William Benjamin Spargo (b. 1888) made his home in one of the most inhospitable regions of Victoria. A pioneer of the fledging alpine sports, he lived through extreme poverty and amassed a fortune on the back of determination and ingenuity. As the first man to live on Mt. Hotham through the winter, he had a hand in many of the early structures in the region.
Spargo came to the Hotham region convinced there was gold to be found in the mountains; and to that end he took work with the Country Roads Board in 1921 to maintain the Mt. Hotham Road. The job allowed him to sustain himself whilst prospecting and the CRB built the Hotham Heights Chalet for him, the first of many of his high plains huts.
Through winter however, the snow would put both the road and the gold well out of Spargo’s reach. So Hotham Heights took on a secondary role; becoming a guest house for the burgeoning skiing community in Melbourne with Spargo, a self-taught skier, its host. This proved to be an attractive site for skiers, and lucrative for Spargo. In 1928 he resigned his duties with the Roads Board to focus entirely on skiing, partnering with Austrian ski instructor Helmut Kofler. The two clashed and soon separated, but the growth of Hotham’s skiing continued, and Spargo was asked the next year to oversee the construction of a second hut on the high plains, Cope Hut, for hikers and skiers.
By now Spargo was a figure of fascination for the public in Melbourne, dubbed the ‘Hermit of Hotham Heights’ by the press, his isolated and rugged lifestyle was the subject of numerous articles. Alongside this his friendship with Keith Murdoch no doubt boosted this infamy, and by 1931 his visits to Melbourne were announced in Murdoch’s The Herald. However, things took a turn for Spargo in 1934. The Victorian Railways, who also ran the ski resort at Buffalo, acquired Hotham Heights Chalet and Spargo’s position was terminated. Unwilling to give up his prospecting, which had continued unabated through the summer months, Spargo left Hotham Heights to a new hut, not far from Hotham Heights; now called Spargo’s Hut. This would be his home for the next six years, living on next to nothing. Now with no reliable source of income, in the depths of the Great Depression, he was forced to live off the land to survive and working as a handyman for Hotham Heights.
Ill fortune struck again in 1939 as Black Friday tore through the high country leaving little in its wake. While others fled to safety, Spargo remained to protect his property, utilising every ounce of his ingenuity to save his home. He soaked everything he could with water to prevent the fires taking hold, going as far as to divert a creek through his hut. In spite of his determination, it was an incredibly risky decision to remain, something Spargo himself understood well, he kept a loaded shotgun with him should the worst come about. which very nearly did, when the fires reached him the heat was so intense it caused the roof of the hut to cave in, landing on Spargo, leaving him lucky to have survived.
In spite of the damage to the hut and himself, Spargo had succeeded, his hut was still more or less standing after the fires. The same could not be said for Hotham Heights, which had been abandoned and reduced to rubble by the blaze.
Spargo’s determination was rewarded the following year, close to twenty years after taking the job with the Country Roads Board, he struck gold at a place he named Red Robin Reef. His discovery was published in papers nation-wide, and offers came flooding in. A Sydney syndicate offered some £60,000 (around $6,000,000 in 2018) for the mining rights to the Red Robin Mine, but Spargo turned down all comers in favour of working the mine for himself.
His fame ballooned with this find, and he was inundated with letters, some from as far of as British Malaya (modern Malaysia).
Spargo worked the mine until 1953, when he was 65, when he finally felt too old for the work. He sold the mine along with the hut he had built there and left the freezing High Country for Queensland. He lived there for 6 years in retirement before his death, aged 74.
High Country Heritage Research Centre, High Country Heritage Huts
Garden, D Spargo, William Benjamin, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 16
Lawrence, R Huts of the Bogong High Plains
The Pioneer, vol. 3 “The Beginning of Skiing at Hotham”