A Pioneer’s Story

Donovan (Don) Francis Duncan Rhodes was born on the 30th October 1910 in Selby, Yorkshire, England to Joshua and Eliza Rhodes (nee Outhwaite). The family emigrated to Australia in 1913, settling in Western Australia on 120-acre orange tree and grapevine orchard in Maide Vale.

Don commenced school at the age of six years, alongside his siblings. The school had one teacher, and the children walked 9 kilometers each day to and from school. Don would carry with him a billy can to collect milk for the family.

One Teacher School in Maide Vale

Tragically in 1922, the family lost their home and all their belongings to a house fire. Life became more challenging; they rebuilt the home, and with no running water, water was carted in a barrel on a sled to the house once a week. Don successfully won a scholarship to Northam High School, where he studied agriculture.

Don at Northam High School

On finishing school Don returned to the family home and orchards. Always an innovator, Don dug a well at the side of the house to solve the family’s lack of running water. He then installed a hand pump inside the house, providing the family with their first running water system.

Starting his business career at 19 years of age, Don purchased 3,000 head of poultry and commenced his poultry business on the family property, working the poultry farm in conjunction with the family orchard and vineyard. All of the proceeds went to meet the family’s budget. Don, feeling it was time to make his own way, negotiated with his father and in lieu of wages, he received a truck.

Leaving home Don makes his way to Wilson’s Patch near Leonora where he took a contract to cut and haul the firewood to the feed boiler and to dewater the mine.

In 1935, Don traded in his truck for a larger truck and went to work on a subcontract basis for Dan Hunt, driving heavily laden trucks from Perth to Darwin. This work was arduous, with the road between Perth and Darwin just a rough track and Dan Hunt was awarded a contracted to build a 40-mile pileline from Manton River to Darwin and Don acquired a new and larger truck to cart the pipes from Darwin onto the line and other cartage work.

From 1938 and 1942, based in Darwin, Don acquired other equipment, including three trucks and a small bulldozer and continued to work on a contract basis for Mr Hunt. In 1942, the Department of Works requisitioned all of Don’s equipment except one truck. He continued to work with this truck until the end of the war in late 1944.

Don pictured in a bomb crater in Darwin

It was during his time in Darwin that he met John Charman, becoming good friends. John introduced Don to his sister, Dorothy Charman, in 1945. Love blossomed, and they soon married. Tragically, on the day of Dorothy and Don’s wedding, a car bomb killed his mother, Betty, his sister, and Betty’s husband, leaving their daughter Vilia an orphan. Vilia, only nine years old, was raised by Dorothy and Don.

In 1946, they welcomed their first child, Kenneth Donovan Rhodes. Their second child, a daughter named Maxine Frances Rhodes, was born in 1950.

Maxine and Kenneth

Don’s next venture into business was buying his brother-in-law’s fleet of three ford trucks and the contract to supply limestone and bauxite to Swan Portland Cement Works. The work was labor-intensive, with the bauxite blasted and loaded onto trucks by hand. Demonstrating his innovation and pioneering spirit, he purchased an excavator, the very first in Western Australia. A second excavator followed, and then his first major contract constructing the runways at Perth airport established him in general earth moving, all over Western Australia.

DFD Rhodes Pty Ltd

DFD Rhodes Pty Ltd was incorporated on the 29th of May 1950. The business growing rapidly in the post-war era, expanding into mining and exploration activities in the Pilbara in parallel with the earthmoving enterprise.

Port Hedland Workshop

Don Rhodes was the pioneer of the manganese industry in Western Australia. In 1952, contracted by Northern Minerals to mine and cart manganese from Woodie Woodie to Port Hedland, his team set about grading bush tracks into roads suitable for the ore trucks to use. The area was harsh and isolated, with primitive accommodation. Water needed to be carted in from a gorge 141 km away. The ore was carted over 537 kilometers, taking up to 18 hours. The first shipment of manganese left Port Hedland on Saturday, November 21, 1953. In the first year, 9,000 tonnes of ore were carted from Woodie Woodie to Port Hedland.

Unloading manganese in Port Hedland

The mine was closed in 1967; ore prices had declined, and it was no longer feasible to continue mining manganese ore. The mine is operational today, being Consolidated Minerals’ biggest asset, producing high-grade manganese ore with a high manganese content.

It was during these years that Don in his words “had my team scouring the hills”. They were exploring for manganese mineral deposits. By 1956, he had pegged several manganese mineral claims in the Pilbara region and was conducting extensive prospecting operations.

Regional Western Australia and the Northern Territory also bear the mark of major projects by Don Rhodes, including the Lake Argyle diversion dam, the Useless Loop Salt Project, the building of a section of the inland road to the North, and the beef cattle road in Top Springs (NT). The company’s mining and exploration activities in the Pilbara grew in parallel with the earthmoving arm of the business, taking on earthworks projects that built the Perth we know today, including the construction of the runways for Perth Airport, earthworks for the Narrows Bridge, carting the rock for the Garden Island causeway, and the goods train line through Canning Vale.

The original workshop was located in Welshpool. Today, the company’s head office is located at Rhodes House, Ord Street, West Perth.

The Original Workshop at Tate Street, Welshpool

In the background, Don Rhodes had been purchasing farms in Boyup Brook, Western Australia, and leasing the properties to farmers. The decision was made to take back the leases and farm the land, establishing what would become Rhodes Pastoral, farming today on 15,393 hectares.

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