It was his cluster of buildings in the Arm Valley that initially led me to Max How. During the 1980s
I was trying to develop a detailed understanding of the history of the
Upper Mersey. Driving along the road in the Arm Valley one day I saw
these buildings on the plain at the edge of the forest and figured then
that who ever built them must have a deep stake in Arm Valley history.
The trail led to Max in June 1988. I phoned him at his home in Devonport. We had a discussion during which he suggested I should come and stay with him for a few days at his Arm Valley property.
I arrived on the appointed day in July
1988. Max showed me around. He had retired from the police force the
year before and was increasingly spending time at the Arm. He was
running stock on his 100 acres and had a small barn in which he stored
He then showed me into his hut. At that
time Max was living in a modified skin shed that had been built in the
late 1960s. It was a distinctive building with a very steep roof
and broad overhanging eaves. Max had significantly modified it to make
it more comfortable for everyday living. The earthen floor had been
concreted, a window had been cut into the northern wall and corrugated
iron covered the shingle roof. I slept in a skillion-roofed building
that had been added to the end of the skin shed. One feature, however,
that had not changed in the transition from skin shed to recreational
retreat was the lack of a chimney. The only accommodation to modern
times was that the fire was now contained in half a 44 gallon drum
rather than on the floor. The building, in consequence, was just as
smoky as it had been when it was first constructed. I remember that
Max’s chair was carefully placed on the only spot in the hut that had no
The first night we sat around that fire
and talked. Max had very strong Arm credentials. His grandfather
Richard (James) How bought the 100 acres in 1907 as a hunting and
grazing run. When he died he left it to his son Osborne How (1889
–1966), a Mole Creek farmer, who eventually left it to Max.
Max, born in 1927, had his first trip
into the Arm from Mole Creek in 1937. At that time it was a two-day
trip, with the night spent at Liena where his Dad had a 76 acre
property. Max soon became a regular visitor together with his two
brothers Edgar and Hedley where they worked to a regular calendar. In
December they would gather the cattle from the home farm opposite the
cemetery in Mole Creek and drive them to the Arm. There would be a trip
or two to check them during the summer and around May the cattle would
be driven home. Around April the men would come in with a horse
for a few days to drag some logs in from the bush for firewood ready for
the winter skin shed fires. Then, around June, they came in for the 2-3
month hunting season with horses laden with supplies. Then, around
October/November, after they returned to normal farm rhythms after the
hunting season there would be a special trip back to the Arm to burn the
grass on the plains to ensure it remained fresh and palatable for the
A couple of Max’s stories stayed with
me. During the 1940s three How families hunted in the Arm, each from
their own freehold block. There were rabbits in the valley then, as
there are now, but only upstream to a certain point. His cousins had
their camp above the rabbit line, so to speak, and would often walk down
of a Sunday during the hunting season for a talk and a smoke but mainly
to catch a couple of rabbits so bored were they of their diet of
wallaby stew and wallaby patties.
Max also told me about the day their
two horses found their way around a fence and headed for home. Max left
at dawn to track them and walked 30 kilometres on their trail back to
Liena where, in the knowledge they had headed to Mole Creek, caught a
lift on the school bus back to Mole Creek where he caught the errant
equines. Knowing he would get caught it the dark if he didn’t move
quickly, he rode the horses hard the 45 kilometres back to the Arm
swapping from horse to horse and arrived at dark.
Max, who left school before he was 14,
did not stay on the home farm but joined the police force in 1955
and served at stations across the state: Sorell, Burnie, Parattah and
Devonport among them. Wherever he was, however, he always tried to spend
some time at the Arm each year.
He was always a keen angler and told
this delightful story that demonstrated his passion. During the famous
Franklin River Blockage of 1982/3, all available police resources were
moved to the river. With a coxswain’s licence Max was in demand to drive
police boats. What his superiors did not know was that Max had fishing
lines out the back of the boat at every opportunity and gave his rod a
few quick casts whenever he had the chance.
He was also a consummate hunter and
during my stay we went possum hunting both nights. The fur trade was but
a faint shadow of what it had been in its heyday. Nevertheless,
occasionally prices rose to a point that prompted many hunters to try
their hand. My visit coincided with such a time. The techniques for
hunting possums had changed dramatically, however, from the pre war
period. The use of snares was banned in 1984 and, apart from the use of
poison, shooting became the only legal technique to kill a possum.
Max had a very good possum dog called
Sadie. He used to drive slowly along the network of forestry roads in
the Arm Valley at night in his old blue Datsun ute with Sadie running in
front. When she picked up the scent of possum that had recently crossed
the road, she would follow it and put the possum up a tree. That step
accomplished, she would then bark alerting Max. Max would then hop
out of the ute, and, with a spot light attached to his rifle, find the
possum and shoot it. My job, as the ‘boy’, was to scurry through the
thick undergrowth to find the fallen possum and carry it back to the
Max also had a different technique he
occasionally used that allowed him to select those possums with the best
quality furs. He would spread apple pieces sprayed with aniseed liquid
on the roadside over a few nights. The possums would come from near and
far to eat them, with as many as twenty or thirty sitting on the
roadside feasting on the apples. They would get used to the presence of
the vehicle all the time while Max identified the animals with the best
furs. Then, on the appointed night, the rifle and spotlight came out
with the target possums despatched with clean head shots.
Whether caught through Sadie’s efforts
or through the aniseed apples, next day, the possums shot the previous
night were skinned. The skins were then carefully nailed to the side of
the hut to dry. A few carcasses, with the front and back paws removed
were also kept to feed the dogs on a later occasion. It was a very
interesting couple of days.
With my family later buying one of the
old How grazing blocks in the valley as a recreational retreat in 1989, I
saw Max many times after that first visit. I often dropped in for a
yarn as I passed through. On one such visit he proudly showed me the new
little cottage he had built beside the old skin shed. This was much
more comfortable accommodation for him and his visitors. In the early
1990s I recall he also took great joy becoming involved with parties of
school children brought to the valley by the Forest Education
Foundation. This was an opportunity to recall the valley’s history and
to display his knowledge of its ecology and landscape. Max was at the
Arm in 2007 when he became ill and, transported to hospital, died soon
after. A sad loss to family and friends.
In 2015 Max’s skin shed was listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Who was the first to discover Fergusson Falls?
All the Tasmanian newspapers carried a
short story on 15 April 1935 noting that Albert Fergusson, the
proprietor of the accommodation house at Cynthia Bay at Lake St Clair,
had discovered a new waterfall in the Upper Mersey. Fergusson, it seems,
had made the discovery some months previously whilst exploring the
area. He told prominent bushwalker, photographer and national park
promoter Fred Smithies about it and, in April 1935, took Smithies to
show him the new fall.
Smithies swooned about the discovery.
‘It is situated on the Mersey River and the upper part of the fall is
from 40ft to 50 ft high. It then splits into two and drops another 30
ft. There are forests of King Billy pine, myrtle and sassafras
surrounding the picturesque fall and providing a wonderful setting’.
Smithies named the falls ‘Fergusson
Falls’ claiming that ‘although he has talked with trappers and others
who frequent the reserve, he has not met anyone who had previously seen
Putting aside the narrow terms Smithies
imposed on the ‘discovery’ – ie, ‘someone he has met’, it is
interesting to consider if anyone might have previously seen the falls.
Fergusson Falls are one of a series of
waterfalls in a gorge-like section of the Upper Mersey below Junction
Lake where the river drops a couple of hundred metres in six kilometres.
The area is generally thickly forested with limited openings. The only
resources that might drive visitation to this area are hunting and
Aboriginals undoubtedly knew the falls
and likely gave it a name. People of European origin had also previously
seen it. Paddy Hartnett and Ted Clarke may have been the first to do so
in 1910 when they travelled from the Mersey into the Narcissus on a
prospecting trip. Hartnett may aslso have seen it when selecting the
site for Du Cane Hut the same year. In 1913 he ‘discovered’ Hartnett’s
Falls less than a kilometre upstream. In fact, that very year Hartnett,
Spurling, Perrin, McClinton and Smithies spent a couple of hours filming
Hartnett Falls enroute to Lake St Clair. It would be surprising if they
did not encounter Fergusson Falls during this visit. Certainly,
Hartnett and Arthur Youd would have seen it when they travelled up the
Mersey from Du Cane Hut to Junction Lake/Lake Meston in 1914.
It was likely this experience that led
Harnett to subsequently include trips up the river as far as Lake Meston
as part of his guiding itinerary. George Perrin, for example, noted
that Hartnett had guided his family ‘up the Mersey to it source’
twice prior to 1925.
Arch Meston and Professor Charles King
are also likely to have seen it in the late 1920s. From 1924 to 1926 for
example, they actively explored the Upper Mersey. They followed the
course of the Mersey, passed each of the waterfalls up to Junction Lake
and then up to Lake Meston (lakes they called Lake Winifred and Lake
In the 1930s there is evidence pointing to Mole Creek hunters travelling past Fergusson Falls and hunting in the area above it.
So it is clear that by 1935 many people
(including people Smithies personally knew such as Perrin, Meston and
Hartnett) had seen the falls. These were people who simply chose not to
name the falls.