Like many rural towns, Quambatook in the Southern Mallee of Victoria is enjoying a reinvigoration of its community thanks to new comers bringing new ideas and extra hands to reinforce businesses and volunteer groups.
Long time Quambatook volunteers, Norma Bennett and Merrill Kelly, have been volunteering in Quambatook for more years than they can remember. Norma is a key driver of the Caravan Park and Merrill is on multiple committees. The Quambatook Tractor Pull has been a big draw card for their agricultural community for over forty years. This is what you do when you live in a rural town.
Despite their best efforts, along with many other long time residents, over the decades the number of businesses and volunteers has dwindled significantly leaving a handful to keep these important services going. Fortunately, there has been an influx of new people moving into town injecting new ideas and energy into the rural town they affectionately call Quamby. Recently I caught up some of these ‘newcomers’ for a chat.
Laura O’Dwyer and her husband, Paul, moved to Quambatook twelve years ago. A small agricultural town with a mere population of 249, ‘Quamby’ couldn’t be more different to their previous abode in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray but Laura says the move was a great decision. They’re still here so it must have been!
‘We were sick of paying Melbourne rent,’ Laura confides when asked what prompted the tree change. ‘We were able to buy a house in Quamby for $70,000 and turn it into our dream home.’
But why Quambatook? It turns out it was quite a strategic decision for Laura who is a cartographer by trade, a skill eagerly sought by shire councils. For Paul, a truck driver who is away a week at a time, the location was equally convenient.
‘We had a friend in the Mallee and had driven through Quamby a few times,’ she explains. ‘When we made the decision to move, this was the place that was central to three shire councils with the bigger towns of Wycheproof, Swan Hill and Kerang.’
All in all, the move has been a huge success. In addition to creating Laura’s dream home for a fraction of city prices, commuting to work is also a pleasure. ‘I used to drive one hour in Melbourne traffic to get to my workplace 12 kilometres away. Now I can get to work in half the time even though it’s a longer distance.’
Through her work in local government, Laura has also become heavily involved in her local community. As President of Quambatook Development Committee, she is helping to spear head initiatives to reinvigorate the town.
In one of the most recent success stories, Laura helps manage the Silo Cinema events that attract hundreds of visitors from the surrounding region to view classic films such as The Castle, Priscilla, and The Dressmaker in a classic rural setting.
Laura’s co-pilot for this project is Chelle Espagne, previously in the Australian Armed Forces and now owner of The Quambatook Stores and Post Office, who provides valuable support to the Silo Cinema.
But, without argument, the most crucial role falls to Laura. ‘I’ve tried but no-one else wants to operate the technology for the screening of the movies. It can be a bit stressful but once everything is up and running, I can relax and it is great to see everyone dressing up in theme and enjoying themselves. For Priscilla I organised for a couple of friends to come up from Melbourne and provide the pre-entertainment in drag. It was a great night that continued on in the Quamby pub afterwards.’
A screening of The Merger on 9 February 2019 resulted in their biggest ever turn up. 447 people effectively doubled Quamby’s population and raised revenue for the community groups that catered, as well as the caravan park, shops, and the pub.
Speaking of The Quamby Hotel, Laura is quick to point out that it has new owners and is currently being refurbished. I dutifully trot across the road to check it out.
Mick Doolan, one of the new publicans, moved to Quamby only eighteen months ago but is already looking very much at home behind the bar.
‘I found it was a perfect fit for me and my son, it’s a great place to raise kids,’ says Mick. ‘We love it. There’s good people, the football, and its affordable for a single parent.’
Ten-year old, Aiden is quick to agree. ‘I love the footy!’
In a joint venture with his parents, Wayne and Sandra, The Quamby Hotel was purchased at the start of December 2018. ‘I did my homework and checked it out by working for the previous owner first,’ Mick explains. The prior experience helped the Doolan’s get through the busy Christmas and New Year period. ‘Mum was determined to have a Christmas lunch to thank everyone for welcoming us into the community.’
Indicating just how much time Mick’s Sunbury based parents are spending in Quamby as publicans, his father Wayne has focussed on the refurbishments and proudly points out the new ceiling and rendered wall. More plans are underway to revamp the seven rooms that provide accommodation. And Mick is particularly excited about plans to bring some big bands to Quamby. ‘I’m using my old night club contacts,’ he confides.
Mick encourages anyone who is looking for a new start to consider a rural town but hastens to add that you have to be prepared to contribute to the community. ‘I joined the footy club and got to know people first. Now they’re my strongest supporters. They really like to give you a go.’
Just around the corner from the pub a delightful old church turned into a residence catches my eye. So does it colourful owner, Kathryn Robson; a district nurse by day and a Quamby volunteer on the weekends.
I bump into Kathryn chatting with visitors at the recently opened Quambatook District Share Shop Inc. It turns out that Kathryn is Secretary of the Share Shop and she asks me to wait a moment before I take a photograph of the organisers. Moments later with a beaming smile she emerges wearing one of the vintage outfits for sale. Later, when I’m distracted chatting, I turn around to find her in yet another outfit, a pink suit, posing elegantly with fine bone china under a circa 1960’s home hair dryer.
‘Kathryn has been such an injection of support and enthusiasm for this project,’ confides one of the Share Shop’s Fundraising Coordinators, Fiona Williams. ‘She enjoys being with people and we’ve become her family. She is such good fun and everybody loves her.’
Six months ago, when her rented home in Boort became unavailable, Kathryn heard about the old church for sale in Quamby and snapped it up. ‘I’d been wandering Australia for thirty years and this is the first time I’ve settled down and owned a property,’ she admits. ‘It’s a good base for my work around the region.’
Share Shop President, Jodie Russ, also moved to Quambatook ten years ago because of its affordability. ‘I was sick of Melbourne rent and purchased my house in Quambatook as a sole parent,’ Jodie says. ‘It had great proximity to nearby towns for employment opportunities if you’re flexible and more so if you’re able to work online from home.’
With a desire to grow her Retro-Vintage online retail business that she started running from home, it was Jodie who spotted the potential of a vacant store in Quamby’s main street. ‘Quamby needed something open on weekends for visitors and I knew that there would be others like me with home businesses that would welcome access to a physical shop front.’ The Quambatook District Share Shop Inc. opened a month ago in January 2019 with ten share holders and I observed a small but regular stream of visitors over the weekend I was in town. ‘It’s so much less stressful and a much more relaxed lifestyle,’ Jodie tells me.
Everywhere I go I am hearing the positives of new people moving into Quamby, but I have to ask: What are the downsides of living in a small town?
‘The conservative politics can be a bit frustrating,’ Laura confides. Jodie quips ‘You might have to reinvent yourself’ as she did by setting up an online business. Mick comes up with a classic though. ‘Even when the pub is closed people ring me up and ask if I can open up for them to get some takeaway,’ he laughs. ‘They always seem to know when I’m close by or checking up on something, so it isn’t really a problem.’
Like many rural towns Australia wide, the good people of Quambatook work and volunteer tirelessly to make their community strong. While many refer to those who move from the city to the country as Tree Changers, I like to think of them as Town Changers. With a willingness to participate and contribute, there are many benefits to be found from living in a rural town.
Quambatook General Stores (stay tuned)
KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of the Operation Next Gen program and author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. In 2018 she was named as one of Australia’s Top 50 Regional Agents of Change. READ MORE