Arbuthnot Sawmills sustainably harvests red gum on the banks of the Murray River.

Story By John Dunn

Alexander 'Sandy' Arbuthnot lives on the banks of the Murray River at Koondrook, Vic, and so does the timber operation he founded there 124 years ago. A red gum carving of him stands under the gum trees midway between the mill, which hums with the sound of saws as it has done for more than a century, and the tiny, single-fronted, weatherboard building across the street that proudly announces Arbuthnot Sawmills Pty Ltd, head office of the company.
Its board has two great-grandsons of the original Sandy – Dr Peter Hunter, a Sydney medical specialist, and Alexander Arbuthnot, a dairy farmer from near Sale, Vic, who is also a director of Landcare Australia and a past president of the Victorian Farmers Federation.
Peter says the mill has become increasingly professional and lives up to its founder’s reputation for being innovative, imaginative and enterprising. “With a semi-exclusive 20-year New South Wales wood-supply agreement and good prospects in Victoria, the future is bright,” he says.
Alexander was recently appointed to the board and he shares Peter’s interest in the company. “It was a very proud moment for me, as is bearing the same name as its founder,” Alexander says. “As a child I was brought up in a house decorated with photos of river boats built by Arbuthnots and heard stories of those glorious years of river trading, building boats and milling red gum. I am impressed with the culture of the mill in a growing tourist town and the culture in the workplace where sons work beside fathers, who talk about my grandfather, who also worked at the mill.”
In the late 1870s Sandy arrived at nearby Gunbower Island with his father, another Alexander – who had come from Scotland in 1846 – and his brother, Charles. He initially worked as a bench man at a local mill and then as an engine driver before setting up his own small mill that processed the red gums that grow in the wetlands of this area of northern Victoria and the adjoining southern Riverina of New South Wales.
The enterprising Sandy was quickly convinced of the future of milling this valuable hardwood and in 1889 he bought a second-hand engine discarded from a paddle-steamer, moved to the present site in Koondrook and established a bigger but still primitive mill.

This story excerpt is from Issue #89

Outback Magazine: June/July 2013