Blue Pool and the Box of Wonders.

An eclectic house and garden known as “The Arches” was the home of Archie and Edna Hair, an elderly couple with a rare spirit of generosity.

They lived in the bush on State forest at the popular swimming hole known as Blue Pool, which is just north of the delightful village of Briagolong in Gippsland.

Blue Pool was formed over thousands of years by flood waters on the Freestone Creek as they blasted out through the narrow gorge upstream. The raging torrents gouged out a deep pool and threw up a pebble beach on the opposite side creating a splendid selection of flat skipping stones.

Upstream of Blue Pool, the Freestone Creek catchment is forested with steep dissected sides which acts as a giant funnel. It’s also very rocky with shallow skeletal soils, so rain doesn’t soak in easily. Typically, it floods under the influence of an east-coast low-pressure system that brings several days of heavy rain to Gippsland. Its catchment is said to produce some of the fastest rising floodwaters in Victoria.

And please don’t make the common mistake of calling it Blue Pools…. there is only one pool…

Famous explorer Alfred William Howitt is often credited as being the first European to visit the trilogy of secluded waterholes in Central Gippsland when he was guided by local aboriginals in 1875. They included Lake Tali Karng near Mount Wellington, Blue Pool on the Freestone Creek and the sacred Den of Nargun on the Mitchell River.

Blue Pool is also said to be very significant to Braiakaulung women as a sacred birthing pool. Tragically, members of the tribe were removed in about 1864 to Ramahyuck Mission Station which is on the shores of Lake Wellington near Sale.

There was a brief flurry of mining activity on the Freestone Creek after the discovery of gold in 1866 by John Boyce and his 16-year-old son Tanjore. Miners rushed to take out claims, but by 1867 most had moved away.

Interest was sparked again in 1868 with reports of payable gold being found further along Freestone Creek. A newly named town of Gladstone sprang up with a population of about 200 people and about 30 makeshift dwellings. But it had been a dry season, and on Christmas Eve 1868 a bushfire destroyed the settlement, and most miners abandoned the area. There was a revival of gold mining in 1924, but it also fizzled out quickly. Old mines and relics remain scattered throughout the bush.

The Freestone Creek Road was completed in 1918 for the princely sum of £22,000 as the main access to Dargo and the Crooked River goldfields. A small unassuming concrete bridge just north of Blue Pool on the Gladstone Creek at Froam is thought to be one of Gippsland’s oldest surviving road structures.

Archie Norman Hair enlisted at Traralgon into the 23 Battalion during World War One and saw service at Gallipoli and France where he was wounded. He returned home in 1919 to farm at Willung before finally retiring with Edna to Briagolong in the mid-1950s to do a bit of gold prospecting.

Archie and Edna built two houses on the same piece of State forest. Their first began in the mid-1940s as an abandoned miner’s hut made of bark, which was progressively extended and improved.

The 1965 Gippsland bushfires burnt across a wide landscape from Lake Glenmaggie in the west to well beyond Bruthen and Tambo Crossing in the east. The fires raged over many weeks between 16 February and late March 1965 and nearly one million acres of State forest and pasture were burnt. Together, the Forests Commission and Country Fire Authority faced their gravest bushfire threat since Black Friday in 1939.

The first house was largely destroyed by the bushfire on 5 March 1965 and some of the family sheltered from the blaze in a nearby mineshaft.

Undeterred, a second house was built soon after.

Both houses looked like something out of a Mother Hubbard storybook. and neither had mains power or town water but had an open fire and kerosene fridge.

Archie and Edna’s generous hospitality of home-made ginger beer and ANZAC biscuits served to their many visitors were legendary. And visitors often sent Christmas cards to the pair each year to their great delight.

Archie and Edna kept a pet kangaroo named Skipper for company and Archie had a standing order at the local Briagolong butcher for several pounds of sausages which he cooked up and fed to the hungry Kookaburras and Magpies. There were also lots of parrots and a secret bowerbird nest near the house.

Legend also has it that Archie had a wooden box, the contents of which were a source of fascination. He called it his “Box of Wonders”, in which he kept simple things which he had collected from the bush. He held children captivated as he spun elaborate stories associated with each rock, tiny fragment of pebble, brown bottle or prized bird’s nest.

There was a large “listening tree” nearby under which Archie told tales of the forest to adoring children (and adults).

Archie often setup treasure hunts around the bush for the local scouts or other visitor groups and would lend them his unique handmade walking sticks… some with secret compartments containing clues.

Many say the house was on a Miners Right, and while I haven’t dredged out the Departmental File, I suspect The Arches was probably made legal either as a non-transferable “Permissive Occupancy” under the Crown Lands Act, or more likely as a gentleman’s agreement with the local Forests Commission staff at Briagolong which managed Blue Pool. Not that it really matters…

Edna died on 10 May 1966 aged 75 and Archie on 21 December 1980 aged 89.

The local Forests Commission District Forester at Maffra, Graeme Saddington, generously agreed to the family’s request not to remove The Arches until after his death. The house was still there, near the southern end of the current picnic ground and partly occupied by a very frail Archie when I worked at Briagolong in 1979-80.  But it’s gone now and little trace remains other than a few rogue garden plants, broken bricks and mining relics. However, the original Arches house sign remained for many years near the entrance to the current picnic ground.

Archie and Edna had become the unofficial and unpaid custodians of Blue Pool, so it was in the interests of the Commission to allow them to stay. Regular visitors included the local Forests Commission crew from nearby Briagolong to check on their wellbeing, but also to share a chat, an ANZAC bikkie and maybe even a homemade ginger beer.

Sadly, I know little else about Archie and Edna Hair.

But I do know there were many other examples of these types of mutually beneficial and informal occupancy arrangements on State forest, often with quirky caretakers, but most of the buildings have now been removed and their history lost.

Blue Pool picnic and camping area is one of Gippsland’s secret gems and has undergone a recent upgrade. It is proudly maintained by the local DELWP crew from Briagolong and Heyfield.

Top image: The generous and welcoming Archie and Edna Hair holding his handmade walking sticks. Source: Stratford Museum.

Posted on Facebook – 11 July 2019.

The original Arches started in the mid-1940s as an abandoned miner’s bark hut. Archie and Edna added to the four-room building over time. Circa 1950-60. Source: Stratford Museum.
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