When Box Hill Was a Village
2. The One‑Eyed Orchardist
As I walked up Court Street, Box Hill, to the Sunday School of the Box Hill Church of Christ in those last days of the World War, I walked into the friendship of a number of significant adults who had a profound effect on the future direction of my life.
One such man was not a teacher in the Sunday School, but if it had not been for him I would not have continued attending.
After my father died, my mother was trying to bring up her four young children including my baby sister, care for her demented mother in law, rescue a business that was on the edge of bankruptcy, and working full time to keep the employees on. The house we all lived in, No.5 Miller Street, was only half a house with two and a half rooms for all of us.
Somehow Mother managed to obtain a newly built house in Box Hill South, among the cow paddocks, with unmade streets and little public transport. Not being able to drive, the two miles of unmade roads would be too much for the little children on their own to go to Sunday School. So, reluctantly, a note travelled with me to say that next week would be our last at Sunday School.
The Court Street Sunday School teachers certainly had enough children to teach each week as about three hundred packed the halls, the church, and every available corner. Yet they regretted the loss of the fringe family by removal to the edge of town.
That was when Jack Ferris volunteered to help. Jack Ferris was not a teacher although he loved children and had a young son and daughter of his own. Jack Ferris was not a teacher because of his face. He had a purple birthmark that and a large swelling of purple skin one eye. A white eyeball looked out at a strange angle from between the purple lids. In recent years, his two children explained to me that was not as prominent as I had remembered, and that to them it was no real disfigurement.
But I remember that we boys would dare each other to walk up to him and stare at his eye. Sometimes Jack Ferris would see us and turn, and we would run off as fast as we could. To look him in the purple eye was one of the bravest things a boy could do. Yet he was a smiling, happy, friendly man who worked on his own orchard in North Box Hill. He always brought apples for the children on special occasions.
The one eyed orchardist used his truck to help the Sunday School. His truck always went off to Sunday School picnics loaded with urns for boiling water, boxes of apples, and a crowd of older boy who clung to the high wooden sides of the tray truck, and who snuggled beneath the tarpaulin for the cold journey home at night.
Jack Ferris’ truck was also on hand to shift the scenery for our dramas and concerts in the Box Hill Town Hall. It was Jack Ferris who helped the boys gymnasium shift their vaulting horse and parallel bars for their displays in the Town Hall.
Now Jack Ferris, hearing this family of children would no longer be able to come to Sunday School, offered to drive the two miles to church, then on past the church another two miles to pick up these children from a fringe family to bring them back to Court Street.
So we were able to continue attending the Court Street Sunday School because Jack Ferris would come to pick us up. The one eyed orchardist would drive his truck bouncing down our twisting dirt road to our house each Sunday morning. Frequently my mother, tired from her week of heavy work, would not have us ready. But Jack Ferris never complained. He would make a cup of tea for mother while she got us ready, then take us off. His own family arrangements had to be well organised in order to care for this other family of small children.
1952 was a great year in the Melbourne Churches of Christ. They were host for the World Convention of Churches of Christ. Ten thousand people attended the great public rallies in the Exhibition Building. Thousands of overseas visitors were accommodated in the homes of Melbourne Church members, more, it was said, than who came to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
Associated with the Convention was an evangelistic mission held with two visiting Americans, Mr. Pollock a song leader, and Dr. E. Ray Snodgrass the evangelist. The Snodgrass Pollock Mission was conducted in Wirth’s Olympia. This great circus arena was now filled with chairs and thousands sang the popular choruses and hymns. “The Awakening Chorus” lifted the roof. There was hardly a dry eye as they learnt the beautiful “Beyond the Sunset”.
All of the members of the Court Street Church of Christ were attending. Jack Ferris offered his truck to take in some of the senior boys from the Sunday School. With great hilarity we piled into the one eyed orchardist’s truck for the trip into town and the Snodgrass Pollock Mission.
They were great nights. Some of us boys climbed up the very highest row of the seats at the back, and made paper planes from the hymn sheets and sent them circling down upon the heads of the crowd below.
One night, however, I heard what Dr. Snodgrass was saying. He was holding up five fingers and showing how first God required us to have faith in Jesus Christ. Two meant we should repent of our sin and indicate to God that we would try to live a better life. Three meant that we should privately confess to God our sin, and publicly take a stand for Jesus as one of his followers. Four meant that we should be baptised as he commanded us as obedient believers. Five related to the promise of the Holy Spirit who was given to those who believed, repented, confessed and were baptised as Peter had promised on the Day of Pentecost.
I understood every word. Then he asked those of us who would follow the way of Jesus to come to the front for counselling. As the choir and the congregation started to sing
“Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me to come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come”
I came. I walked in tears down the high rows of seats, along the sawdust covered ground of the circus ring to the front, and stood with those who received Christ as Lord.
On the way home I travelled in the front of Jack Ferris’ truck, and he kept telling me of the significance and joy of my commitment. The one eyed orchardist was overjoyed.
Two nights later he and our minister visited my mother to talk about my baptism. We had a Bible Study, then a prayer time. For the first time in our new house, we knelt down together on the floor of our lounge room and prayed. My mother and I understood what was happening. It was arranged for me to be baptised the following Sunday night, 21st September, 1952, at the Snodgrass Pollock Mission in Wirth’s Olympia. Some 5,000 people witnessed the baptism of hundreds of us.
Just after that Jack Ferris died. The one eyed orchardist no longer drove his truck to pick us up for Sunday School. But now I was a committed Christian and had enough motivation to take my younger brother and sisters. So we continued attending on our own, walking all the way and return each Sunday. Apart from everything else, I had a beautiful 13 year old blonde, Beverley, whom I wanted to meet.
I tell you this for the sake of two more recent events.
The first occurred twenty years later, when I was preaching as an evangelist in America. I had travelled through many States on my way to another Churches of Christ World Convention in Mexico. I had been booked to preach in Enid, Olkahoma. It was a huge church, the largest I had ever spoken in to that time. Several thousand people were seated in the congregation. The minister had told me that every week they had over 100 millionaires in the congregation.
Just as we were about the enter the platform, the minister indicated that he would get a gown for me to wear as was their custom. From the cupboard he produced an old gown and apologised for it. “This gown used to be worn by the previous minister of this church. He died a few years ago after at 25 year ministry here. His name was Dr. E. Ray Snodgrass.
I turned to my friend: “Did you say Dr. E. Ray Snodgrass? I made my commitment to Christ under his preaching!” That morning as I preached in his old pulpit, I held up five fingers and told the way of salvation through faith, repentance, confession, baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit as he had done.
That morning at the door as I shook hands with the congregation, person after person wept with the joyful memories of their beloved pastor. One lady in a big fur said: “When you were preaching this morning in that gown, holding up your five fingers, I could just hear Dr. Snodgrass speaking!” I replied, “He was. He was!”
The second event occurred, thirty years after the death of the one eyed orchardist. I was the guest preacher at the 75th anniversary of the Box Hill Church of Christ. 800 people were in the Box Hill Town Hall. I thanked those who had helped me in my spiritual pilgrimage, and especially Jack Ferris, the one eyed orchardist, whose friendship and ever available truck meant so much to me. Without him at the wheel, I would possibly not be in the ministry today. I said I was so sorry he never lived to see me loving the Lord and serving Him, when he had done so much to give me every chance of doing that.
Afterwards a thirty five year old man came to see me. His eyes were red with tears. “My name is John Ferris. Jack was my father. He died before I really knew him. I have never before heard anyone ever speak about my father. He did not look the best with his purple eye and no one has ever said anything to me about him before. If he did all that to keep you in the church, he would be broken hearted now to know that I have drifted away from my faith. I have been busy building up a successful business and I have neglected my church and my faith. But I tell you, from now on I won’t. Today, I recommitted my life to Christ because of what you told me of my father.”
So, today, the spirit of Jack Ferris lives on in his son, John. Recently I was a guest in their home, and spoke at a business prayer breakfast organised by John and attended by over 100 businessmen in the beautiful Dandenong Mountains. John Ferris is the president of that group of Christian businessmen.
I often thought, when I was a very small child, of plucking up enough courage to look right at that purple eye of the one eye orchardist, as I walked home up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was still a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.