Spotlight falls on Dowerin

Headshot of Jenne Brammer
Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

A World War II searchlight used to detect enemy aircraft is on display as part of the war exhibit at this week's Dowerin Field Days, and will be lit up for a few minutes every hour, on the hour.

The huge searchlight - which shines at 800,000 candlepower - will also be at the centre of a spectacular lighting display on the Wednesday evening of the Field Days.

Believed to be the only working searchlight of its type in Australia, it is on loan from the Nungarin Heritage Machinery and Army Museum, and is the labour of love of local Bill Hewitt, 84, who has spent more than 2000 hours over the past 18 months restoring the searchlight that the museum sourced from Queensland.

Since retiring from a varied and distinguished rural career 20 years ago, Mr Hewitt has volunteered six hours a day, six days a week to restoring items at the museum, which he has also chaired continuously over that time.

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The museum was one of many initiatives put in place in 1993 by Mr Hewitt and locals to attract tourists and stop their town from dying.

Last year alone, the museum had some 2000 visitors come through its doors, providing a significant boost to one of the smallest towns in WA, with a population of just 230.

Mr Hewitt said the searchlight restoration project was one of his most challenging and interesting tasks, given it arrived at the museum without the lamp or any instruction manual.

But through his contacts, Mr Hewitt was able to source a photograph of what the lamp should look like, which enabled him to draw to scale and construct a working replica.

"This tested my skills to the limit. It took me three months to make just the lamp as it was very complicated," he said.

However, Mr Hewitt was determined the complicated mission would not stop him from putting the light in action, and one evening back in May, on his first attempt, he was able to fire up the searchlight and focus a bright beam across the township of Nungarin.

A generator set that powers the searchlight was previously restored by Mr Hewitt in readiness for the purchase of a searchlight to match.

Mr Hewitt, who has farmed at Doodlakine, Gnowangerup, Minnivale and Newdegate, said the searchlight may have been his most complicated project, but it was not his biggest mission during two decades of volunteering for the museum.

His biggest project, which took 3 1/2 years, was to restore a "General Grant" M3 tank.

That project finished seven years ago and the tank was subsequently sold for $90,000 to raise funds for the museum.

He is currently working on an old tractor and is looking to source parts for other projects, in particular for a WWII White Scout Car.

Mr Hewitt has played many roles that influenced the course of Australian agriculture.

He negotiated over agricultural matters with former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser, represented the Australian grain industry at the United Nations World Food Security Forum in Geneva in 1979, spent seven years as an Australian Wheat Board director, been a member of AWB sales delegations in 19 countries, and spent seven years chairing WA Wheat Research.

He also spent 10 years as a rural financial counsellor.

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