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Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - 5
"It was pretty hard, but an
interesting life," retired Ruru
sawmiller Ross Brownlee
Born in Christchurch in
1932 and briefly raised in
Ruru, he was sent off to boarding school,
initially Loreto College in Papanui and then on
to St Bede s College.
"We lived a different life ... you had to make
your own fun," Ross says.
He enjoyed sport, playing both rugby codes,
but it was not particularly serious: "Just
whatever was on on the day."
Upon finishing school in 1950 the obvious
choice was to return to his childhood home,
where he took up a job at the family sawmill.
e Ruru mill was built in 1934 by Ross s great
uncle and operated right up until 1990.
"I think there were 70-odd on the payroll;
when I left there was three of us," Ross says.
ere is not much there now, but he
remembers when Ruru was a busy little country
township near Lake Brunner.
"Ruru was a mighty place in its day ... there
were some great characters at the mill.
"When I first started at the mill, we were
always a half-hour ahead, we had daylight
saving before they ever invented it. We used to
start at 7.30am every morning --- it was like
that all the time I was there at the mill. We
were always ahead."
Ross estimates they cut about 10,000ft of
timber a day, although his terms were a bit
"We had to bring enough logs in every day to
keep the mill going the next day."
It was not all milling native pine trees; plenty
of other work was needed just to get there,
including 26 miles of tramline, plus their own
Ross turned his hand to most of the jobs at
the mill, even driving the locos for a bit, after
starting in the workshop and then stacking
"One of the jobs you start off in the mill is
in the slab pit, that s where all the old timber
was and we used to stack that and put it in the
"When I finished (in the yard) I was still
sawing and sharpening the saws, which I knew
Eventually, though, he took over the running
of the mill. As time went on the economics
were such that those leaving were not replaced
and that meant more work for those who stayed.
"We just kept our head above water and that
was all --- it was tough going."
Working in the mill came with some close
"I had an uncle killed alongside me. We were
loading logs on the loco and the log came
down and hit the tree and it dug in and it
pivoted around and it came down and hit Pat
and I. It hit Pat into the end of the loco truck
and shot me down the side of it. at killed
him there and then. I finished up in hospital
in Greymouth for a few days. I didn t have
anything broken, just bashed around a bit."
Prior to electrification, the mill ran on steam
using boilers and locomotives.
"We went into carting logs by lorry, but on top
of that, the timber was getting higher up the
hill, too, which you couldn t get to with locos.
" inking back on it now, you would never
work the way we did. If anything happened
you were on your own. I got hit with two trees.
We were dozing the road and I had the tractor
hooked on to a tree, because (dad) had gone
down and couldn t get back up. So he had it
hooked around a tree and he d winch himself
back up. When he winched himself up, twice
he pulled the tree over and got me. One buried
me in the mud. I didn t think I was going to get
out of it.
"It broke all my ribs --- twice that happened.
at was just part of the job."
In 1988, Ross moved from Ruru into nearby
Moana, where he lived on his own street,
although he says Brownlee Drive was named
more after his father than him.
He closed down the sawmill in 1990. As the
mill was sitting on railway lease he decided
to clear the land, choosing the easiest manner
available --- fire.
"I burned the mill down --- just about set all
of Ruru on fire because there was that much
oil around. It was that hot, it set the side of the
workshop on fire."
With some machinery and gear still inside the
workshop, he had to call the fire brigade in to
stop the workshop from burning down, too.
Later, Ross took up a job with Crofts
Transport, working on clearing the road at
Otira Gorge. He was then asked to become a
truck pilot driver and responded with typical
attitude: "I thought oh well, I ll have a go at
it . I enjoyed that because I saw a lot of New
Zealand that way."
Reluctantly, he gave up the work due to
Supporting him the whole time has been his
wife, Wanda, originally from Poland.
ey met in Christchurch and Ross brought
her to the West Coast after marrying in
"When we got married I said we ll go to the
Coast for five years , and we re still here."
ey have four children and Ross considers
himself a lucky man.
"She s a wonderful person, I ve been lucky."
Looking back at the painting, Ross is pretty
happy with where he is.
"It was a hard life, but it was good."
PICTURE: Nicholas McBride
Ross Brownlee sits beneath a painting of his old Ruru sawmill.
Sitting in the living room of his Moana home, beneath a painting of the Ruru sawmill where he spent 40 years, Ross
Brownlee reflects on his life as a sawmiller.He shares a few memories with NICHOLAS McBRIDE.
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