It was perhaps the last thing Burt Ernest Dawes expected when he pushed for fluoride in his city’s water supply more than 50 years ago.
It was 1964, to be precise, and the people of Grafton in northern New South Wales were gearing up for the annual Jacaranda Festival.
But what should have been a family-friendly celebration of the jacaranda tree in full bloom descended into violence and chaos.
The paper the next day would report that one man was stabbed in the chest with a tomato stake; another struck in the face by a stock whip. Stones were thrown, and at some point, a pistol was pulled.
But how did it get to this point? And who was the man with the plan to bring fluoridated water to Grafton?
From friction to full-blown violence
In the 1950s, the idea of fluoridated water was spreading across Australia, starting off in Beaconsfield, Tasmania, in 1953.
NSW soon caught on. First came Yass, in 1956, and then Grafton — where it took off with a bang.
Photo: The Jacaranda Queen float of 1974 — only a few years after the infamous float brawl Ken remembers. (Facebook: Grafton Jacaranda Festival)
Burt brought the idea of fluoridated water — and his family — to the northern rivers city from Port Kembla, teaming up with another local dentist to run for council on a pro-fluoride ticket.
They both got in.
But as it turned out, not everyone was keen on the idea. And their message was powerful.
“It was poison, that was their focus,” says Ken Dawes, who remembers the hostility while growing up in Grafton.
According to Ken, who followed in his father’s footsteps and now runs his own denture clinic, the anti-fluoride mob was starting to gain a bit of traction in the community.
It didn’t seem to matter that Burt was a well-respected dentist with a thriving business.
“People were starting to believe them, and they went for it. And it got very, very hostile,” remembers Ken.
Despite the hostility, council soon decided that the water supplies of Grafton would indeed be fluoridated.
So the fluoride plant was built.
If you can’t beat it, blow it up
Things had started to get a bit intense by this stage.
The wife of local dentist John Fahey, who was on the council with Burt, recalls their discussion one night over dinner.
“Burt was around at our place,” Barbara says.
“I think he brought some fish for tea, and I remember saying, ‘Well, stop worrying because nothing can stop it now, it’s going in the water tomorrow.’ But then it didn’t.”
Somebody blew up the fluoride plant.
Burt, who died about five years ago, was asked about that day back in 1964.
In recordings kept by his son, Burt said there was “an outline of a plastic bucket on the concrete floor” and it looked like someone had put the flammable material in there.
But the Government wasn’t about to let a little makeshift explosive get in the way.
The health minister of the day heard about the ordeal and Burt flew down to Sydney to meet with him.
Photo: Retired Grafton dentist John Fahey helped Burt Dawes introduce fluoridated water to the city more than half a century ago. (ABC RN: Joe Koning)
“He presented us with a cheque for $5,000 and we flew back to Grafton to re-erect the fluoride plant,” Burt said in the recordings.
They never found out who did it, but John says everyone in town had their suspicions.
And that suspicion would be reinforced by what came next.
A mysterious death threat in the mail
Things quickly took an even more sinister turn, with an anonymous letter sent to Burt and his family.
Picture your typical Hollywood ransom note, with letters cut from headlines out of the paper, arranged into threats and demands.
According to Burt, the message was pretty clear.
“My family would meet the same fate as the fluoride plant,” he said, years after the incident.
Ken was quite young at the time, but he remembers the police being around all night.
“Dad was pretty upset with it. It’s not every day you get a bomb threat,” he says.
After that, the anti-fluoridationists kept their campaign up — and it was headed by a man named Wesley Clutterbuck.
Dr Clutterbuck and the jacaranda float
Each spring, when the jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the people of Grafton hold a week of carnival.
It’s a tradition that continues to this day, with a sea of locals and visitors treated to a procession of floats passing along the street.
“They were great. Everybody went, the whole town got involved. It was just wonderful,” Ken recalls.
On the second storey of his father’s practice, there was an awning Ken and his family would sit on to get a “bird’s-eye view of the whole thing”.
From his perch, Ken watched the floats as they passed.
There were the usual — the Jacaranda Queen float, all covered in flowers; the local hotel’s float, covered in beer.
But the float that Ken remembers the most was the one carrying Dr Clutterbuck.
He was an English medical superintendent at the local Base Hospital, and Ken thinks that his position there “gave him extra clout” in the community.
“I still remember it as vividly as yesterday. [The float] was shrouded in white sheets and it had black cut-outs of rats and rat poison, and people dying and drinking water full of poison and four Xs all over it and skeletons, and all this sort of stuff,” Ken says.
“The people on board were all dressed in white overalls with gas masks from the Second World War.”
Photo: Ken Dawes has followed in his father’s footsteps, and still works at his denture clinic in Grafton. (ABC RN: Joe Koning)
And right behind the anti-fluoride float was the pro-fluoride float.
At the procession’s end, all the floats headed out to the showground where they lined up side by side to be judged.
By this stage, the men from the hotel’s float were pretty drunk and hadn’t been able to relieve themselves for a while.
So one man jumped down from the float.
“The appropriate wheel next to their float was the anti-fluoridation float, and [they] proceeded to urinate,” Ken explains.
“Around the corner, came one of these anti-fluoridationists in overalls and a gas mask, and it ended up being Clutterbuck’s wife.
“So around the corner came Clutterbuck, followed by half a dozen of these anti-fluoridationists, and the fisticuffs were on.
“And of course, all these blokes had a bit of turps in them too, they weren’t backing away. She was on for young and old.”
The fight was intense and things got pretty crazy, according to the papers. There was a tomato stake stabbing and a stock whip to the face.
But at some point during the chaos, Dr Clutterbuck took things a step further.
“He pulled a pistol at the end of this,” Ken says.
And that was his undoing. Ken says he didn’t fire the weapon, but once the police got involved, he was sacked from the hospital.
A digger’s bomb threat and ‘dead-set bad luck’
You’d think the protesters would lay low for a while after a highly public brawl made headlines in at least two capital cities.
But a couple of days later, Burt received another bomb threat in the mail.
This time, the sender made a mistake and a local World War II veteran by the name of Billy Stratton was charged.
Put simply, Ken says, “it was dead-set bad luck”.
Ken explains that Billy had been to the newsagency and bought a writing pad with watermarks. The police apparently traced the bomb threat letter back to the newsagency, and only one person had bought this particular writing pad.
“That was Billy Stratton. The police went right around there and of course found the writing pad and he was charged accordingly,” Ken says.
Burt had also served in the war, and it was a blow for him to know that a digger could do this to another digger.
But was he the type of person who would blow up a fluoride plant? No-one was ever charged, but Ken had his suspicions.
“If it’s got webbed feet like a duck, a bill like a duck, it quacks like a duck, there’s a fair chance it’s a duck,” he says.
With Billy charged and Dr Clutterbuck kicked out of the hospital, the people of Grafton were left to enjoy their fluoride in peace.
The battle was finally over.
And despite all of the violence and threats against his family, Burt says it was “well worthwhile”.
“We made a few enemies, mind you. We lost friends, too, out of it,” he explains.
“[But] generations have grown up in Grafton and they’ve never had to sit in a dental chair. They don’t know what a toothache is.”
*Original article online at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-08-01/anti-fluoride-movement-in-grafton-violence-chaos/11313730