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Jack Eaton, Sunnyside House Inc. Camperdown

Jack still ponders how he and his family survived the 1939 bushfires that tore through Victoria and South Australia, killing 71 people and destroying two million hectares of land.

Image: Jack

It’s a miracle 91-year-old Jack Eaton made it past his eighth birthday. Jack still ponders how he and his family survived the 1939 bushfires that tore through Victoria and South Australia, killing 71 people, destroying two million hectares of land and wiping several towns off the map.

Black Friday fires

Jack was only eight years old when his family moved to the bush sawmill at Murrindindi where his dad had found work. It was during the summer of the infamous Black Friday fires when Jack began to smell smoke from the strong and hot north winds.

‘Burned gum leaves and bracken fern started to drop out of the sky. I took some inside to show mum and dad’. Dad said, “We are in big trouble”.

‘Yea was the nearest town, 12 miles up the wooden tram line in the middle of the bush. We had no chance of going anywhere, we had to see it through,’ Jack says.

With his siblings, Jack sheltered under a blanket in a small hut as the fires raged around them for four hours. The smoke and heat made breathing difficult, but it was the screaming sounds made by the fire that terrified him most.

‘I’ll never forget the noise.’

By the time the fire had passed, the family had lost their home and all their belongings. Jack’s dad and his timber mill colleagues were exhausted from battling the flames and suffering so badly from the heat and smoke inhalation that they dug holes in the ground to rest their faces in the cool earth.

With little food and water left, the survivors waited days for help to arrive before being evacuated to Healesville. After a short rest, Jack’s dad insisted the family leave for Melbourne. A lucky decision as a wind change that afternoon saw neighbouring Narbethong virtually wiped off the map.

Work and family

Surprisingly, despite that being the second home his family had lost to bushfire, Jack chose to spend the majority of his working life as a timber worker at sawmills located in remote bush areas.

The life of a timber worker could be lonely, but Jack soon fixed that after meeting the love of his life, Alice, at a dance.

‘I didn’t need many other people because I had Alice,’ he says.

The couple were married within the year and had six children over the space of 10. Jack bought some land and built a ‘wee house’ from timber he had cut himself. They never had any electricity.

‘We didn’t know ourselves when we got a kerosene fridge,’ Jack says.

Tough times

After a few years, the couple bought a small dairy farm but, when the buttermilk price went through the floor, times were tough.

‘It was so bad that you’d send your cattle to market, and you’d be sent a bill,’ Jack says.

There was no feed for the cattle because of the drought and rather than seeing their cattle starve, farmers would pay to have them shot and dumped into a huge pit.

It was bad enough to have Jack return to his roots and build his own small sawmill. He cut what he thought would be his last tree at the age of 65, but then, to raise money for Cobden Hospital Auxiliary, he began running sessions for tourists, showing how timber was cut by hand in the old days.

Sadly, Alice died a decade ago. ‘We were inseparable,’ Jack says.

Reviewed 30 January 2024