His hands tell a story of lifetime toil
By Ieva Tomsons
THE MASSIVE hands of long-time Bakers Hill resident Eddie Seskas can attest to a lifetime of hard graft.
Eddie turns 88 next month and with a mind like a steel trap he easily rattles off names, dates, places and prices at the drop of a hat.
He is typical in many ways of Australia’s 1930s Depression-era children who grew up tough and had to work hard to help support their struggling families.READ MORE
It was doubly hard for Eddie as a child because he spoke no English and was left-handed in an age when everything was required to be done with the right.
He was born in Wyalkatchem to Lithuanian parents in 1930 and lived there for a year before his family moved to Muchea to try their hand at market gardening.
“We also had poultry and pigs, and from age four to seven I was washing potatoes and scaling pigs after they had been scalded,” Eddie said.
Eddie’s father was one of the first local market gardeners to sell washed potatoes, and Eddie and his older brother and sister were the backbone of the operation.
“Kids’ hands were softer and wouldn’t rub off as much skin as adults,” he said.
Older siblings Alex and Beatrice walked five kilometres to school each day but Eddie was needed at home to mind his baby sister Joan so that his mother could run the farm while his father worked away.
The family moved closer to Muchea in 1937, enabling Eddie to start school a year late, speaking rudimentary English learnt from his older brother.
“It was a one-teacher school with about 30 kids and the teacher told me ‘there are no left-handers here’,” Eddie said.
“It tangled up my hands – I never should have changed.”
The Seskas moved again in 1940 to a 500-acre (200ha) property on Berry Brow Road in Bakers Hill after being told they had first option to buy the land after working 18 months to fence and clear it.
“It sounded like a good deal to Dad but the property was sold to someone else and we had two weeks to get out,” Eddie said.
The harsh introduction to Bakers Hill didn’t deter Eddie’s dad who felt the area had a lot of potential and was well-placed between Northam and Perth.
Eddie settled into the local school and caught up on study by finishing Grades 2 and 3 in a single year.
There were no school buses in those days and the four Seskas kids rode to school in a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart which was less comfortable than a four-wheel buggy.
Eddie remembers the precision half-hour air raid drills the school was required to practise once a week during World War 2.
“Planes were flying over Bakers Hill to Cunderdin (where the RAAF trained B-24 Liberator bomber pilots), a whistle was blown and we all had to run and hide in the bush,” Eddie said.
“Three whistles sounded the all-clear –it was very strict and well organised.”
There was also a wartime labour shortage from 1942 to 1944, and children older than 12 were allowed three weeks off school to help local farms and vineyards.
“They wanted kids who could handle horses but looking back it wasn’t good because as I had weeks off school and was doing correspondence.”
Eddie completed only seven years of schooling and had the aptitude to go a lot further but was swinging an axe for a living at the age of 14.
“My brother and I were cutting firewood for the powerhouse in Northam and clearing land, and we paid mum boarding money,” he said.
The brothers turned an old Buick into a ute and went into business as contract axemen/carters – Eddie was 16 and they were making almost double WA’s basic wage.
By 1949 the brothers had two trucks that carted livestock, wheat, wood and fuel throughout the Avon Valley in the days when business was done on a handshake.
“We were natural mechanics,” Eddie said.
“I changed a lot of gearboxes – but not as many as (Toodyay water/wool carter) Bruce Cleasby.
“Everyone was strong back then and we would load 44-gallon drums full of petrol (by hand).
“Now I can’t pick up an empty one – it’s a shame to admit it.”
In 1954, while still running their carting business, Eddie and Alex bought the Goomalling school bus run and clocked up more than three quarters of a million kilometres in the next 24 years.
As if that wasn’t enough, in 1958 the brothers bought the first of four farms they would develop and ran 4500 sheep on over the next 20 years.
Eddie was sleeping only two to three hours a night but still found time to learn to play saxophone and indulge in his passion for dancing, which led to meeting his wife Ruth who he married when he was 36.
“Here come the Heckles and Jeckles and spaghetti eaters,” was the generic greeting for all new Australians regardless of origin.
“It was the days of underground mutton (rabbit) platters at dances,” laughs Ruth who looked after Eddie and their son Martin, and Eddie’s brother Alex until he finally married at age 56.
“We couldn’t have done it without Ruth,” Eddie said.
Eddie also contributed 60 years of voluntary service for pretty well every organisation in the district and rose up the ranks to become WA Grand Master of the Independent Order of Oddfellows – similar to the Freemasons – which he credits with rounding out his education.
Eddie says he now sleeps a lot – “making up for lost time” – and who can blame him?