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28 February, 2022

Gone but never forgotten: Toots' legacy lives on in the Cape

A tribute to the pioneering truck driver Toots Holzheimer on the 30th anniversary of her sudden and tragic death.

By Matt Nicholls

DRIVING from Mareeba to Weipa in a day? Toots would have hated that.

The tougher it was the better it was for Toots, who made a name for herself as the last to deliver freight to the Cape before the wet season and the first truck to get through when the water subsided.

When she first started driving to the Peninsula from the base in Cairns, the road from Mareeba was only sealed to Mount Molloy.

Getting to Cooktown was a big enough challenge, but driving a semi-trailer to Weipa was bordering on crazy.

Southern truck drivers didn’t even make it to Lakeland before giving up. The copious amounts of corrugations and bulldust were just too much.

Not for Toots.

To get to Mount Carbine, you had to open and close 16 gates.

The Mulligan Highway did not exist. If you made it to Lakeland and kept heading north, you faced a rough road to Cooktown.

If you look a left turn and headed to Laura and beyond, the road soon evaporated.

Toots’ legendary MAN truck, which is now in a museum in Winton.

While Weipa was emerging as a bustling mining town on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, all employees were flown in and freight came via plane or barge.

There was no official road linking Weipa with the south, just a telegraph line in the bush, with enough scrub cleared for maintenance.

This was no barrier for Toots and her husband Ron, who made a name for themselves servicing every Cape York community and cattle station in the dry season.

They would cut down trees and build their own bridges, they would spend hours shovelling mud to free themselves of a bog – often around the black soil near Piccaninny Plains – and, surprising to most, had a great time doing so.

While Ron came from a trucking family and helped Toots get behind the wheel of big rigs, it was his wife who ran the show.

She made history as the first Australian woman to clock a million miles in a truck and became a pioneer of females in the transport industry.

And she did all of this while raising children, often with them sitting beside her in the cabin, coughing up dust from the Cape York wilderness.

THE TRAGEDY

TOOTS died at 10.43am on the 29th of February, 1992 doing the job she loved beside the truck she called her ‘Old Girl’.

All week Toots and Ron had been carting the pylons that had been removed from the old Weipa wharf and stacked in a number of piles around Evans Landing. Their trucks were parked parallel to each other.

“No one really knows what went wrong that day,” daughter Donna Vawdrey wrote in her book Toots: Woman In A Man’s World.

“The crane operator was using a dogman to signal him for the control of the load, as this last pylon was on a slight slope and hidden from his direct view.

“As the pylon was being lifted it started to swing. A steel plate, protruding from the side of the pylon, was small enough to fit between the duals where Toots was standing.

“It crushed her against the wheel of her semi, inflicting massive chest injuries. Toots clutched her chest gasping, ‘I can’t breathe,’ before losing consciousness.”

Toots and husband Ron fire up the billy.

Emergency services arrived at the scene within a couple of minutes but Toots could not be revived.

Two inquests were held with the outcome stating that it was simply a tragic accident.

Simultaneous funeral services were held in Weipa and Cairns.

There were 200 mourners at the St Luke’s Church in Weipa.

The ladies of Napranum sang together in a hymn of tribute to Toots.

Following the service in Cairns, a horn-blowing convoy of semi-trailer rigs led the procession to the crematorium where they all, simultaneously, blasted their air horns in a final farewell.

At the Cairns funeral, Glenda Putt summed up how many folks felt. “That woman was a lady. She had the respect of everyone. She was special. I am so pleased I got to meet her.”

Jim Gordon reminisced on the time he and Toots danced together at the Musgrave Centenary celebrations. In his words, ‘She was a good friend with a terrific heart.’

“It was a sad end to a special era in road transport for the Gulf country and the people of the Cape would dearly miss the personal touch that Toots gave to everything she did,” Donna wrote.

PERSONAL BATTLES

THE story of Toots would be short-changed without explaining the personal challenges she faced outside of the truck cabin.

Most know of her as a mother of eight, but Toots faced significant battles as a mum.

Along the journey, she lost one child to stillbirth and had another son, Sheldon, who died just three days after he was born.

Toots also had to cope with being separated from half of her children for a large chunk of their formative years.

Toots gave birth to “JB” John Joseph Bishop in 1951. She was just 16 years old and, as a result of being underage, had to serve 100 hours of community service. The father was in prison.

Her next four children – Kaylene, Cheryl, Donna and Ricky were with first husband Frederick Hipworth, best known as “Dinghy”.

When the relationship broke down, Toots turned to her friend Ron Holzheimer for comfort.

“Ron packed up Toots and the kids, moved to the Atherton Tableland and pitched a tent beside a creek at Yungaburra,” Donna wrote.

“He settled his newly acquired ‘instant’ family and began looking for work.”

Toots: Mother, grandmother, babysitter.

A burgeoning happy family was then torn apart when Dinghy drove to Redlynch and snatched the three girls outside an ice cream shop.

He would later grab JB and Ricky in a similar fashion, leaving Toots and Ron childless.

“Toots never gave up trying to get custody of her children,” Donna wrote in her book.

“Her fears were realised in 1962 when, to her dismay, Dinghy gained custody of all five children, even his step-son JB.

“Toots was denied visitation rights and she did not have the money to fight the court order.

“She was deemed an unfit mother as she had no fixed address.

“Her stolen children grew up believing they were not wanted or loved.”

Toots and Ron would go on to have three children of their own – Sharon, Lynny and Troy.

Eventually, each of her other five children would make their way back into Toots’ life.

When she died, she had eight kids that all proudly called her mum.

THIRTY YEARS ON

DAUGHTERS Donna and Cheryl still can’t believe the impact their mother had on so many people and are still told new stories about Toots on a regular basis.

“Just this morning I had a man called Wayne Kelly ring me and tell me about the time mum helped him when he was at Palmer River and had run out of fuel and had no food to get by,” Donna said on Sunday.

“You hear these stories all of the time about how mum would just help anyone who needed it.”

Despite being a woman in a man’s world, Toots was a lady first and foremost.

“She didn’t swear in front of us kids and gave us a lashing if we did,” Donna said.

“She would say ‘frig’ a lot, but that’s about it.

“In the Cape she would look after all the ladies on the stations, often picking up material for them to make dresses or other small items that would make their lives a little bit better.

“She was driven to drive trucks but she never became a half-baked man. She was always a woman.

“Her compassion, understanding and big heart shone through.”

If you take on a man’s job you must work like a man; just do it without whinging and complaining – Toots Holzheimer

Those thoughts were echoed by Cheryl, who was in Weipa on the day her mother died.

“She’s never far from your mind,” Cheryl said.

“I’m amazed at how many people still remember her.

“Even when I still go up to Weipa people say ‘I can’t believe Toots isn’t here anymore'.

“She was loved by a lot of people.”

Cheryl admitted to feeling some guilt about her mum’s death.

She and her husband Ray were living in Weipa and in charge of the local depot at Evans Landing.

“She always gave me the weekend off when Ray was home,” Cheryl recalled.

“I felt guilty for a number of years because I should have been working. Mum was suffering from bad asthma but that was her, she just kept going.”

Cheryl said she hoped talks of a movie about Toots would eventuate to fully preserve her memory.

“That would be the icing on the cake.”

Donna said a production company had been sitting on the movie or TV series idea for a number of years, but it had yet to make any major advances.

For now, her book is the only substantial record of Toots’ life, although there are a number of tributes dotted around the state that honour her legacy.

TRIBUTES FLOW

MEMBER for Leichhardt Warren Entsch says he didn’t know Toots all that well, but he had no hesitation in pushing for the bridge at Kennedy Creek to be named in her honour.

“We knew each other but we didn’t have much to do with one another,” the MP said.

“Probably the most graphic image I have of Toots is her bogged to the axle and she’s covered in mud with a floral sundress on. She’s there beavering away to get herself out of trouble. When I pulled up and offered to help she very pleasantly told me to piss off.

“There weren’t too many people in the Cape that didn’t know her.”

Mr Entsch said when he became the federal member there was an opportunity to name the bridge over the Kennedy Creek as they sealed the road from Lakeland to Laura.

A lasting reminder of Toots’ legacy.

“I contacted the family to ask if they had any objections to applying for the bridge to be named in her honour and I was up there with the family when it was unveiled.

“It was a wonderful legacy for Toots.”

Retired Cape York police officer Tony Tallen was based at Edward River (now Pormpuraaw) for a stint and remembered Toots fondly.

“She was as tough as nails,” he said from his Tasmanian home.

“I remember her lifting these 44-gallon drums that very few blokes could manage on their own.

“Toots would never let you do anything for her; she took her job very seriously.”

The quietly-spoken truckie went from being a popular figure in the Gulf and Cape to a famous female icon in Australia after TV program The Australians dedicated an episode in her honour.

Journalist and producer Peter Luck described Toots as a ‘mother earth’ figure with big biceps, big breasts, short wavy black hair, brown leathery skin and a dry, slightly gruff, raspy voice.

Legendary country music singer Slim Dusty further immortalised Toots when he released The Truckie is a Lady on his award-winning album Making a Mile, which picked up a Golden Guitar in 1998.

There’s a street named after Toots in Evans Landing and you’ll still find the memorial at the Archer River Roadhouse.

One of the most popular lasting tributes to Toots is her legendary MAN truck, which was restored and sent to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs before it was moved to the Diamantina Heritage Truck and Machinery Museum in Winton.

“We just felt like the truck should be in Queensland because she was from here,” Donna said.

There are a number of other small tributes to Toots around the state and in the Cape.

Toots: Woman In A Man’s World has sold more than 13,000 copies to date.

“When I did the first print run I only ordered 2000 copies and they sold in three weeks,” Donna said.

“I then rushed another order of 2000 and they sold within three months.”

Toots was a familiar face in all Cape York communities.

The book launch was a little bit less successful, she said with a smile.

“We had to do the launch without the book because it hadn’t arrived. It was a book-less book launch.

“But we went ahead because we had invited Warren Entsch and other dignitaries.

“It ended up being all right because we took orders on the day.”

You can still purchase the book and those interested in Toots’ story or an important chapter in Cape York history should get themselves a copy.

Visit Donna’s website at www.toots-thebook.com.au to place your order. You can also purchase an electronic copy or the audiobook.

 


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