Toots Holzheimer – A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Toots (left) in her 'trademark' boob-tube and skirt.

Toots (left) in her 'trademark' boob-tube and skirt.

I recognised her immediately, even though we had never met before. There was absolutely no mistaking her as she was the spitting image of her mother. Her warm brown eyes were a little wary at first, but very quickly softened and twinkled as she told me about the woman I had come to find out about. As Kaylene White, the eldest daughter of the legendary Cape York truckie Toots Holzheimer, talked, I sat back with my coffee and listened to one of the most remarkable stories I have heard for a very long time.
In an era when the Women’s Lib movement were busily burning bras and talking about equality, Toots was out there with the blokes beating them at their own game. In the 60s and 70s right up to the mid 90s, along with husband Ron who played second fiddle to the no-nonsense dynamo who was his wife, she kept the people of the Cape supplied with all the necessities of life from beer to diesel. For 35 years she and her beloved trucks were the lifeblood of the far north.

One of the trucks on the road.

One of the trucks on the road.

She was famous for being the first in after the wet and last out before the roads became impassable. Rough, tough and pretty gruff, she was the type of pioneering Aussie who made this great country what it is today. Meet Thora Daphne Holzheimer – Toots to anyone who knew her. In fact anyone who used her real name got short shrift. Toots was the nickname she chose at school and Toots was what she was called for the rest of her life.
What you saw was what you got and in true blue Aussie fashion she didn’t stand on ceremony for anyone. Immensely practical and down to earth, she regularly, even routinely, did all her own maintenance and servicing on her beloved MAN. When she and her truck got bogged, she got herself out of trouble. She and her husband frequently leap-frogged each other up The Cape, hacking down branches to shove under wheels buried to the axle in mud.
She didn’t give an inch and she didn’t expect to be treated differently from any man doing the same job. She loaded and unloaded 44 gallon drums without help. Anyone who mistakenly offered assistance was sent away with a curt refusal. Tough as nails, she could do anything she set her mind to. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but at the same time she had a softer side which was only revealed to those she chose.
Toots was married twice and had eight children. She was separated from her first family after a divorce when Kaylene was six and a court order prevented her from seeing those children. Kaylene told me how, at the age of 15 she saw a woman who she knew was her mother. In an amazing twist of fate Toots had just turned up at Stratford (in Cairns) in a molasses truck. The resemblance was uncanny. They didn’t speak at the time and finally met at Toots’ first husband’s funeral.

Loaded up and ready to roll.

Loaded up and ready to roll.

That resemblance was so strong that on another occasion when Kaylene was in hospital and Toots came to visit, the nurses announced that: “Your sister’s here to see you!”
When she married her second husband Ron, Toots started the career which would make her a household name firstly amongst residents of the Cape, then later Australia-wide. Toots had married Ron Holzheimer who worked in his brother’s trucking firm, John Holzheimer Transport. She had always wanted to drive trucks but had been refused by the army at the age of 16 because she was pregnant with Kaylene’s older brother Johnny. She had seen the military as one way of doing what she loved. John wouldn’t let Toots drive at first, so she did so on the sly. Her brother-in-law found out when she was pregnant and driving the truck while her husband looked after the chooks.
Vicki Adams, a long-time friend of Kaylene’s who had come to join us, told me how Ron used to dish out free ice creams to the kids along the way on their regular delivery runs. He kept them in a canvas bag filled with dry ice used to refrigerate fruit and veg on the run north and fish on the way back from Weipa. She was in awe of Kaylene’s mother who was only an inch taller, but had the drive and energy of half a dozen other women. When John Holzheimer found out about Toots driving she said they “had a bit of a blue” but in the end he gave in and let her carry on. This was almost 40 years ago, and it certainly wasn’t normal for women to drive a semi.
To put things further into context, you have to remember that this was only a very short time after Malcolm Douglas had toured the country with his film of travelling to “The Tip”. It was a time when most Aussies had never seen that part of their own country before; not even on television.

Toots was always the first one in and the last one out of the Cape.

Toots was always the first one in and the last one out of the Cape.

Toots had a further three children with her second husband, and the concept of the “working mum” was very much the case for her. She drove with babes in the cab (on one notable occasion throwing them clear when it caught fire) and never allowed children or pregnancy to slow her down. Another famous tale relates the time when she was loading 44-gallon drums of fuel only two days before giving birth. She was one tough cookie. She just got on with things in that intensely pragmatic pioneer- spirited way of hers, hitching up her skirt and rolling up her sleeves. And when she’d finished work she went straight to the pub as she was.

Read more in the 2008 Cape Yorker magazine, available online.

By Tristram Eley