When I Was A Boy

When I was a boy my father "Rex the Rhubarb King" grew rhubarb. My earliest recollection of this was in 1945 when I was about 4 years old, and the excitement of going for a ride in his Vulcan truck to a rented property in Balcombe Road Beaumaris to pick up the rhubarb from Mark Evert, who grew it for him on a share farming basis. The excitement wasn't for the rhubarb, but in the next paddock Worth's circus over wintered elephants. Yes tethered by one foot with nobody looking after them were 5 or 6, to me, huge elephants. Mark used to chop the green leaves off the rhubarb to reduce the bulk down and make it easier to transport. I used to sneak over and feed them these rhubarb leaves, yes the green leaves. Sometimes Mark helped me by throwing an armful over the fence. The elephants looked forward to my coming and called out expectantly for this treat. I still vividly remember old Queeny stretching out her trunk to reach for these tasty titbits. Sadly the elephants got less in numbers over the years. I didn't know why then, but looking back perhaps it had something to do with the rhubarb leaves. I cannot recall anybody ever saying, be careful, or don't go near the elephants. Come to think of it, when I was a boy nobody ever stopped me doing anything - PARADISE.

My next fond memory of rhubarb came at about the age of 7 or 8. To earn pocket money I was given a large very sharp knife and told to chop the rhubarb seeds out. So up and down the rows I went battling imaginary armies. Hacking, slashing, down they went row after row. But I was careful not to hurt the young buds or the seed stalks not showing above the leaves, for this was next week's pocket money. "Didn't you do those last week?" my father would say. "YEP sure did, they grow fast don't they?" The knife I used had stamped on the side GREG, STEEL - it must have been the worst designed knife in the world. 50 years later while researching carnivorous plants at Hattah Lakes in a burnt out camp, I found a rusty knife blade. I brought it home cleaned it up, and there on the side was GREG, STEEL. I re-handled it, and now use it every day in my rhubarb business - coincidence?

Rhubarb was fertilized then with fowl manure. Fowl manure was scarce, as all the market gardeners needed it. For a plentiful supply of chook manure was the key to a successful rhubarb farm. The way to get it was to clean out commercial chook sheds, or get the farmers to bag it for you. Either way it was a dirty, expensive, heavy, never ending job. My father Rex had, over the years, befriended some poultry farmers in the Melton, Rockbank area. So after selling his rhubarb at the old Queen Victoria Market he would head out of town to collect as much as his truck could carry. At about the age of 12 during school holidays I would go to market with him. But on the way home the fun began, for I rearranged the bags of manure to make a fort on the top of the load, and road home on top of the truck.

Just near us in the market were a few other rhubarb growers. One from Wheelers Hill always had bigger, better, redder rhubarb than ours; in fact it was huge. He always sold out first and for a better price. He wouldn't sell or swap any of his plants, a real sore point, as we did him lots of favours over the years, such as towing his broken down truck home, and selling his load when he took sick at the market. Suddenly he stopped coming to market and Dad decided to visit him to see what was wrong. Well in just a few short weeks the farm was gone - house, sheds, everything. It had been subdivided for housing, bulldozed flat, top soil sold, no trace of any rhubarb remained and never heard from him again. Dad was very hurt as he never even said goodbye after probably an acquaintance spanning 20 years.

Dad grew a winter rhubarb - green as grass in the summer, but as the winter progressed it turned red. "Barbed Wire" was its name. The Army ordered it by the 100's of sack bags full. It was sold by weight at a very low fixed price set by the Government to avoid war time profiteering. Well my job was to hold the bags open while Dad shovelled in sand to bring the weight up. 5 shovelfuls seemed about right. Dad wasn't allowed to go to war but had to feed the army cheaply. They confiscated his very old truck for the war effort. No truck, no petrol, just an old Nash car with running boards. The local engineers converted it to run on plentiful Kerosene. Struggle, struggle, our shipments were impossible, as we had no transport to deliver the rhubarb or get chook manure. Our shipments got less and less, tiny in fact, and the army yelled for more. One day the army rang up - get down to the docks there's a free brand new 5 ton army truck for you. Just paint over the khaki so it doesn't look like it came from the army - we need more rhubarb. Life was sweet once more. But things changed. Gradually rhubarb sales slowed down, and by the time I left school it was very slow. I modernized the farm. Tractors, dams, pumps, fixed sprinklers, and more modern crops catering for the influx of immigrants, Italians, Greeks, Maltese. Mediterranean crops were the way to go, rhubarb was too slow for this new fast way of life. Girls, fast cars, race boats were all money demanding. So I ploughed all the rhubarb up, Dad was a bit quiet for a day or so - don't know why. I never grew another stick of rhubarb for 50 years. Started again in 2008 but that's another story!

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