3. Yeager family

William Tudor Yeager (1840 – 1904) Pioneer River Trader

Yeagers are one of Coraki’s best known and most successful families in the Richmond River district. 

from Ballina up, the few small settlements here and there along the bank were barely visible, as the forest came down to the water’s edge”. from Yeager’s diary

William Tudor Yeager, born in Canada, arrived in Australia in 1858 aged just 18 years. He saw an opportunity to supply the timber getter camps with flour, tea and equipment and bought a ten-ton lugger, rowing and sailing the length of the river with his goods to sell. He then purchased other vessels large enough to bring supplies from Sydney. By 1865 he had saved enough money to purchase land at East Coraki which he named Oakland after the town in California where he had grown up. He married 16 year old Mary Ann Webster and as his family grew, so did his business. 

He brought to the river the first steam drougher, Keystone, a stern paddle-wheeler affectionately known as Puffing Billy and began transporting passengers as well as goods up and down the Richmond and Clarence rivers. Once he had purchased ocean-going craft, he expanded to shipping timber to the ever-hungry Sydney markets. Thus, he also established a base at Pyrmont and wharves and warehouses at Lismore and Irvington.

The timber mill and wharves  across the river at Oakland.

The Oakland sawmill came into operation during 1882, just one month after William Yabsley Junior had turned his father’s ship-building shed into a sawmill. William Yeager Junior became more involved with his father’s business and became manager at the Oakland sawmill whilst Edgar (Ted) was running the Sydney operations.

That same year a grand two-storey house was built for the Yeager family; 25 rooms with sweeping lawns down to the river’s edge and extensive gardens with a lily pond. They also purchased a home in York St, Sydney. The family were well respected with Mary Ann being a pillar of the church community and her teenage daughters Mary Agnes (Doll) and Josephine (Jo) involved in charity and social activities. Young John Tudor, aged 11, died of typhoid fever whilst attending school in Sydney.

William built a fine house on the river’s edge for his wife, Mary Ann Webster and their five children.

The business grew steadily; the fleet of steamboats being the envy of the north. Oakland Sawmill was the most up-to-date and efficient of the many mills on the river at that time. Up to 150 men were employed in this sawmilling business, much of the timber arriving by raft from the Yeager property at Bungabee. The yards and sheds covered almost two acres. Workmen’s cottages, mess-room and dormitory, store, school, church, etc., constituted a small busy community.

The business thrived, supplied by the many cedar-getters in the district.
He bought trading vessels and shipped the timber to Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1898 William sold his fleet of large ocean steamboats to the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. but retained the smaller river passenger vessels.

In 1899, whilst William was in England, Mary Ann, aged 50, died suddenly leaving behind four adult children. Mary Agnes had moved to Sydney and married George Barter, while Josephine was alone at Oakland with her mother. The following year, on the eve of her wedding, Josephine was struck down with typhoid fever and after a lengthy recuperation, married Leslie Walter Pye and started a family. William, aged 61, remarried and had two more children. In failing health, he sailed for America with his new family but he died in 1904 while visiting family in Philadelphia; his business interests in Coraki and Sydney being passed into his sons’ capable hands. 

Just over one year later in 1906, William Junior was also stricken with illness and passed away suddenly, leaving 25 year old Edgar Osmond (Ted) Yeagar as the sole male heir in charge of an extensive business empire. Life in the Richmond Valley was changing and when the river trade diminished the family turned to other pursuits. The large land holdings at Oakland, Bungabee and Wyoming were divided up between the three remaining siblings, while the Oakland Sawmills and Steamer Enterprises, including the river boats, were sold to Davis Bros and Burgess. Many people had been employed by this family over the years and the Yeagers always had the reputation for dealing fairly with employees.

Ted married Clara Goulding and, after a world honeymoon tour, started a family and settled into life at Oakland. He began developing his ideas around mixed-crop farming and by 1911 was expanding into dairy cattle. He invested a lot of time and money into the very latest machinery and innovative farming techniques. He purchased a 100 horse-power traction engine for irrigation, ploughing and road building, new silos for conserving fodder and installed 36 new milking machines.

The dairy was said to be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere servicing dozens of surrounding farms, milking 600 cows per day.

Possessing a brilliant engineering mind, Ted invented a variety of useful contraptions and applied for several patents: a multi disk gramophone; a reversing propeller for aeroplanes and even a drainer rack for tableware. He built a full scale anti-torpedo net which he demonstrated to the amazed onlookers by dragging it behind the steamer Magnet. It was lauded as an engineering masterpiece for the protection of the many boats on the Richmond River. 

The family were very private and Ted, although very civic-minded, never sought public office on the council. The Yeager women were involved in charity and social work, particularly during the war. Clare and Ted raised three children: Gwendoline, William and John.

The sawmill continued to be successful under the guidance of Davis Bros & Burgess and was expanded to include a small ship-building yard with Oliver Jones in charge of operations. He had learnt the craft from William Yabsley Snr and was married to his daughter Elizabeth. William Burgess died soon afterwards and the supply of softwood from around the district petered out. After the devastating flood in 1921 the sawmill was closed down. 

John Yeager, like his father, had an inventive turn of mind and inherited a fascination with cars. He built his first one in 1931, when he was only 17. 

War came again and William signed up.

By 1954 the house had fallen into disrepair and was pulled down and rebuilt as a single storey house using the original timbers.

John built three more cars, but abandoned his last project because of family illness in 1963. 

Oakland House was sold in 1992.

Yeagers have shaped the district for more than 150 years.