My Town: Stanhope - more than meets the eye

By John Lewis

Just like big families, country towns have their own parade of unique characters and passions, buildings and histories — all united by a shared sense of pride and identity.

In the next few months, The News will visit communities near Shepparton to find out what makes them tick.

Last week, The News’ John Lewis travelled to Stanhope.

Stanhope sits at a crossroads in more ways than one.

Physically, you’ll find it at the junction of the Midland Hwy and the road to Girgarre and Rushworth.

Emotionally, you’ll find it somewhere between the busy bustle of its dairy-ing past and an uncertain future.

The giant Fonterra dairy processing factory still dominates the skyline on the approach to the town — a sign that industry and jobs are still looking shiny.

But take a walk down Stanhope’s Birdwood Ave and things look a bit different.

The past few years have seen 10 businesses shut down, including the last remaining butcher shop, Bendigo Bank, the BTF Garage, and the fruit and vegie shop.

So what’s going on?

On an icy winter morning George Gemmill arrives with a red bag carrying about 100 years of Stanhope history from the early soldier settlers in 1919, to the town’s most famous son — Sir John ‘‘Black Jack’’ McEwen — who became Australia’s 18th Prime Minister in 1967.

George’s bag also contains more recent milestones, such as Fonterra’s $120million rebuild after a disastrous fire in 2014, followed by the town being named Legendairy Capital of Australia in 2015.

George is a retired Fonterra factory worker, secretary of the Stanhope RSL and has lived in the town 60 years, which means he’s still on the blow-in list, but knows more than most about this changing corner of the world.

George can list all the businesses that were in town when he arrived in 1959 — three grocers, two butchers, three banks, three garages, three cafes, two fruit and vegie shops, a newsagent and a men’s and ladies’ hairdresser.

‘‘People never went out of town to do their shopping, now people go to Shepparton or Mooroopna. It’s all one-stop shopping,’’ George says.

He praises supermarket owner David Millard for throwing Stanhope a lifeline by taking on the sale of meat and vegies and installing a Bendigo Bank agency inside the shop.

Standing outside the Stanhope Cafe and Takeaway, we’re soon joined by a few other Stanhope veterans.

Retired farmer Bob Holschier reckons the government should never have allowed water to move out of the district, which has seen smaller farms disappear.

The town’s oldest resident, who prefers to keep his name out of the papers, agrees with Bob when he says he remembers when you could buy a tailor-made suit in the town.

Then Steven the cockatoo arrives.

Steven’s either a cheeky larrikin or a destructive pest.

‘‘He always arrives for lunch, and he sometimes steals things like cigarettes. He nicked off with a lady’s tobacco packet the other day, and he rides around on drivers’ bullbars,’’ George says.

Bob reminds us that Steven has also pulled mortar off the wall of the old Bendigo Bank building.

‘‘He can be a pest,’’ Bob says.

Steven was found as a chick at Steven’s Weir near Deniliquin by a local couple who brought him to Stanhope.

Now he flies around the town making friends and mischief in equal measure before he goes home to roost after a day of larrikinism.

‘‘When he plays up, they lock him up for a bit,’’ Bob says.

Over the road at Shaque-A-Taque, Ken Harrison and Belinda Sharples are opening up their big shed for another day of trading in Australiana, second-hand books, saddles, horse rugs, and friendly banter in their beer garden out the back.

The uniquely-named business is a symbol of the town’s phoenix-like struggle to deal with change.

Six years ago, the business was reduced to ashes after a disastrous fire.

Today it has risen again, thanks to the determination of Ken and Belinda.

Ken has driven his handmade figurines of Australian towns and pubs thousands of kilometres across the outback from Quilpie in Queensland to Innamincka in South Australia to generate sales and interest in his Stanhope business.

Travellers have answered the call and brought their caravans and their custom to Shaque-A-Taque and its backyard social club.

Belinda has developed a thriving trade in horse rugs and saddlery, on the back of what she says is a growing horse industry.

Both are optimistic about the town.

‘‘House prices are good and new people are arriving. There used to be about 20 kids in the local primary school, now there’s more than 40,’’ Belinda says.

‘‘The dairy industry has bottomed out — and horse people are moving in,’’ Ken says.

In the Stanhope Cafe and Takeaway, six ladies are enjoying a cuppa and a mid-morning chat.

‘‘It’s a little suburb about half an hour from Shepp and an hour from Bendigo,’’ Glenda Patterson says when asked what she likes about Stanhope.

Her friends talk about the friendliness, particularly towards former dairy families now in town after the sale of their farms.

‘‘If anyone’s in trouble, people help out. It’s a very community-minded town,’’ Vicki Schade says.

All the sporting clubs are kicking goals, then there’s the men’s shed, the senior citizens club, the lions club, the CWA and the monthly Monster Garage Sale in Birdwood Ave.

Talk to the ladies, and Stanhope’s not doing too bad at all.

But if you really want to get the pulse of a town, talk to its only hairdresser.

Melinda Thorp has been freshening up people’s hair and listening to Stanhope stories for 30 years.

‘‘It is a very different town than when I started. Dairy farmers contributed a lot to the town. Today there’s more hobby farmers who spend a lot of time out of town.

‘‘I have heard lots of tough stories — but people try and stay positive.

‘‘I find it’s still a warm, supportive community — it’s a lovely little community,’’ Melinda says.

It seems Stanhope is another example of a country iceberg town; what you see on the surface is not the whole story.