January 23, 2013
Australia Day visitors to Ringsfield House in Nanango are in for a special treat … they’ll get a chance to enjoy a collection of intricate wooden horses and buggies, wagons and bullockies all hand-carved by local man John Dickfos.
John was born in 1928 in Wondai and attended school at Wondai and Greenview. Every Tuesday, the children would catch the train to Murgon to attend “Rural School”. The boys would do plumbing, carpentry, leatherwork and woodwork; the girls would learn needlework and cooking.
The skills he learned at this time would prove very useful in later life.
After leaving school, John completed an apprenticeship as a butcher in Wondai and then moved to Redcliffe. It was here that he met his future wife Inez.
The couple was married in Charleville. And so began a life in the bush that is reflected in so much of John’s carvings, bush poetry and song lyrics.
At one stage, John and some close relatives took on took a contract to do 25 miles of dog netting and fencing.
For six months, John and Inez – and their young baby son – and John’s brother-in-law, his wife and young child, camped out in the scrub as they constructed the fence.
“It was the last of the pioneering, I guess,” he said.
The outback lured the couple even further west and John worked as a butcher and saddler on the famous Victoria River Downs station in the Northern Territory.
While there, his leatherwork skills were recognised and he was sent to study for two weeks at Syd Hill Saddles in Brisbane.
The couple then shifted to South Australia – Inez had been born at Peterborough, inland from Port Pirie – and John secured a job working on a thoroughbred stud. This is where he started carving.
His pieces have always been made from wood and kangaroo hide, with the tiny buckles and snaffles crafted from small pieces of wire.
Most of the time he used white beech – “a beautiful carving timber” – which became harder and harder to locate over the years.
From South Australia, John and Inez then shifted to Rockhampton where he got a job training cattle for the CSIRO, which he carried out until retirement.
The couple moved to Nanango nine years ago and John continued his wood carving and leatherwork, as well as bush poetry and songwriting.
Over the years he’s only sold one piece .. and that was purely by accident.
He was invited to show his carvings in a local art show but was told he had to put a price on them.
John selected a big wagon which had three horses and was packed with old-fashioned gear, all intricately hand-carved.
Initially he was going to put a $500 price tag on it, thinking no one would pay that much … but the family convinced him to increase it to $1000.
John was sure no one would buy it and he’d be bringing it back home! But he was in for a surprise. Nanango Shire Council purchased the wagon and presented it as a gift to retiring mayor Reg McCallum.
John has divided up much of his collection now. Some pieces have gone to his nieces and nephews, but many have been entrusted to Ron Sampson, from Maidenwell, for a future museum on the Bunya Mountains.
And he’s kept some special pieces for himself and Inez, including “Missy” (a milking cow), “Fossy’s Pride” (a horse) and “School Days 1934”.
Unfortunately, John has lost his eyesight now and can no longer carve.
His School Days piece – which depicts him riding to school in Wondai, complete with a leather saddlebag – was the last one he carved.
That was about 18 months ago, however he still keeps up leather plaiting. Inez is “his eyes” in case he makes a mistake.
And he still likes to write poems, with ideas coming to him in the early hours of the morning. Inez always keeps a pencil handy to jot the words down.
John described his carvings as “bush to the backbone” and said he had always tried “to keep things as genuine as I can”.
A good description, indeed, of this remarkable Nanango couple.