Laconic Richard “Digit” Briggs has collected more than 100 tractors on his Tasmanian farm and now he plans to share them with others.

Story By Tim Dub

“Once its gone, it’s gone forever,” is how Richard “Digit” Briggs explains his interest in collecting things. He lives only a few kilometres from Port Arthur, once the site of an infamous penal colony and now Tasmania’s biggest tourist attraction. Many visitors drive past the end of his road, Dog Bark Lane, to see the nearby Remarkable Cave, a tunnel hewn by the sea in the ancient coastal rock. They will be unaware that they are missing a sight scarcely less remarkable than the Cave itself – a half-a-hectare ‘tractor park’, crammed with countless relics and the great names of agricultural history – John Deere, Alice Chalmers, Fordson, Ford and Austin. Here, the red/orange of rust and the blacks of rubber and oil blend with browns from the sandy soil as nature lays claim to its own in a picture of peaceful and remorseless decay, amid the greens of coastal trees and shrubs.
Digit stands in resolute opposition to this decline. As he explains it, “I grew up on a farm. I could see the old tractors disappearing off the deck and I thought my children are not going to know what an old bit of machinery looks like, so I’d better get a few”. Does that account for the many vintage machines that seemingly occupy every available space? “At first it was just one or two tractors for the stepchildren but since then, it’s just snowballed,” Digit says.
Richard was called Digit at school because of his ability with numbers but he is unsure exactly how many tractors he has acquired, though confirms it is more than 100. Because of his numeracy he was encouraged to become an accountant, but didn’t want to leave the country to live in a city, so became a mechanic instead, a job he still enjoys. “I always say to my children, “Never do something you don’t like ‘cause you’ll never succeed”. You have to have a love for what you do. For me, with mechanical work, everything is different, everything is a challenge”.
The Briggs family has a long history in the area. Richard was born 63 years ago, down ‘Briggs Road’, near where he lives now. At that time his land was part of a 120ha farm, jointly owned by his father and uncle. His father had found himself blacklisted after acting as spokesman for fellow mill workers, who, too old to enlist during World War II, had their pay cut by the mill owner when the younger men left for the Army. Unable to find work south of Dover near the mill, his father cycled to Port Arthur looking for suitable land and bought the farm (with his brother), for $1030, after borrowing the $10 deposit from his sister. He and his brother moved the family by boat, pushing the bullocks into the water and herding them up when they swam ashore. His father took up work in another mill as well as farming part-time. It was only when he left the mill job many years later that the owner, who had never hinted at his knowledge of the reasons behind the family relocation, said to him “I never took you to be the bad bloke they made you out to be”. “There were good and bad bosses back then too,” Digit says.
Digit’s plan is to sell a parcel of land to finance the building of a shed large enough to hold the complete tractor collection. With immediate neighbours Geoff Cousins, the Telstra director, and entrepreneur Dick Smith, the sale of one of the most scenic sites in Australia seems a foregone conclusion. But Digit is not interested in wealth and his tractors are not an investment – “The money value doesn’t come into it as far I’m concerned – I just have ‘em ‘cause I like ‘em.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #54

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007