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28 February, 2022

Archer River Roadhouse a lasting reminder of truckie's generosity

A tribute to Toots Holzheimer at the Archer River Roadhouse stands there for a good reason ...

By Matt Nicholls

WHEN Toots Holzheimer first started trekking up the Cape, it would take two days to get from Coen to Weipa.

There was nothing in between except the odd cattle station and a whole heap of scrub.

It was a hard slog just to get to the Archer River, let alone cross it, so the freight stop at Bill Jackson’s Wolverton Station became a favourite for Toots.

She knew all four of the Jackson clan – Kevin, Neville, Tricia and Sherrill – but was especially fond of the latter and youngest.

In the early days at Wolverton, there was no electricity and definitely no refrigeration.

Sherrill went to boarding school and ended up back home with her partner John to work the station.

But it was hard work making a living from cattle in the late 70s and early 80s so they wound up in Weipa working for Comalco.

The memorial to Toots still stands at the Archer River Roadhouse.

“They worked for the mining company for five years before heading back to the station to discuss plans to build a roadhouse,” Toots’ daughter Donna Vawdrey wrote in her book.

“Sherrill’s dream was to offer a place of respite for tourists and truckies travelling the Peninsula Developmental Road.

“Forming a partnership with her sister Tricia and husband James, John and Sherrill began realising their dream as the plans for the Archer River Roadhouse were drawn.

“Realising that the cattle industry was not capable of supporting both families, Bill gave 1000 acres in the centre of Wolverton to his daughters to build the roadhouse.

“The roadhouse would be a place where people could relax and enjoy a meal, share a yarn over a pint or two, or stay overnight and unwind, breathing in the peace and tranquillity of the outback.

“Sherrill and Tricia were eager to start but had difficulty securing finance. Financial institutions were reluctant to invest in a venture in ‘the middle of nowhere’.

“Despite no money, no phones and John working in Weipa, Sherrill and Tricia were determined to make it work.

“Using all their monetary reserves, with some financial help from a friend and the kind offer of Toots to ‘look after’ the freight, Sherrill was able to purchase the materials.”

If the Archer River was too high to cross, important freight, such as beer, would be carted across by boat and picked up on the other side to be taken to Weipa.

The first sod of soil was turned in June 1983. Toots and Ron delivered the bricks, all 33,000 of them.

Every brick had to be unloaded by hand as there was no forklift.

With builders up from Cairns, it took three weeks of achingly long days to build the roadhouse.

Toots delivered the fuel, beer and food for the grand opening.

Getting the giant water tank from Weipa to the roadhouse was a much bigger task.

“Toots knew how much Sherrill wanted to open the roadhouse so in her normal pragmatic way she loaded the water tank, which was way too wide and too high and began the journey to the Archer River,” Donna wrote.

“She had not gone far before she was bogged. The load was so cumbersome Toots had to continually make new tracks through the bush to bypass the many sharp bends, making the trip even longer.

“After three days and 200kms of teeth-gritting determination, Toots arrived at the Archer with Sherrill’s water tank.”

PAINFUL MEMORIES

SHERRILL Mehonoshen will never forget the day the phone rang.

“I was standing at the counter of the roadhouse when I got a phone call from one of Ron’s brothers with the news (of Toots’ death),” she told Cape York Weekly.

“It was such a shock. The whole region mourned.

“It was such an unnecessary accident. Toots always said she’d go with her truck but we didn’t think it would be like this.”

Sherrill said Toots was more of a friend to her than a freight carrier and those who knew of their relationship describe Toots as almost a second mother to Sherrill.

“It was the most moving funeral I have ever been to,” Sherrill said of the Cairns service.

“As far as I am concerned Toots was a part of the roadhouse and had been there from the beginning.”

The Archer River was Toots’ favourite haunt.

It was the only place where Toots found relief from her asthma, where she could breathe deeply and smell the earth and wattle.

Cape York Peninsula’s first pay phone was installed at the Archer River Roadhouse.

It was only fitting that a cairn and granite plaque be erected at the roadhouse to remind passersby of the great work of Australia’s most famous female truckie.

The cairn is shaped roughly like the top end of Queensland and shows a map of the route Toots travelled. Gunther Farbar painted the map and Lawrence De Lai engraved the granite.

It will last as long as her legend.

A plaque embedded in the cairn and inscribed with words, composed by her daughter Cheryl and Margaret Masters, says it all:

We have a legend here in the Cape,

We relied on her to bring our freight.

When the rain started to ease,

The dust must fly,

And Toots was always the first

To give it a try.

Over the hills and gullies,

Her truck started to move,

With the heat and the flies,

She always came through.

She’s left us now,

But her legend lives on,

So chin up there mate,

And keep moving on.


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