Lilydale & District Historical Society Inc - museum Lilydale Melba
Lilydale & District Historical Society Inc - museum Lilydale Melba

Tribute to Jim Sawyer

Thank you very much for giving me the honour of speaking about Jim Sawyer one of the Life Members of the Lilydale & District Historical Society.

One of Jim greatest passions and interests was history, particularly the history of our district. His family – the Hollands and Sawyers arrived in Victoria in 1912 and all became farmers. Jim’s father Charles arrived with his brothers Henry (Harry) and William and worked on a sheep station at Birregura until World War I broke out. All three brothers served in World War I and afterwards Charles applied for land in the Closer Settlement Scheme at Yering.

His brothers also received land adjoining that of Charles and together they worked the land as one property called Glendara. Their property fronted Maroondah Highway and went north to St Hubert’s Rd.

This was the beginning of the family’s farming interests which have existed until today. The brothers were involved in many farming organisations and Geoffrey Noris kindly supplied some of this information.

In the 1930s the brothers were proposers of a Yarra Valley Farmers Club comprising mainly fellow members of the Yarra Glen Agricultural Society. The Lilydale Agricultural Society was dormant during the 1920s and 30s. Charles Sawyer was delegated to investigate a new English Machine to make bales of hay.

The Sawyer brothers were active proponents of the Victorian Department of Agriculture Pasture and District Herd Testing Group competitions. They were constant prize winners in these competitions which were reported extensively in the Lilydale Express. With support from the Farmers Club, other dairy farmers, the shire council and the Agricultural Department they received registration for a new substantial Lilydale Cheese Factory managed by a Mr L. Ryan, formerly of King Island Cheese Co. He also had overseas experience.

At the opening function reported in the Lilydale Express in 1937, the Hon W.H. (Bill) Everard MLA our local state MP and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, called for “three cheers” for the enterprising Sawyers. However, due to opposition from a rather dictatorial chairman of the new Victorian Milk Board the Sawyers withdrew an application for an annual licence within a couple of years to avoid contention. Many Yarra Valley butter-fat producers suffered losses in income as a result.

A neighbor across the road was the Holland family but they were soon to become more than neighbours when Charles married Annie, the eldest of seven children. Charles and Annie has two sons – Jim born in September 1928 and Don born 14 months later.

In an oral history recorded by Mary Howden in 2001, Jim spoke extensively about his life and dairying.

At aged nine Jim began to limp. An x-ray was ordered and it was discovered he had a diseased bone in his knee. The solution was plaster from ankle to hip and bed for a year. When a young nurse visited him and gave him a packet of stamps and a stamp album his world changed. He may have been in bed but through the stamps and borrowing books from the Lilydale Free Lending Library, the world was opened up to Jim.

When he returned to school, Jim was way ahead of the other children. To further encourage Jim, his father sent him to Box Hill High School. Initially, he boarded with his Uncle Harry Sawyer and came home at weekends. However, he preferred to live a home and travelled to Box Hill each day.

While at Box Hill, Jim decided he wanted to become a farmer so forged his father’s signature on his application to Dookie Agricultural College to do a diploma course. He was accepted and after completing his diploma Jim returned to the family business in 1947.

Sadly, his time with his father was short-lived as Charles died in November 1949 aged 58 years.

At 21 years old, Jim became head of the family business. He and his brother Donald were able to purchase 2 properties from his father’s estate and secured their futures in the Yarra Valley.

Drawing on his Dookie knowledge, Jim was ever willing to be innovative, trying new milking techniques, new cropping ideas. He travelled overseas and often bought back ideas he would try on his own farms.

Jim’s mother Annie lived with him until her death in October 1987 aged 96 years. Jim’s brother Don died in 2002.

Because he felt he had to give back to the community which had nurtured him all his life, Jim stood for council and was elected a Lillydale Councillor in 1965. He served until 1979 and was Shire President in 1972.

Jim was also a member of the Lilydale Cemetery Trust and took great pleasure in re-building and opening in 1997 the Lilydale Band Rotunda which you can see just outside. He also commissioned a book on the rotunda’s history which I had the pleasure to write. I first met Jim Sawyer in 1978 when I covered my first council meeting as a reporter for the Lilydale Express. Jim spoke to me after the meeting. He was kind, courtesy and above all else a gentle man.

It was thanks to Jim Sawyer that the Lilydale & District Historical Society was formed several years earlier.

In 1971 Maurice Seymour was the Shire President but it was Jim who pushed for the shire to celebrate its centenary in 1972. A public meeting was called to compile a history of the shire and from that meeting the society was formed and helped with the research and development of Lilydale The Billanook Country book.

Jim became a foundation member of our society and remained a member until his death. He actively supported our society in its bid to establish our museum in the former shire offices in Castella Street and was only one of our two surviving foundation members. He was made a Life Member in 2015 in recognition of his contribution.

I’ll conclude with long time friend Geoffrey Norris’ own words:

 “Jim Sawyer was a quiet farmer achiever. One of the last of his peers. The past and present bounty of our Yarra Valley farming owes much to Jim Sawyer and his family.”

Sue Thompson
President, Lilydale & District Historical Society
May 3, 2017


Contacts: Sue Thompson (President) 0475 219 884, Joy Gothe 0405 128 964 or  Lorraine Smith (Court House Manager) 03 9735 1104.


Our home is the Old Lilydale Court House at 61 Castella Street, Lilydale 3140.
© Copyright Lilydale & District Historical Society Inc. Lilydale, Yarra Valley 2015

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