Off the Beaten Track

Why they’re eat­ing more cheese in Coola­mon, NSW

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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.

“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!”

“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.”

“We feel like we’re liv­ing the dream and we pinch our­selves every day.”

(From top) Veteran cheese­maker Barry Lil­ly­white; lo­cal his­tory on the walls at The Up-to-Date Store; Coola­mon Shire Coun­cil gen­eral man­ager Tony Donoghue. (Op­po­site, from top) Treats & Trea­sures’ shopfront; Mary Robert­son at Coun­try Good­ies; Coola­mon is in wheat-belt coun­try

An­ton Green, co-founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Coola­mon Cheese Fac­tory (be­low)

Barry Lil­ly­white, “The Big Cheese” at Coola­mon Cheese Fac­tory (top), which makes the award-win­ning Sacre­bleu!, a mild and creamy blue (cen­tre); The Up-to-Date Store is a cul­tural and learn­ing precinct

(From top) Vin­tage col­lecta­bles at Treats & Trea­sures; Chris Berry founded Coola­mon Fire Mu­seum in the old fire sta­tion

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