Farmers from Tasmania

I’m sure that our readers know the story of Milan Vyhnálek, known as the „King of Cheeses“, who founded and built the Lactos factory with his own bare hands. Before long it became the largest cheese factory in the southern hemisphere. But few people know about his predecessor, Karel Vajbar (1893-1954), who had been involved in the cheese industry since the 1920’s. He share his interesting story with the Czechoslovakian Foreign Institute – an institute which maintains contact with expats all of the world.

Vajbar settled in Tasmania in 1928, when only 210 000 people lived there – about 60 000 of which lived in Hobart. There was not much in the form of industry and the little that was around was mostly agricultural. Large expanses of land were unused and overgrown with ferns. Cheese, butter, wool and leather (from kangaroos and other marsupials) were the main exports. The distant, unknown country did not have much to offer the Czechoslovak entrepreneur. Born in Rakvice in Southern Moravia, he graduated from the school of milk and cheese production in Kroměříž and fought for the legion in Italy during the First World War. After returning home he worked in a milk factory in Ostrava a Želetava, where he met Ladislav Veska, an agronomist, who left the Agricultural Council in Brno in autumn 1926 to go on a study trip to Australia. Vajbar had heard rumours about the amazing business opportunities in the land down under, and decided to try his luck. His started out in the suburbs of Melbourne, where he opened is own cheese factory. The business did not go as planned because of a milk shortage and Vajbar started keeping an eye out for a different opportunity. He found a notice for the sale of an abandoned farm (over 1500 acres) called Myrtle Grove Estate up in the mountains in the north of Tasmania. At the time Australia was afflicted by catastrophic drought and economic crisis. This was a deadly combination for many immigrants who were still unable to keep their farms in inhospitable corners of the country and were having to abandon them.

Photo: Launceston in the 20s

After 2 years in Australia Veska was meant to return to the republic. He paid a visit to Vajbar from Sydney, who managed to get him on board his plan. Together they set off to Tasmania and used their last 10 pounds to put down a deposit to lease a farm in South Springfield at the base Mount Maurice. They were met with the shock of two-metre high ferns and shrubbery rampant with over-populated wild rabbits. They moved into one of the half falling-down huts on the property and considered how to get started. They then asked Mrs Plná, the owner of a Czech pub in Sydney, as to whether she would lend them 100 pounds to cover rent.

Karel Vajbar with his sister, Františka Vajbar (Photo from book Memories of Springfield, by Ray Wheatley, provided by Laurie Veska)

Before the money reached the legal representative of the former farm owner and the Czech duo got their hands on the farm, they spent their time eradicating the irritating rabbits. They shot them and caught them in traps by the thousands and earnt a decent amount of money skinning them and selling their hide at the market in town. A line of apple trees were bearing beautiful fruit at the time as well, which they also sold to raise money to buy two horses and a cow. They cleared out the ferns from the fields, ploughed the soil and planted seeds. Curious local farmers began coming to look on at the successes of the two foreign entrepreneurs. They were intrigued by Vajbar, who managed to skillfully skin up to 60 rabbits in a single hours work, and Veska, who gained the reputation of a go-to guy when your cattle fell ill. Before long they had tens of cows and pigs, poultry, roughly 200 sheep and Vajbar could finally set his mind to his dream of making cheese. The locals praised his cheese as an exquisite delicacy. Vajbar started mass producing his cheeses, opened up a shop in Launceston and exported products to the Australian mainland. After 3 years the farm was known throughout the whole of Tasmania. Varbar’s sister even vivisted from Moravia, got married to Veska, and started a family, ensuring that there were plenty of people in the family to carry on the farming traditions. Vajbar also got married, had two sons and died in Tasmania.

Text prepared by Martin Nekola.

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