Ironbark: A Concise History

Since its beginnings in 1976, St Peters Ironbark Outdoor Education experience has continued to leave deep impressions on students. While much has been reported about the program of today, its history remains largely untold. Plus Ultra caught up with three of Ironbark’s founders, Reverend Maurice Fielke and his wife Dorothy, and Mr Barry Jahnke, to find out how Ironbark began. (from Plus Ultra, April 2018)

The Dream

Shortly after his appointment as Chaplain at St Peters Lutheran College in 1964, Reverend Maurice Fielke began thinking about a St Peters Outdoor Education Centre as an alternative to local youth camps, some of which were rife with student misbehaviour.

Maurice recalls: “I thought ‘there’s got to be something better that will allow us to channel the energy and enthusiasm of these young people into something positive.”

Meanwhile, Barry Jahnke - Biology teacher, and Don Protheroe - Geology teacher, were dreaming of a natural space where they could instruct students in scientific fieldwork.

Barry explains: “One of the most efficient ways to teach the life sciences was in the field… Our St Peters grounds were pretty sparse at that time because, before I arrived here in 1969, they used to burn the College grounds each year from one end to the other to control the grass.”

“We [Don and I] used to think it would be nice if we had some place off-campus where we could take students and let them develop their social and scientific skills.”

The Inspiration

A committee, of which Maurice and Barry were members, was formed to grow the idea of a St Peters Outdoor Education Centre. They took inspiration from early educators such as Kurt Hahn (1886-1974), German Jewish founder of several international schools that used outdoor adventure to develop social conscious in adolescents; and Nikolai Grundtvig (1783-1872), Danish founder of international Folk high schools, that focused on personal development rather than formal education.

They also investigated The Duke of Edinburgh Award program, founded in 1956 by Prince Philip, which recognises adolescents and young adults for completing self-improvement exercises modelled on Kurt Hahn’s solution to the ‘Six Declines of Modern Youth’, and Geelong Grammar Schools’ Timbertop, founded in 1953 by Headmaster James Darling, a full-time boarding campus for Year 9 students that incorporates academic, outdoor, running and hobbies programmes.

Finally, as St Peters’ Outdoor Education Centre was originally intended to accommodate students’ full academic program alongside physical, spiritual and social activities, Barry researched emerging Field Study Centres.

“We liked the fact that we had these four very different strands of life that we were dealing with,” Barry explains, adding that the committee’s multi-faceted approach appealed to St Peters Headmaster, William (Bill) Lohe (1955-70).

“I remember Bill Lohe, on one occasion, saying to us: ‘Well gentlemen, I don’t understand what you’re doing but I have faith to believe that you’re doing right,” Barry recalls.

The Place and The Name

With Bill’s blessing, the committee began its search for a suitable property. Old Scholar, Maxwell Kanowski (1949), whose neighbours’ son had attended Timbertop, offered to sell the College land at Spicers Gap, 100 kilometres west of Brisbane. However, his offer was declined by the College Council.

Then, Pastor Wendel Dahl entered the picture. Wendel was an American Lutheran pastor based at Woolloongabba. He had a grazing property in the granite country, east of Crows Nest, where he had built huts to house recovering alcoholics. In 1971, through a mutual interest in people’s physical, spiritual and social wellbeing, Wendel gifted 73 acres of land on the western side of his property to St Peters.

Wanting to find a meaningful name for the property, Barry, who was a member of the Anthropological Society of Queensland, contacted fellow peer, Stan Colliver. Stan, a highly regarded anthropologist and museologist, curated a list of aboriginal names for consideration.

“The one that we decided on at the time was, ‘Jũn Jarin’, because it was, ‘a beneficial spirit.’ And a ‘Jũn Jaree’ is a good spirit which can belong to you through your life,” Barry explains. “So we thought, this four-strand coursework is going to be a Jũn Jaree to go with the students through their adult life.”

The name was used for a time but the College Council was unsure about it. Shortly thereafter, a new name came to light.

In the early days after acquiring the property, Maurice would undertake transected hikes to explore the country to develop a map. On one such expedition, Maurice was accompanied by Michael Leske, a friend, and Harry Schroder, an engineer contracted to design and build a shed – the first built structure – on the property.

“We went out camping,” Maurice recalls. “Harry had this habit of reciting Australian poetry around the campfire. So, it was probably about one o’clock in the morning and he started to quote, ‘The Man from Ironbark’. When he finished he said, ‘That’s what you should call it: Ironbark.”

Given that Ironbark trees grow on the property the name was fitting. It was submitted to the College Council, and was accepted.

The Foundations

From 1971-1973, Maurice and Barry began taking groups of students to Ironbark on weekends to test the program’s merit. Students worked around the property, hiked to explore the country, worshipped with locals at the Crows Nest Lutheran Church, and enjoyed picnics at Crows Nest and Ravensbourne National Parks.

In September 1971, a formal proposal for the program was submitted to the College Council, however it wasn’t until 1973 that St Peters Headmaster, Dr Carson Dron (1970-94), announced the formal commencement of the initiative in 1974 with a Trial Scheme.

Maurice had taken a year off from St Peters to work for the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries but his appointment was cut short by Dr Dron’s announcement.

“In September 1973, Dr Dron said, ‘Enough talking. We’ll run a trial scheme.” Maurice explains. “So I was called out of the Forestry immediately and set to work at Ironbark.”

In preparation for the arrival of the Pilot Group in 1974, Maurice, Barry and Don, along with their families, relocated to Ironbark in 1973. They would go on to live in rental caravans for some years, but the College was committed to providing permanent accommodation for students from the outset.

The brick work was completed by friends of Wendel Dahl, Finnish and Estonian gentlemen, the latter of whom who had been rehabilitated at Wendel’s grazing property in the Granite Belt.

Resources were limited but the contributions of many staff made the buildings of habitable standard.

“I had to do some brickwork,” Maurice admits. “I won’t ever show anyone where it is! At least the style was to have the mortar hang out, so that covered a few sins!”

The shed, designed by Harry Schroder, was partly fabricated at St Peters’ Indooroopilly campus. Barry recalls delivering it to Ironbark.

“The College bought a small second-hand Mazda truck, which was in terrible mechanical condition,” Barry recounts. “I had the job of driving this truck up to Crows Nest, loaded with this shed and all of the building materials, together with a portable dunny to go with a pit toilet.”

“I was all loaded up ready to go and I was driving out and I forgot about that wretched footbridge at the Science block [at St Peters Indooroopilly]! And I hit it with the toilet,” Barry admits. “That toilet is still at Crows Nest and it’s got these dents in it from that time.”

Maurice says he’s grateful to the many staff who had faith in the project. Some even sacrificed percentages of their salaries to finance the employment of the builder’s apprentice, Gary Evans. Since then, Gary – current Works Department Manager at St Peters, has enjoyed a steady association with the College that has spanned more than four decades.

“I’m eternally grateful to those staff,” Maurice says. “They believed in what was happening up there at Ironbark and they were prepared to put money up. So we kept going.”

The Brisbane floods of January 1974 interrupted building and delayed the arrival of the Pilot Group. Even so, when students arrived several months later after the Crows Nest Shire Council were able to remake Back Creek Road, they had unfinished quarters to sleep in, which had missing windows and doors, the openings for which were temporarily covered with plastic.

Maurice’s wife Dorothy, who instructed students in catering and helped Maurice coordinate hikes, says conditions were rough.

“Those Trial Scheme kids had it very rugged,” Dorothy admits. “There were no windows and doors on the buildings. In winter, Crows Nest is very cold. They all ran around in these big army coats from the Nazarene Bargain Shop.”

The Trial Scheme

In order to partake in the Trial Scheme, students had to write a letter to Headmaster Dron explaining why they should be chosen. Maurice says those letters, and the letters of appreciation he received from students who undertook the Ironbark experience thereafter, are among his most treasured possessions.

“The enormous amount of letters of appreciation from students – that’s probably, in many ways, my fondest memory,” Maurice explains. “The only thing I took out from Ironbark when I left was a folder of letters.”

“Education is not about acquiring a whole lot of knowledge. It’s more about discipline and love. Discipline and love between student and teacher,” Maurice explains. “When you’ve only got 30 students for ten weeks, I tell you, you have a wonderful opportunity to develop that relationship.”

He says, despite the challenges of maintaining the academic program, the spiritual and social benefits students experienced convinced Dr Dron of the program’s legitimacy.

“When the students came back from Ironbark, they did very poorly academically.” Maurice adds, “But, in maturity, they were a shot above the rest. That sold the Headmaster."

Onwards and Upwards

Throughout 1975, Barry lived onsite full-time in the unfinished Girls’ Dormitory to coordinate the building of staff accommodation. In 1976, under authorisation from Dr Dron, the program commenced in a full-time capacity.

Barry says he relished the opportunity staff had to educate students across many fields. Students participated in community service activities, such as building picnic tables and walking tracks in Hartmann Park, near Crows Nest. Other activities included physical life skills, such as hiking, farming and catering; and academic pursuits, including scientific field studies.

“It was a very busy time. We used to do scientific work for the Australian Museum, by being involved with their Butterfly Migration studies. I was also a bird-bander with the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme. We used to do quadrat studies in some of the forests, including the pine plantations at Pechey State Forest. We were very involved.”

Where Are They Now

After leaving St Peters, Barry went on undertaking work at other State Environmental Education Centres, including Nudgee Beach and Toohey Forest Environmental Education Centres. Now retired, he dedicates much of his time to the Queensland Museum, where he is a volunteer in the Publications and Photography Department.

Maurice continues to be involved in grazing, managing cattle properties nearby his home at Mount Binga. He still officiates weddings and funerals, and is passionate about prison ministry. In between, he finds time to assist Dorothy in her bush tucker business, supplying bunya nuts to restaurants, distributed from Adelaide by their nephew. This season is particularly busy.

“Bunya nuts are such fickle trees; they bear once every four years,” Dorothy explains. “So, for all this time, there’s been no bunya nuts, and now this season is the big season. So, we’re busy!”

Dorothy says she still occasionally runs into past students of Ironbark.

“You meet Old Scholars here and there,” she says. “Of course, you never recognise them because they’re out of the uniform; they’ve grown up; they’ve changed, but it’s lovely when they say, ‘I was in such-and-such a class.’”

Maurice says, of all their memories at Ironbark, the camaraderie between staff and students is what they remain most grateful for.

“There is no better job than working with a group of thirty Year 10 students,” Maurice says. “I’ve always felt extremely privileged to have been a part of Ironbark.”

Did You Know?

While the College Council chose to discard the name ‘Jũn Jarin’ in favour of ‘Ironbark’, some buildings at Ironbark still bear aboriginal names from Stan Colliver’s list. Don Protheroe named the house he and his family lived in ‘Kir-aba’, meaning ‘place of the fire’, because he loved its fireplace.

Previous Headmaster, Bill Lohe, who left St Peters in 1970 to take up an appointment at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba, thereafter continued to visit Ironbark weekly to teach German language classes.

Originally, Year 10 students attended Ironbark for ten weeks. Now, Year 9 students undertake a five-week experience.

Photo: The 1974 Ironbark pilot group