There is little doubt that Aileen Bellman is the ‘grand old lady’ of Mount Burr. The town’s most senior resident has called it home after arriving as a newly-wed in 1954. Affectionately known as “Mrs B”, only a handful of residents have lived there longer.
The proud life member of the Mount Burr United Football Club is ready to devote 20 weekends of the coming winter to be the A Grade timekeeper with the Mozzies. Other notable roles with the club were as the gatekeeper which she shared with her late husband Kevin.
Despite being aged in their 70s, the couple would wear their green-and-gold club colours and greet patrons at the gate in all weather. For much of her 67 years at Mount Burr, her life revolved around its sawmill. It is now 20 years since production ceased at the Mount Burr Mill and 40 jobs were lost.
The mill has not operated since December 2000 when it was closed at short notice by its New Zealand based owners Carter Holt Harvey (CHH). Mrs Bellman teamed up with a few others to stage a mock funeral to protest its closure after 69 years of milling. “We got a coffin made up and painted with writing and carried it through the town in a procession,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Another not-so-fond memory for Mrs Bellman of the Mount Burr Mill was the night she spent in its office in the wake of the devastating 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires. “We made some space in the office and worked through the night making cups of tea for the fire-fighting crews,” she said.
“When morning came, I went out around the farms and checked on stock. “I did not worry about sleep.” Earlier on that fateful day with fires raging across the region, Mrs Bellman and one of her sons had filled the gutters on their house with water. “I then wet some towels and went to the Mount Burr Oval,” she said.
“I handed out the towels and then put cream on the babies. “Others were helping as well. “We were told to head into Millicent but only got as far as the Mount Burr forest headquarters where we were met with a ball of flame. “We turned back to the Mount Burr Mill.” On a happier note, a visit to Millicent from her native Victoria almost seven decades ago led to marriage.
“I came to Millicent to help as my sister Wilma was having a baby,” she said. “I worked at Nenke’s Hotel (now The George) as that was the way I could be sure of getting a room. “I met Kevin at a dance across the road at St Alphonsus Hall. “Our first married home was at House 222 in Riddoch Avenue behind the oval. “Kevin worked at the mill from 1954 until it closed and he was the gang saw operator. “Two of our sons Mark and Bradley worked there briefly as well.”
In its heyday in the post-war years, Mrs Bellman recalls Mount Burr was a busy township with its own police station, various shops and two churches. She said there were regular movie screenings as well as such groups as the RSL, CWA Guides, Scouts and lawn bowls.
Mrs Bellman is coy about revealing her age but you can be sure the town will not overlook any milestone birthdays. The Mount Burr township is within a decade of marking its centenary and many of the former mill buildings remain.
The Mount Burr Mill was built by the State Government in 1931 to process timber from its forests and remained in public ownership for the next 65 years. At its height in the post-war years, the Mount Burr Mill had a workforce of 240 and was operated by the Woods and Forests Department (now Forestry SA).
Along with the mills at Mount Gambier and Nangwarry, it was sold by the Liberal State Government to CHH in 1996 for $130m. The sale price was criticised at the time for being too low by then local Liberal MP Dale Baker (now deceased).
After its closure, CHH removed or sold some of the usable contents of the Mount Burr Mill. Some historic items were donated to the Millicent National Trust Living History Museum including the time clock and a 1950s-era plaque stating the Mount Burr Power Station was opened by then Premier Sir Thomas Playford.
The current owners of the Thomas Drive property are the local Wells family. The buildings and yards of the Mount Burr Mill are used by them for storage purposes and the parking of trucks. They also operate a recycling business, run an Australia Post agency and have converted the one-time administrative buildings to public accommodation.
Meanwhile, the Nangwarry Mill closed in 2019 and the Mount Gambier Mill has changed hands a number of times and is currently owned by OneForty One.