This is a story of a poor immigrant family who through hard work became very successful farmers in Rowville and Lysterfield.
Marty Alberni maintains this is ‘virtually a story of people coming to this country with very little money and doing a lot of hard work. And it didn’t happen only for the Albernis, it happened to most of the farmers in that same area. Like Ehrenfried Exner. Of German extraction, he came out and only had a small place for a start and he grew vegetables, married one of the original Taylor girls and made their farm bigger and bigger until it went from Stud Road to Taylors Lane. Today the Stud Park Shopping Centre stands on that land.’
Like Exner, Marty’s father Salvadore emigrated to Australia at the age of thirteen with his father Martin from Catalonia, Spain in 1906. The two went to Innisfail in Queensland where they cut sugar cane in order to earn enough to bring out the rest of the family.
In 1908, Francois, Martin’s wife and his other two sons Enrique 18 and Martin 7, landed in Melbourne. As there was not enough money to continue on to Queensland, they were joined in Melbourne by Salvadore and Martin senior. (There is a tradition in the Alberni family of having one in every generation named Martin, a tradition upheld to this day!)
The family went to live in South Melbourne and washed dishes at Parer’s Restaurant to make a living. After five or six years they were able to rent a five acre plot near the Moonee Ponds gasworks where they grew vegetables. The produce was taken by hand trolley to Victoria Market to be sold.
Young Martin, later to become Marty’s uncle, was going to Essendon High School by this time and had learned to speak English. At home, only Spanish was spoken.
Then Martin Senior collapsed and died of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, while working amongst the vegetables in the paddock.
In 1916, the three boys and their mother decided to look for a bigger property elsewhere. They discovered two adjacent properties for sale in Kelletts Road, Rowville, one of 44 acres, the other 46 acres, so they bought them and left Moonee Ponds. The land was a ti-tree swamp with only five or six acres cleared. On it were two little houses, a very small shed, one horse, a lorry and a cow.
They cleared enough land to grow a patch of tomatoes which were taken to Victoria Market to be sold, only this time a single horse wooden lorry was used for transport. So began Alberni Brothers Market Garden.
Salvadore went back to Barcelona in 1922, where he married Margeurite Duch (pronounced Doosh). He brought his bride back to Australia and another generation Martin (Marty) was born in 1923 at Murray House, the then Dandenong Hospital, now a doctor’s surgery. Marty was to be the only child in the three sons’ families and he said he was frightfully spoilt as a result.
By this time, all the land had been cleared by the brothers and a drain dug by hand at the rear of the two properties.
Bigger loads were being taken to market and a two horse lorry was now used for the purpose. A leader horse had to be used as well, to pull the load up Wheelers Hill which was far steeper then. When they arrived at the top the leader horse would be unhitched and one of the brothers would ride him home. The rider would often go to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the horse knew the way without any guidance from him.
All the market gardeners congregated at Oakleigh and drove to Victoria Market together, one behind the other, caravan fashion. From Oakleigh to Melbourne there were steel tracks like tram tracks and the horse lorries would travel between the rails, their steel rimmed wheels fitting into the tracks. It was the same procedure for the return journey. The driver of the leading lorry was supposed to stay awake even if those behind him dozed off. Marty remembered his Uncle Henry (Enrique) telling the tale of how a policeman jumped onto the lorry one day when he was in the lead and discovered him fast asleep. Henry was booked for “driving horses while asleep”.
During the early twenties and just prior to Uncle Martin getting married to Grace Bailey, the family bought a property in Blackwood Park Road, Ferntree Gully which had been a soldier settlement block. These soldier settlement blocks had been created for returned servicemen after the First World War but at 45 or 50 acres each were far too small, according to Marty, from which to make a living. “They (the Government) built them a house and they built them a little dairy to milk two cows at a time, but they just couldn’t make a go of it. Neither did they have the ‘know-how’ of farming.” So the settlers sold their blocks as they went broke and the Albernis were able to buy the first one in Blackwood Park Road complete with a house. Uncle Henry moved into that and Uncle Martin moved into another house in Kelletts Road. Over the following years, the family was able to buy all the adjoining properties in Blackwood Park Road and along Napoleon Road to Kelletts Road. Some 340 acres in all.
Other properties were also purchased next to the ones in Kelletts Road. The land here had mostly natural vegetation, a lot of which was wattle, much sought after by bakers for their ovens. Contractors were brought in to cut the timber into 2 foot 6 inch lengths which were then left to dry. The blackwood scrub was burnt off and grass hand sown in the ashes. The properties were fenced by the Albernis. They made concrete posts in moulds at the rate of 40 every second day. Concrete was used instead of timber because of fire danger. The moulds were then put in the creek which ran through the property and left to harden for two days.
Meanwhile, at the age of five, Marty had started at the Lysterfield School. He had to trot three and a half miles to get there. Added to that he couldn’t speak a word of English so it was a difficult time for a while.
Harry Methven was the teacher and Marty declares “he was the greatest man God ever put breath into, in my opinion. Helped me right through my life.” Understanding the little boy’s plight, Methven visited the Albernis and told them it was no good talking Spanish all the time to their son. Marty had to learn English so he could succeed at school. “From that day on they never spoke anything but English in front of me,” said Marty.
A branch of the Young Farmers Movement was started at the school by Methven and it was this that set Marty on course for a lifelong interest in cattle. The children were taken to judging schools and on excursions to properties that had cattle and other farming activities.
The Sellmans owned all the flat land between Glenfern Road and Lysterfield Road and a portion was set aside for bee keeping. The children used to walk seven miles across paddocks to get there. The farmers, over whose land they travelled, built stiles along the way so the children could walk over the fences instead of through them. It was easier on the fences. Seven miles back to school, then three and a half miles home for Marty. A total of twenty one miles in one day. “You didn’t think anything of it” he grins “’cause you were all together and all playing.” As a result of these excursions, several beehives were kept at the school and the children grew chrysanthemums to raise money.
The children were taught about cattle by a Mr Gillies at the Simpson property in Lysterfield Road and Marty was enthralled. In later years Marty became a cattle judge at every Royal Show in Australia and showed his own cattle right round the country from 1949 to 1976.
Marty said the custom of “tin kettling” newly married couples was in vogue during the twenties and thirties. “About 11 o’clock on the second night home from their honeymoon, all the locals would get empty four gallon kerosene tins and sticks and supper and run around the house banging the tins. They’d make a helluva noise and made sure they (the newlyweds) got out of bed. Whole families would go, kids too. I remember the night they tin kettled Harry Methven. They tin kettled for a while then went and knocked on the door which they expected the young couple to open. Harry Methven opened the door with a bucket of water and threw it over the ones in the doorway! They had cakes and sponges and everything got wet.” It would seem Mr Methven was unaware of the custom but he and his bride joined in the fun and the party didn’t finish until about 3 o’clock in the morning.
It was a different story when Uncle Martin and Auntie Grace were tin kettled. Their house, at the time, was opposite the one belonging to Miss Kellett, after whose family Kelletts Road is named. Apparently she was a bit of an eccentric who used to walk around her farm with a shotgun over her shoulder.The night Uncle Martin was given his tin kettling, some of the younger bloods decided to tin kettle Miss Kellett as well. She came charging out of the house firing her shotgun. Not over their heads as a warning but right at them. Fortunately no-one was shot and she made her point.
It was during the Depression that the Albernis made their money although there was sadness in the family when Marty’s grandmother Francois died in 1930. The brothers were selling cauliflowers at twelve for two pounds, which is about ten times the worth of them today and their brussel sprouts were being sold in Sydney at ten shillings for twelve pounds (nearly 5.50kg). They were rail-trucked interstate in special little boxes devised by Uncle Martin. One member of the family, usually Salvadore, would go to Sydney to make sure the agents were selling the produce at the correct price. For some four years Marty and his mother accompanied Salvadore to Sydney and stayed with him from June to September, living in a flat opposite Centennial Park. During these times Marty went to school at Paddington State School where he was initiated into the mysteries of rugby league. He said it ruined him for Victorian football when he came back. “I used to tuck the ball under my arm and run.”
When Marty finished at Lysterfield School he went to Dandenong High School, riding the nine miles on his bike and, before leaving each morning, he milked three cows. The Albernis were fattening cattle now as their acreage was too large for only vegetables. He also reared poddies which were bought for him by one of the auctioneers at the Dandenong Market. Mr Thomas Carroll used to look after Marty by buying him day old calves which Marty would take back home, rear them until they were about six weeks and old enough to be weaned, then return them to Mr Carroll who would sell them and buy another four or five in replacement and the procedure would start again.
The area where he lived as a young boy in Kelletts Road is now under housing. The Rowville Lakes Shopping Centre is opposite to where the house was located. The creek which ran through the Alberni land was in those days so narrow you could jump over it, but it couldn’t cope with heavy rains. As a result, on Christmas Eve in 1936, there was a flood. Fortunately the house was built on a rise of three feet which compensated for half of the six foot flood. The enterprising Albernis sandbagged all the doors to the rooms leading off the central hall and when the waters came, opened up the back and front doors and it flowed straight through.
After Marty left High School he naturally worked on the farm. The Second World War came and he had to remain on the farm as a primary producer. The farm supplied the army with cabbages and he well remembered having to make a delivery each Christmas Day to Cowper Street, driving a truck fitted with a gas producer on the back because of petrol rationing.
It was at a dance at Ferntree Gully where he met Ivy Tovey from Bayswater who sang in the band. They married in 1943 when they were both twenty and after fifty three years of an obviously devoted marriage have produced two sons, three daughters, eleven grand-children and five great grandchildren. Their family has spread to Tongala, Corowa, Ringwood, Mentone and Pakenham.
In 1946 Marty took over the reins of the business. Uncle Martin left the partnership the same year and went to Wagga where he died a year later. 1948 saw the start of Marty’s Shorthorn stud.
He played with the Ferntree Gully Football Club for a few years. “I wasn’t very good.” he assures me. When Uncle Martin left the partnership and Marty bought him out, he couldn’t afford the risk of injury so gave up playing and entered into administration, managing the Under 16s for seventeen years.
By 1965 both of his parents had died, leaving him the farm which he was forced to sell up in 1969 as probate tax was in force and the government demanded payment of two-thirds the value of the property. It was impossible to borrow that kind of money from the bank so it was subdivided into farmlets of ten to fifteen acres and auctioned.
Uncle Henry died three years later.
Marty and Ivy bought a property of 310 acres, “Strathard”, in Cranbourne-Narree Warren Road which is now a Jennings housing estate. They continued farming and kept on with Marty’s beloved Shorthorn Stud. The day came when they received a good offer for their property, so they sold and moved to the heart of Berwick.
Marty has been both Victorian and Federal President of the Shorthorn Society in Australia. He has Life Memberships at the Ferntree Gully Football Club, Narree Hallam Football Club, Beef Shorthorn Society of Victoria and the Berwick Agricultural Society. I ask him how he feels about other people being on what used to be his farm in Lysterfield and Ferntree Gully. Does he have any regrets? “No. I’m a very progressive person. I don’t believe in keeping land just to look at.”
He may have retired but Marty is still a man of the land. He and Ivy run the successful Akoonah Park Market in Berwick every Sunday, the profits from which enable the planting of up to forty trees a year in an effort to keep the land round Cardinia together. They are ensuring an area will be preserved “for people’s grandchildren to enjoy and see how the country looked before the settlers came.” This land he believes, is indeed worth keeping just to look at.
Interviewed by Pat Hatherley
First published in the October and November 1995 editions of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News.