Manilla’s Kevin Dodds admits to being a bit of a chatter box, and loves embarking on a good yarn, especially if the subject is anything to do with logging in the bush, working in sawmills, droving cattle or hitching up bullock teams. But the 87-year-old is currently in his happy place when sitting around dabbling in his beloved leatherwork.
Kevin plaited his first belt at the age of seven, and since then has shown his forte in the art of leatherwork by not only making saddles, but also producing anything leather in any way associated with working with horses and livestock.
“My four kids all went through pony club, and I made saddles and all the gear for each of them. When I was 16, I even modified a military saddle to use while droving and doing stock work myself.”
While Kevin boasts being almost an official resident of Manilla after spending the last 30 years in the small town – probably the longest he’s every laid his head down in the one place – he describes himself as having “wandering boots” for the biggest part of his life.
He was schooled in Dorrigo, but left at the age of 12 to go fencing with his father, an allround bushman who spent most of his life working in sawmills and droving with bullock teams in the sawmill industry.
“At 13, I was running horses and cattle in pretty rough country, and did some sawmill work as well as work with the State Forest pulling logs,” Kevin said.
He completed National Service in Queensland in 1952, then went back into the sawmills with his dad, who sadly passed away that same year following a bad logging accident.
“It was the same year Queen Elizabeth was crowned. And it was a public holiday, which meant that I wasn’t there with him. If I had been, the accident might never have happened,” Kevin recalled.
After short stints in the forest/sawmill at Armidale and on the railway at Townsville, Kevin returned to Dorrigo and sawmilling with new wife Joy. But once again, Kevin got itchy feet, pulled on his wandering boots and headed to Barraba where he carried out working on a sheep station and the sawmill before settling into five years of working at the Asbestos Mine near Barraba.
“After that I built my own sawmill in the Horton Valley, but hurt my hand really badly and had to sell it. We went to Bellatawhere I was a farm manager, then ended up working for the local Cotton Industry driving heavy machinery.”
But Kevin’s working for wages years came to an end when he sustained bad injuries after falling from a power pole while working for the local council at Narrabri.
“We purchased our house in Manilla in 1992, and have loved life here ever since,” he said.
“While I was in the sawmill, I learned to sharpen circular saws, so I took on doing that for a while around the region.”
Though sadly, in 2017 Kevin lost Joy, his wife of 56 years. That prompted him to return to his leatherwork in earnest. Now he and partner Dot Alwill (probably well known to Manilla folk in running the town’s taxi service for 19 years) work on their wares for local markets.
While Dot likes to keep people warm with her handmade scarves and beanies, Kevin can turn his hand to just about anything leather.
“My belts will last forever. I use the same leather as you would find on the stirrups of a 100-year-old saddle today. And I’ve provided a lot of logbook covers to truckies all over Australia.”
Apart from his belts and logbook covers, Kevin, who will also take special orders, can offer wallets, plaited belts, pouches, shoulder bags, though considers his favourite piece to be a wooden money box with a carved leather facing on it. And he goes all the way to source top leather – kangaroo hide from around Griffith, belt leather from Toowoomba and the carving leather from a supplier in Brisbane.
Though if anyone does happen to pull into Kevin’s trading table at one of the region’s markets, be warned, a good yarn about the old bush life could be on the cards.
“When the old blokes and I get together and start talking sawmills, you really need a shovel to keep the sawdust away.” By Vinnie Todd