Eddie finally calls time
FOR 59 years, Eddie Ah Toy has been toiling nearly every day in the small Pine Creek general store that bears his family’s name.
His town, about 90km north of Katherine, has in the same time transformed from remote mining backwater without reliable water sources, sewerage system, grid power or investment, to a fully functioning tourist stop and township of 600-odd inhabitants.
Development in Pine Creek post the 19th- century gold booms and busts is best measured in decades, and Eddie has nearly eight of them.
He talks at length about the people who have come and gone; the mines; the battles he and his father — legendary Top End pioneer Jimmy Ah Toy MBE — had with authorities to modernise their community; the time he hijacked a grader left beside the road after his car broke down in the middle of the bush; and the times he would cart barrel after barrel of yellowcake back to the shop where he would stash them in a deal with local miners until transport vans arrived.
He reckons at times there was $500,000 worth of it stored out the back.
‘‘We had no gloves in those days, but I’m still alive — maybe I’m one of the lucky ones,’’ he said with a grin.
The store itself has gone from a corrugated iron shed selling horseshoes, bridles, salts for buffalo hides and radiation clothing to a more structurally sound building stocked with familiar modern-day items like glossy magazines and energy drinks.
There has been little rest in between — few days off and even fewer breaks— but now, Eddie says, it’s finally time to pull up stumps.
‘‘I don’t think it’s hit me yet,’’ he says, slumped in a plastic chair in one of the few shaded and breezy areas next to the shop.
‘‘I didn’t know whether to go one more year and make it 60 to round it off, but I want a life for myself now. I’m 76 years old.’’
Eddie’s first act in his new life will be a river cruise through Europe with his sister, but he won’t be leaving Pine Creek for long, nor will he be idle when he returns.
There’s plenty of gardening, maintenance and community work — the sort that saw him named 2005 Territorian of the Year— still to do.
He reckons if he stops he will be dead in a year, and 59 years of hard work deserves a long retirement.
The store he loves, and which is now an outback icon, was founded in 1935 by his father, who moved to Australia from China in 1880 to work on the nation’s burgeoning rail network.
It was shut down for three wartime years, when the community was evacuated south from 1942. Eddie vividly remembers the family’s return in 1945 to a ransacked store, stripped bare by army men.
He moved to Darwin for high school in 1951 and to the surprise of his classmates, the ‘‘country bumpkin from Pine Creek, the bush kid’’ topped the class in his first year.
He came back in 1955 and began work at the shop in earnest, but Jimmy was always the boss until his death in 1991.
The store and Pine Creek itself is a proud Ah Toy tradition, and it may not finish with Eddie.
‘‘We’re just babysitting it until one of his family wants to take it over,’’ said Helen Reed who, with Tom Hayman, took over the lease last week. ‘‘Family’s important, and Eddie and his father have put a lot into this business — and this town.
‘‘We’re just waiting until one of them is ready.’’
Eddie Ah Toy has opted to retire after 59 years working at his family’s general store in Pine Creek