How it all started
For those who do not know the story of how the Millers came to Narrabri, it may be interesting to look back on that Monday 1st of August 1946 when two young ex-soldiers who had not long returned from the War in The Pacific, arrived in Narrabri about 6am in their Army Greatcoats (yes it was freezing) and walked up the town.
There were a few curious looks at the young “city-ites”. However when they reached the old shop of Ernie Hogan’s Bakery, which was opposite the Post Office then, and spoke to the lady manning the Bakery, and then announced they were the new owners, things were a bit “up-in-the-air”.
For Ernie Hogan, who had run the bakery, in a very old-fashioned way for many years, had died, and the lady running the shop and manning the books, “Dot” as she was known, honestly thought she was to inherit the business. She had certainly worked hard looking after it for some time, and was a close friend of Ernie’s.
However what none of the Narrabri folk knew was that Ernie Hogan had a wife in Sydney all those years! Furthermore, her accountant acting on her behalf had sold the business to the two young ex-soldiers! Dot had been double-crossed!! Where did the wife come from? Considering that Ernie had been in business for a very long time, and had been Mayor for 20 of those years, the “wife” in Sydney came as a shock, particularly to Dot. The whole town was “buzzing”.
There was not really much of a business to sell. The premises were rented. The bread was baked in another old bakery round the back of what is the Target store today, was also rented. There were three baker’s carts and about 4 to 5 strong horses. The bakery equipment consisted of a few hundred high “married” bread tins as they were called in those days. They were the type of bread tin most commonly used as more loves could be fitted into the big brick ovens. There were a few
troughs for mixing dough’s, and that was about it. The shop was very small with some glass display cases and the usual old counter to lean on!
There was not one piece of machinery in any part of the bakery. Bread was brought to the shop by means of a “box-bike” with three wheels. Out the back of the shop was a small area where cakes and pastries were made. The pastry and cake side of the business was very small and never varied from day to day. It was said that a blind person could come into the shop any day and point to his choice and it would always be the same simple cupcake in the same place.
Allan Moon was Vic Miller’s partner and they set about trying to make something worthwhile out of it all. Allan was married to Vic’s sister Kit, and they had two small children by the end of the war. Allan was to work the cake and pastry section, and Vic was to take over the bread. Vic had a wife also, Patricia, known as Pat (and the writer of these memories of the ‘good old days’). Vic and Pat had one small daughter Denise. Both wives were pregnant again by the time Narrabri came on the scene. Neither of the wives were very enthusiastic about this new venture. In fact Pat owns up to crying all the way to Narrabri, which was a rail journey of 13 hours in those days. Both families were used to the city life, and knew nothing about the country, or how hot it was going to be in the summer, especially as both families had to share the very dilapidated premises above the shop. It was a tense, hard time for the two young wives. It was “pioneering” post-war.
Initially they called the business ‘Miller and Moon’s Bakery’. However the partnership did not last long. After about 2 years Allan and Kit took their family back to Sydney. Vic & Pat stayed on. He worked long and hard hours and often had to go out on the delivery run after finishing his baking shift. Mixing bread was by hand with four bags of flour, each weighing 150lbs going into the trough then lifted out in huge cut “chunks” of dough on to tables, to be rolled, weighed, molded, rested and ‘proved’ before being ready for the oven.
In the summer blocks of ice were needed to be added to the mixing water to keep the dough cool so that the mix finished at the correct temperature. In the winter warm water was required for mixing. The yeast came each day by train from Sydney and had its own special ‘ice-chest’.
The brick ovens were fired by wood, and because they took so long to build up heat the fire was never allowed to go out. The old brick oven at the rear of the shop had long since “fallen-in”, so every loaf for the shop and the big ‘mail runs’ had to be carted around to the shop.
The horses and mail runs
The mail runs were a big part of the business in those days, as not only were there many families working on properties then, bread was indeed “the staff of life” and formed a huge part of the daily diet of most working people and school children. This was the main reason that bread was usually baked a day before it was delivered. It was impossible to wrap hot bread in brown paper and string, in time for the mail-men. Most farms had a three times a week mail delivery.
These were the days before refrigeration and freezers. Supermarkets were unknown, bread and jam, or bread and “cocky’s joy” were special treats most children of those times enjoyed. The bread was usually cut in thick chunky slices. Much more bread per head of population was consumed in those days. In the early days the mail-men were paid one penny a loaf to take the bread parcels out into the country and leave in the farm-gate boxes with the mail. They were paid monthly, although in most cases the poor old baker got paid every six months (if he was lucky), but usually after the wheat cheque arrived.
Vic always tried to keep faith with his customers, and when he did eventually have motor vehicles in the business he was often known to go out 20 or 30 miles into the country to deliver a loaf because someone in the shop had missed an order. Vic was very proud of his products, and the fact that all bread was made from wheat grown in the district and made into flour by Keys and Co Flour Mill Narrabri.
Delivering the bread around the town was also difficult. There were three bakeries operating in Narrabri, and with the incredibly “spread-out” nature of the town it was an inefficient and costly service. Each of the three bakeries traversed the whole of Narrabri and West Narrabri.
Vic had some faithful and wonderful delivery horses. They loved their work and were big strong animals. They grew to know their “runs” quite well. “Old Roley” was one who will never be forgotten. Roley knew what day of the week it was. That is to say he knew if it was a single day or a Friday which was a double day. Roley and his cart were never tied up as the bread carter went into each house with his basket of bread. Roley would move to the next house, or in some cases he would amble along two or three houses and wait for the carter to load up again, depending on what day of the week it was. He knew where the customers were, and those customers who only took bread three times weekly.
The horses also loved their week-end break when they were led, in the early days by Vic on a bicycle, over the bridge to enjoy the week-end in Charlie Caves paddock opposite the Golf Club. Later when motor vehicles came on the scene, Vic would drive them over, holding the reins out the window! Our children came to love “bringing in the horses” late Sunday afternoons ready for work Monday morning.
There were also some rogue horses. One Vic always had trouble with was a cranky animal, he had to be backed up to a brick wall to unharness from the cart, otherwise he would take off. Many times all hands were called to find the runaway horse.
The modernization of the main street!
Early in the 1950’s, the Council of the day (in its wisdom?) decided all the verandah posts in Maitland street had to come down. The verandah over our rented shop was one of the first to be demolished. The shop not only looked like something out of a Wild West movie, it was also impractical for displaying cakes, pastry, bread etc. The sun glared down, and heated the shop and its contents up like a furnace.
This, and the extra work involved in baking in two places let Vic to buy a vacant block further down Maitland Street, to build his own shop. When the “big” flood came in 1955 the foundations of the shop had been laid and the flood covered it.
The 1955 flood
When the wall of water hit Narrabri, many people panicked and ran out of their houses, leaving everything. Their losses were great. They rushed to halls such as the old Town Hall. Hundreds of people were stuck there for days, and desperate for food. We stayed in our home and managed to raise most of our furniture and possessions up out of the flood. By this time the Miller family had three children, Denise, Paul and Terry, and wife Pat was expecting their fourth child, Anne who was “our flood baby”.
Because it was impossible to use any of the brick ovens to bake bread for the hundreds of people in the Town Hall, the SES came to Vic and asked him to make some bread in his small electric pastry ovens. So Vic answered the pleas of the SES to help feed the multitude in the Town Hall. They came to collect him on a big tractor, and each day, until the water subsided, he baked the little loves in his pastry electric ovens, standing in water himself!
Pat, his pregnant wife with a house full of mud, inches thick inside the kitchen cupboards, and three children, was not impressed with that situation. Many hundreds of loaves were made in the very small electric ovens and floated around to the Town Hall in boats to feed the people stranded there, for which Vic never charged for or was offered or sought payment. When the water subsided and people were walking around town trying to buy food, the SES asked Vic to open his shop and sell what he could make.
This created more of a problem for poor Vic trying to help everyone. The banks were closed, so there was no change available. The price for a 1 lb loaf was 11 and one half pence. People had shillings. Vic had no change so he sold the loaves for 1 shilling. Then he was written up in the first post-flood issue of the Courier as “the profiteer” of the flood charging one half penny extra for the small loaves until the banks opened. That any person would write such a statement about him after how much he had freely given away hurt Vic deeply. It did not sit well with wife Pat either, 6 months pregnant and trying to look after three children at home all day on her own, trying to clean up after the flood.
Any Narrabri folk still living in the town, who lived through that terrible flood, will surely still remember the stinking mud everywhere. It was so rotten because most of it had come across the north-western paddocks where animals grazed. In fact some people who had been away when the flood hit town, and could not get back to their homes for a week or more found their homes affected by blowflies when they eventually opened them up.
Changes in the baking industry
With the completion of the new shop in late 1955, the business began its expansion. Vic Miller bought out Cattell’s Bakery and later Curry’s Bakery in Doyle Street. Deliveries were done in motor vehicles, and the dear old horses put out to grass forever. Every new type of machinery such as mixers and electric-dough-brakes which came onto to the market Vic installed. Great changes were taking place in the baking industry, supposedly to save the back-breaking job of mixing huge doughs by hand.
Vic was one of the first country bakers to install a big electric mixer which would mix three bags of flour at once. He also installed the first “travelling oven” in a country bakery. It was a very costly business keeping up with the change. People demanded “sliced bread”. It was quick and easy for the house wife. Whilst Vic had all this hi-tech equipment installed, he also had to then deal with the many problems it created. For example, he found it difficult to get the bread cooled quickly for slicing by the machine. So he converted a huge air-craft propeller to do the job! It was noisy and windy - thank goodness it was well covered with a safety screen!
With all such change in the baking industry also came strict baking laws relating to starting times for bakeries. The Government insisted this was to protect the small bakeries. In reality it suited the big multi-national fully automated bakeries, which were mostly owned by the big flour mills. They not only had the equipment to do the work of 8 men in most cases, they were more concerned in getting the “units of bread” produced from their own flour. They were to give secret discounts to the supermarket outlets, which severely undercut the country bakery who still, to a large extent, ran a labor-intensive type of production line.
The new baking laws were particularly trying for Vic Miller’s Country style bakery. For some time he supplied small towns who had lost their own town bakery such as Collarenebri, Walgett, Rowena, Burren etc. They had quite a problem getting the bread cooled, sliced and packed in tea chests and up to the railway in time to catch the 6.30am branch-line trains. The inspectors in fact caught them breaking these early start laws, and they were fined 200 pounds, which was a lot of money in those days, for leaving their bakery houses early to catch the train. Many of these little places would have only got fresh bread once a week if this had not been done. Yet somehow in later years the multi-nationals were able to arrive in Narrabri by 7am with their freshly sliced bread (made in Tamworth) and did so compete unfairly with the country town bakery that was always watched so carefully regarding the baking laws.
The 1971 flood, although much smaller, still did quite a lot of damage to the baking business. The new travelling oven was inundated with water and bread had to be flown in from Tamworth. With no usable road to the airport, the flooded Doctor’s Creek had to be used to float a trailer with crates of bread across. Sometimes the crates toppled into the rushing water!
“The Boss” retires
Vic retired from baking in 1979 when the multinationals began delivering bread into Narrabri. He sold his units to one of them, keeping the bakery still going for all other baked goods. Terry who had decided to join his Dad in the business and stay in Narrabri after he had completed a degree in Food Technology took over the business. According to the condition of the sale, Terry was able to include bread making within six months.
Terry then began the expansion of the business in keeping with the changes in peoples eating habits. The shop became a 7-day per week hot bread bakery, with a huge variety of baked goods produced daily. In 1998 Terry began massive changes with the Maitland Street premises. He travelled to bigger towns and saw what people wanted. He designed a new-look bakery which incorporated a top-story eat-in area, to have coffee and meet in a lovely atmosphere.
What is most gratifying to all the Miller Family is that Terry has been able to restore the grand balcony with steel posts and railings to the main street of Narrabri. It has helped return that country-town look in keeping with the improved appearance of Maitland Street and which is so widely coveted these days.
However Terry, always looking for a challenge, has also built the Bakery Express at the Tibbereena Street end of the property. It has been another enormous undertaking, full of new ideas to serve the travelling public passing through.
There were some wonderful people who worked in the bakery over the years, many of them staying with the Millers for a lifetime. Still today, the bakery known as Watson’s Kitchen really bears the Miller name, for every male born into the Miller family for the past 100 years has the name Watson tacked onto his Christian name.