Why Coolamon Is the Talk of the Town

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Sep 15, 2017

They bake cakes, build towers and finance cheese factories so their small town thrives. Yes, Coolamon’s resourceful residents are doing it for themselves, writes Sue Williams.

Two women stop to talk beneath the wrought-iron verandahs of a magnificent row of heritage stores. A crowd quickly gathers around them for a chat and, very soon, no fewer than a dozen locals are clustered on the footpath, catching up on the news of the day.

“It’s always the same here,” smiles 78-year-old Brenda Patterson from the NSW Riverina town of Coolamon, 40 kilometres north-west of Wagga Wagga. “We all know one another and there’s always a lot going on – and a lot more we want to achieve.”

Coolamon’s townspeople are justly proud of the heritage-listed streetscapes on either side of the wide main road (which was laid out with enough room for a bullock cart to turn around). At one end is the town’s beautifully restored century-old flagship store. On a hillside beyond is a mobile phone tower – not so beautiful but a testament, all the same, to how much this community has accomplished by standing united. 

“You can’t afford to sit back and wait and hope for things to happen – you’ll never survive,” says Brenda’s husband, Coolamon mainstay Col Patterson, 81. “Instead, you have to get everyone on the same page then all fight together for what you want. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.”

And he’s right. Visitors to Coolamon are routinely stunned by this town founded in 1881 – how picturesque it is, how much there is to do and how many facilities there are for everyone.

Its main artery is Cowabbie Street. Lined with boutiques and cafés and a pub on either side of the railway line, it’s one of the most carefully preserved streets in Australia.

While many small councils across Australia are being amalgamated into larger authorities, no-one is touching Coolamon; the State Government couldn’t find any reason to. “We believe that local people who are invested in the local community make the best decisions for their local community,” says Coolamon Shire Council’s general manager, Tony Donoghue. “We’re a testament to that and to the power of being proactive.”

So whenever Coolamon (population of about 2200) has had issues, it’s leapt in to sort them out itself. No mobile phone coverage? The community, through the council, paid for a telecommunications tower to be erected and now leases it to the major telcos as an income-earning asset. Eddy Groves’ ABC Learning childcare empire goes bust? They take over child care themselves and convert an old bowling club into a childcare centre. The fear that big shops might set up in Cowabbie Street and ruin its look? They lay down strict rules to keep the streetscape intact and position a big supermarket off the main drag. 

“We also realised we were losing a lot of elderly people – the brains and experience of our community – as there wasn’t the accommodation for them here,” says Donoghue. “So we set up a health precinct with a hospital, ambulance centre and community centre and built homes for the over-55s then aged-care places as well as a low-cost lodge. A lot of other councils come here now to look at it.” 

To make the wheat- and sheep-farming area attractive to young families, the council also put subdivided land on the market. So far, seven of the 15 blocks sold (from a total of 28) have been snapped up by local couples just starting out.

The community came to the fore again in 2011 when Charles Sturt University closed its Wagga Wagga cheese factory, which had been set up to teach food technology. Several local towns vied to have microbiologist and veteran cheesemaker Barry Lillywhite set up a replacement factory in their districts but, as a long-time Coolamon resident, Barry looked homewards.

He appealed to his son, Anton Green, who was working in hospitality in Thredbo, to return and together they set up the architecturally striking Coolamon Cheese Factory in a former cooperative society building, dated to 1924, on the main street. With the help of a Federal Government grant and a special leasing deal with the council, they pulled up old lino and tore down the suspended ceiling to reveal a cavernous space with timber trusses. They also opened up 30 per cent of the company to small investors and, when more capital was needed, launched a crowdfunding campaign. Donations, which came from Coolamon locals and people in the Riverina and beyond, ranged from $10 to $1000. 

“We ended up raising about $50,000 from crowdfunding, which gave us a great start and a real tie to the community,” says 34-year-old Anton. “People gave us what they could afford. I think in a small town like this, you can try something new and different and people are eager to come on board. We had so much support, it was wonderful.” 

The factory, which opened in September last year and employs 20 people, is flourishing. Its buzzy café at the front has a cheese-inspired menu. At the back, visitors doing the factory’s hourly tours learn that it produces 15 handcrafted cheeses, including native-flavoured cheddars (lemon myrtle, bush tomato), blues, regular cheddars, goat’s cheeses and gorgeously runny soft whites.

“The factory seems to be bringing a lot more people into town, which is helping everyone,” says Barry, 66. “We just love it here. The locals are great and they really rallied behind us. I think they’re also eating a lot more cheese!”

Another drawcard is the volunteer-run Up-to-Date Store towards the top of the main street. This old department store, built in 1909, has been turned into a museum featuring the world’s only in situ ball-style cash-railway system: a method of cash handling in which a wooden ball travelled along wires into the cashier’s office, where change was deposited and returned to the customer. Inside is a permanent crochet exhibition and the adjacent building houses the town library. Nearby is the RSL Memorial Museum and the former fire station, now transformed into Coolamon Fire Museum. 

Thanks to its vibrancy, Coolamon is luring newcomers all the time. Former Sydney-based Telstra employee Andre de Haan, his wife, Keryl, who’s a nurse, and their sons, Daniel, 13, and Aaron, 9, visited friends here almost 10 years ago and fell in love with the place. They returned to buy the Sweet Briar bed and breakfast, a series of pretty boutique cottages around a converted 1887 bank.

“It was a bit of a leap of faith,” says Andre, 56. “But once you get involved with the community and make friends and networks, it’s wonderful. 

“We feel very privileged that our kids can experience what it feels like to live in a community where everyone knows one another and looks out for one another – and where someone still drives a fire engine around on Christmas Day, throwing lollies to the kids. We feel we’re living the dream and we pinch ourselves every day.” 

The local fire brigade moved to new premises four years ago and the old 1932 fire station opposite The Up-to-Date Store was taken over in 2015 by Chris Berry, a retired Coolamon firefighter, for his vast collection of memorabilia. Among Coolamon Fire Museum’s treasures is the station’s original cast-iron fire bell, which was missing for 30 years until it was discovered in someone’s shed.

“I just started collecting stuff then got the bug,” says Chris, 70, whose museum attracts more than 6000 people a year. “I love meeting people and we get visitors from everywhere. I’ve always loved Coolamon. The people are really friendly, it’s quiet and peaceful and a traffic jam is when you see three cars in a row.” 

It seems everyone in town plays a part in Coolamon’s success. Many of the locals knit, sew, crochet, bake cakes and create art, leatherworks and jewellery to fill shops such as Country Goodies. “We have about 30 members who are constantly supplying us with all sorts of goods,” says member Gail Edyvean, 58. “They’re a very talented bunch.” 

Older wares are sold a few doors down at Treats & Treasures by collector Grahame Miles, a former teacher and restaurateur. His wife, Sharon, is a distant relative of William Arnott, who founded the eponymous biscuit brand in 1865. Accordingly, their vintage collection includes colourful biscuit tins and a 1950s illuminated advertising sign.

“There’s so much to see in Coolamon now,” says Grahame, 70. “It’s still a small country town but it’s really thriving.”

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