Penola reserve named after father and son who dedicated lives to forestry

18 Dec 23

Our Stories

A father and son who dedicated 70 years of their working lives to local forestry have been honoured in the naming of a historic Penola reserve by OneFortyOne.

Words & Images: Kate Hill

Moving to Nangwarry in the 1970s as part of the ’10-pound Pom’ initiative, Ray Mills brought his young family out from the UK and devoted 25 years of work to the Woods and Forests Department, inspiring his middle son Geoff to follow in his footsteps for 44-years.

Standing amongst the reserve’s towering oaks and cedar trees, Geoff Mills points out the road he walked up as a strapping teenager to face his first and only interview, in 1978.

First copping a grilling by the department head about whether he was the son of the legendary Ray Mills and eyed up and down, he was told,  ‘you look like a big strong lad – you can start Monday’.

Gaining the nickname of ‘Millsy’, the teenager was assigned to general gang duties and he quickly learned a day’s work could involve anything and everything.

“In the forest, I did hundreds of different jobs like pruning, brake maintenance, planting trees, learning about the machinery – tractors, plows and spray units.

“I even mowed the boss’s lawn,” he said, with a grin.

Geoff went on to work at the research department, supervising plots, growth rates and fertilizer trials and spent many days working alongside his father, completing fencing, planting and general firefighting duties.

An essential part of life in the forests involves fire crew duties and Geoff was to face several serious fire scenes in his first decade.

The Caroline fire of 1979, which burned through 7,668 hectares of softwood plantation and native forest was to pale in comparison with 1983’s Ash Wednesday, which swept across South Australia and Victoria, claiming 75 lives and destroying 3,000 structures.

In 2008, Geoff was also part of a forestry crew sent by ForestrySA across to assist Victorian fire crews in covering the Black Saturday fires.

Geoff was to spend weeks on site, witnessing the aftermath of one of Australia’s deadliest fire scenes and recalled it as a ‘sobering experience’.

“It’s such a beautiful place to live, but when you see all the burnt-out cars and houses and the police tape around them, I would never want to see that again.”

During his decades in the industry Geoff recalled many major advances in technology, however there are areas where mechanisation simply cannot replace a human, he said.

“When it comes to planting pine trees, you just can’t beat a person,” he said. “They still manually plant because they haven’t got a machine that can plant trees as well as a person can.”

Many a friendship was forged over a learning experience and the passing on of skills from the older generation of forest workers, Geoff said.

“When I was a young bloke and all the old guys are here, that’s where you learn how to sharpen an axe, how to prove a tree problem and how to do everything, which is getting to be a dying art now.”

Geoff retired at the end of October, 2023, just missing the milestone of 45 years by six weeks.

However, at 62, the time felt right he said, just as it was for his father Ray when he retired at the same age in 1993.

Geoff recalls taking his dad for a drive around the reserve where they’d both spent so many years.

Over the years, workers had planted trees from across the world there – towering oaks, cedars, Norfolk Island pines, maple trees and it was a favourite spot for the pair.

After announcing his retirement, Geoff said he ‘knew something was up’ because his boss picked him up and drove him to the reserve, where a surprise awaited him.

More than 60 of Geoff and Ray’s friends, family and work colleagues had gathered there, and it was announced the reserve would be named in honour of the father and son who dedicated most of their working lives to the Penola forests.

Only one person was missing at the ceremony – his father Ray, who died in 2022 at 90 years old.

Standing under an oak tree which once cast a shadow over the old Woods and Forests Department depot in the reserve, Geoff said the next generation of Mills have already made their mark on the reserve.

On a sunny day, Geoff likes to bring his two-year-old grandson down to the reserve for a stroll and occasionally, to plant a new tree.

Retirement will bring more time to spend on his favourite things, including spending more time with his grandchildren, kayaking and fishing at Beachport, live music and perhaps, driving around in his dream vehicle.

“I’ve got my eye on a 1971 XY Falcon,” he says, with a smile. “I’ll just go cruising around here in that.”

OneFortyOne acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their deep connections to land, water, and community. We pay our respect to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all First Nations people today.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori communities have a strong spiritual connection between people and the land – the wellbeing of one sustains the wellbeing of the other. We strive to build meaningful relationships with iwi as tangata whenua (people of the land/region), to be responsible intergenerational kaitiaki (stewards/guardians) of the land where our forests grow.