WANDONG SEASONING WORKS 1889-1903
Having established his sawmills at Mt. Disappointment along with a connecting tramline, Robert Affleck Robertson was keen to introduce new and innovative technologies to his operations. One of these was the seasoning of timber which up until the mid-1880s was imported from America and elsewhere.
A relatively new seasoning process patented by a Swiss gentleman, Mr. Leon Rieser came to his attention. Rieser recently arrived from Tasmania began promoting a process whereby Australian timbers could be seasoned locally thus reducing the heavy reliance on imports. To promote his processs, Rieser staged an exhibition at the City Bank in Melbourne where he displayed ten-day old seasoned timber and parquetry boards. The exhibition was attended by many of Melbourne’s timber merchants, architects and government officials, all expressing interest in this newly patented process. One of these merchants was Robert Robertson.
So impressed with what he saw, Robertson was quick to seize the opportunity before him and within 48 hours of the exhibition had acquired all the Australasian rights for the process as well as recruiting the patent owner, Rieser to assist in erecting a seasoning plant at Wandong. The pair quickly established a syndicate (‘Melbourne Rieser Timber Seasoning Syndicate’) and within no time had begun to build the plant.
Located on a small area on the west side of the Dry Creek, Robertson erected a steam house and a couple of kilns. The kilns were constructed of terra cotta lumber blocks manufactured locally at the nearby brick plant, situated on the Wandong/Kilmore Road, while the steam house was constructed of timber. The steam house had double walls which were filled with coal ash for insulation. The kilns were said to be capable of producing 20,000 superficial feet of seasoned timber a week.
To promote the process, a large party of leading merchants and representatives of the Victorian Railway were invited to Wandong to view a large quantity of recently seasoned Messmate timber. The party were impressed with what they saw and as a final demonstration of the product’s potential Robertson said he was in the process of supplying the Victorian Railways with a quantity of seasoned timber for assessment.
Soon the syndicate began marketing the process throughout the colonies. Manager, Archibald Dixon Hunter successfully secured contracts for the establishment of two new seasoning plants – one in Port Adelaide – the Lion Timber Seasoning Company and the other for the Risby Brothers of the Franklin Mill in Hobart.
As for Wandong, the company established several agencies through which they sold their seasoned timbers and began to explore new export markets. Trials of butter boxes and paving blocks exported to England were met with mixed success. Following the long sea journey to England it was found that the residual tannins in the timber had tainted the butter and so the reputational damage that followed became a matter of dispute between Robertson and Leon Rieser.
While the export market proved difficult for the company, the looming depression would begin to take a bigger toll. By 1892 Robertson began to look toward divesting himself of his assets, selling his all his sawmilling and seasoning work interests to a new consortium, the Australian Seasoned Timber Company Ltd.
Buoyed by the potential of the operations at Wandong, the new consortium, backed by many of Melbourne’s leading businessmen, began to expand upon Robertson’s operations, investing heavily in the expansion of his seasoning works with additional kilns, drying sheds and timber processing factories. The newly expanded seasoning works were a drawcard for those seeking employment and soon the township became thriving industrial hub within the district. With this expansion came a renewed sense of excitement for the town and along with that a promise of prospering times ahead.
Robertson’s initial efforts at seasoning timber combined with the Australian Seasoned Timber Company’s takeover and expansion covered a period of fourteen years before the impact of the depression, droughts, limited access to new forests and a downturn in production lead to the company’s final liquidation in 1903.
Visit Wandong to hear more of the stories around this once thriving township and view many of the images portraying the industrial activities of Robert Robertson.