest implements, and then driving up and down the headland along the Cook Highway to parade them to the other farmers in the area, whom he referred to as hillbillies. He used to go to the farm hail, rain or shine every weekend.  I saw him on occasions when I went to the shop at Smithfield in pouring tropical rain planting grass or driving the tractor, wearing a rain coat of course. The farm was a new toy and diversion for Lesley.

Because I selected the right fertilizer and practiced intensive irrigation, which was very hard work, I produced a record cane crop of 5,600 tons. This was an all time record and the sugar mill in Edmonton congratulated me on this, telling me that the highest yield ever on that farm was 4,100 tons.  Not a word of appreciation or praise came from Lesley. The farmers in the area used to say to me, “Werner you are silly to work so hard and put such a lot of effort into this farm.  You will never get any thanks for it.” Of course they were right with their postulation.  My answer was, “Of course I know that I’m silly doing this, but when I leave this farm, I want to leave with a good conscience, having done the right thing by my employer.”

When we irrigated I put in three shifts a da
y. The pump was timed to switch off after six hours, and then we let the soil settle for two hours and then shifted the pipes further on in the paddock. This was an arduous job. The soil was muddy and we could only work barefoot as we often sank in to our knees, and rubber boots would have stayed behind in the mud. Our feet got cuts from stepping on cane stools.

John had two horses which were kept fenced in the horse paddock. One day, in the middle of the planting season and one of the busiest times of the year, a horse stepped on John’s foot on the weekend and he had to see a doctor – but he didn’t go to his father, he went to another doctor in Cairns.  Monday morning John told me what had happened and that the doctor declared him unfit for work gave him 4 weeks off. I had for some time a pinched sciatic nerve which got worse by the day, and I went to my doctor who wanted to give me six weeks off work. I told him that I couldn’t do it as I was the manger of a cane farm, that we are planting cane and I had several casual labourers employed, as well as John being off work. I asked him to prescribe some strong pain killers for me so that I could carry on working.

On day Lesley and Margaret turned up in their lunch break to see how things were going, or perhaps to see if we were lying under a tree sleeping. In the course of the conversation I told him that I was in a lot of pain with a pinched sciatic nerve, but he pretended not to hear it. But he must have been thinking what would happen if I would take sick leave. There was a flu epidemic around and he asked me if I’d had a flu needle. I said, “No.” He would have been clearly worried that if I got the flu besides having my sciatic nerve problem I’d be off work for sure – and what the consequences would have been for the farm. “Well,” he said, “the next time you are in Cairns call in at the surgery and get a flu injection.”

When I told Karola that Lesley had offered me what I thought to be a free flu shot, she said immediately, “That will not be free; he’ll charge you for it.” I argued that he wouldn’t. Sure enough, a couple of days after my shot I had the bill in the mail. Karola said, “See, I told you so.” And I said, “This is a mistake by the office girl, and I’ll prove to you.  When Lesley comes out on the weekend, I’ll hand him a cheque personally, and you’ll see, he won’t take it.” So, the weekend came and so did Lesley, as usual.  I gave him the cheque and he asked what it was for, and I said for the flu injection.  He said, “Thank you very much,” and put it in his pocket. No need to tell you that I was fed humble pie by Karola.

Money was no object, as long as it was spent on him or on the farm as a tax reduction.
I couldn’t blame him for that; nobody likes to give money to the taxation department. His first action was to have the low lying large horse paddock filled up with soil. About ten trucks were engaged to fill in the paddock which took more than three weeks and would have cost in excess of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I levelled it all with the tractor with a blade on the back.

Lesley's next project was to bulldoze down a natural waterway, which was on Robinson’s Road, off Yorkeys Knob Road. This was a wildlife sanctuary through which Avondale Creek was flowing. It was also bordering the farm of my long-time friend, Tom Robinson who was totally against this destruction, as was I. This put me in a difficult situation. According to the law, you cannot interfere with a natural waterway, and Tom knew that Lesley had a boundless supply of money, and if Tom would take him to court, it would be an expensive exercise for him - and for that reason Tom did not pursue that course. And Westaway practically got away with murder.

I was busy irrigating the paddocks along the Captain Cook Highway. When George Fleming, the bulldozer owner driver was going to commence knocking down the trees in the Avondale waterway, he found too much water in it and too boggy for the Bulldozer. So he came over to me and asked me if I would get the irrigation pump over there and pump water out. I said that I would, but only in about four days when I finished irrigating. He went away in a huff, and said in parting, “I’ll see about that. I’ll phone Lesley.”

Lesley came out in his Lunch break and came straight to me and said that he wanted me to shift the pump to the other side. I said I’d do it in four days. “No, I want you to do it now!” he said. I said that it would break my irrigation cycle, and it is very difficult to move the pump, break the irrigation line up and then reassemble it again in a few days time. I also said to him, very assertively, “If you insist on this I’ll do it, but I’ll tell you this much, I will not irrigate the rest of the farm again. It is up to you to decide if you want me to grow more cane or take the pump away and stop irrigating and get less cane.” He then said, “OK keep irrigating,” and walked away.

I had already reached the stage on this farm, when it would have been a Godsend if he had given me the sack. I remembered then that John said to me once that his father had no guts, and if you stand up to him he’ll give in – that assertion proved to be true.

Eventually I got the irrigation pump into the waterway and started to pump out water. Through the middle of this waterway was a causeway for Remo Catana, who had cane on the other side. He had to haul out cane and I had a pump hose (150 mm diameter) lying across the causeway, so I got the men to dig a trench to lie the hose into, and then to close it with dirt. When the time came to remove the hose, I told George Fleming to push the soil away with the bulldozer; he went too deep and damaged it.

Once a week I called in at the Westaway’s residence on the Esplanade to discus farm matters. I rang Headrick’s at Cairns to find out how much a replacement piece of hose would cost and I was told thirty dollars. That evening I paid my usual visit to the Westaway residence and told him about the damaged hose and what it would cost to replace it.  He exploded and like berserk walked around the table shouting, “This is a flagrant waste of money,” repeating it over and over and at regular intervals hitting his fist on the table to give emphasis to his histrionics.  After watching this performance for a while, I said, “For heavens sake, if these thirty dollars will break you, for bloody peace sake take it off my bloody pay” – and walked out.

In the 1970s and with the Vietnam War, the Australian government was using a ballot system to conscript men between the ages of 18 and 21, needed for the Australian war commitment. It was like a lottery; when your number came up, you were conscripted. Well, John Westaway’s number came up, and in due course he was called up for a medical examination by an army doctor in Cairns. If the person was declared fit, he was sent to army training and eventually to Vietnam. Whilst John was not against serving time in the army, his father had different ideas.

When John got a letter from the army, he was surprised to find that he was unfit for army service because of health reasons. And when he read on, he nearly fainted when reading how many health impairments he had. He found that he was colour-blind, was myopic, had difficulty with hearing, had breathing problems, hip displacement problems, and had a heart condition. John could immediately smell a rat and suspected that his father had a hand in this and possibly knew or bribed the army doctor to come out with such a result.

John would have none of this and got in touch with the army in Brisbane, and demanded that he be re-examined by an army doctor in Brisbane, and stated the reason for this. The army complied and John went to Brisbane, and was found totally fit to serve in the army and was called up for training. It would be interesting to know what happened to the doctor who examined John in Cairns and found how “sick” he was. John was lucky – when he had finished his training, the Vietnam War had ended, but John admitted that his short stint in the army was beneficial for him and made him a different and better person. John and his wife Gail and I have good personal relations. When John read in the Cairns Post about my dog attack, he was the first person to ring to see how I was.

I was getting sick and tired of Lesley’s peculiarity, the limitations imposed on me, the constant arguments with him etc. The thought that I had to terminate my employment here before I finish up in an asylum was foremost in my mind. There was no future here for me. Two farmers in the Smithfield area were looking for a manager for their cane harvesting operation and approached me and offered me the position, which I gladly accepted. The position was not available for a few months and I had to keep it quiet and also had to look for a place to live. We had intended to look for a place to rent, but couldn’t find one and then found a house in the process of being built, which was for sale – so we bought it, and have been in it ever since.

When we could move into our new home I quit my job.
I gave my resignation to Lesley in writing and handed the letter to his secretary at the surgery. I tried to do the right thing to the end, although he never did the right thing by me. I told Lesley among other things that I will stay on for up to four weeks until he found a new farm manger. There was no response from Lesley at all. The following day his wife, Margaret, was playing golf with lady friends.  When one asked Margaret if they were looking for a new farm manager, Margaret said, “No, we have a farm manager.” “But,” continued the friend, “you are the “Smithfield Farming Company, aren’t you?” “Yes we are,” replied Margaret. “OK then, in today’s Cairns Post there is an advertisement which reads that the Smithfield Farming Co is looking for a new farm manager.”

When Margaret got back to the clubhouse for lunch she looked into the Cairns Post and found that they were looking for a farm manager alright. Margaret then rang me and wanted to know what was going on and asked if Lesley had given me the sack. “No,” I said, “I quit.  Didn’t Lesley tell you?” “No, not one single word,” she replied. She went on to say, “Werner I don’t blame you - we had it coming, and I wish you all the best for the future.”
Lesley found a replacement within a week and I left. To make a long story short, this manager didn’t know much about cane growing and constantly came to me for advice. The following cane Harvest produced only 3,100 tons, as compared to 5,600 tons under my management, and he was sacked.  Lesley phoned me and offered me the job back and told me that I could set my own salary.  I kindly declined the offer, but I was pleased no end that the offer was made.
My thought for today. - Werner
We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon. Konrad Adenauer

How to post a comments.


Health Activist said...

A very amusing story, though it probably didn't feel like it at the time. It takes all kinds! Fortunately the Westaway children appear to have taken after their mother in character.

Ailsa said...

Dear Werner, I very much enjoyed reading your story about working for Dr W and am glad that you eventually turned your back on the !@#%%$% The stories you write about your life will be great legacies for you to leave your children. Keep writing and be happy and healthy.

Joan and Family said...

Werner, you are a wonderful story teller, thank you for sharing it with us. It was absolutely admirable of you to do the right thing to your employer; despite he didn’t do it to you. You wouldn’t find many people today who would do the same to their respective employers. You have demonstrated in this story that you are a wonderful person doing what was right and that is an equally wonderful characteristic. It is needless to say that I and the family enjoyed reading your story; it was a compelling read.

Betty M. said...

Werner, I enjoyed reading this story like all the other stories from you. You certainly led a varied and interesting life and to write it all down is really remarkable. Not many people do this and your family will love you for this. What a stingy person your boss was, but despite of all his; you still have done the right thing for your employer and that is unselfishness at its best. Despite being not well you kept on working, while his own son went on sick leave – that was above and beyond the call of duty.

Jill and John said...

What an interesting narrative from your life, Werner. Thank you for sharing this with us, and we agree with all the other comments made. You wouldn’t find many people today who would do the same for their employer as you did.

Dymity said...

Great story, Werner. I found it a very interesting read. ...

Babette said...

Werner,it's been a while since my last visit to your blog. I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to visit it again. Your story on the trials and tribulations of working as the Manager for the Westaway Sugar Farm was a great read.
There is no doubt in my mind that your admirable perseverance and conscientiousness whilst working under such a selfish ogre has a lot to do with your solid German background/upbringing. Anyhow I enjoyed this post very much.

Dragi said...

Great narration and story telling. You need to write a book, and I have the title, "The Good and Bad Old Days of Werner and Karola Schmidlin". I will be the first to buy it.

Jill and Anton said...

Your story was an interesting read, Werner. Despite the peculiar behaviour of your boss, you battled on, and did the right thing for your employer; very few if any, would have done this. I agree with all the comments and especially Barbette’s that your characteristics reflect your upbringing. It was surprising that you didn’t terminate your employment earlier. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

Gaye said...

Werner I have just got around to reading your story, what an incredible man staying on that long... sometimes things have to be done though, and your integrity is admirable.. that was back when Christians were real Christians and honoured God and not self like today...

Sebastian Barrington said...

Your story on the trials and tribulations of working as the Manager for the Westaway Sugar Farm was a great read. Tree surgery is the important role for tree cutting and maintenance for that I suggest you The Adelaide Tree surgery is the best place for more details log on to