Passion drives Cohuna people to keep it alive

By Daneka Hill

YOU don’t hear this every day of the week: ‘‘the Bee Gees actually milked my cows, there’s not many people can say that’’.

Except in Cohuna.

Sixty years ago Geoff Thompson ran a dairy, performed as a drummer and organised some of the biggest dances outside Melbourne.

Being a person of many talents is a common theme in Cohuna, most locals don’t have just the one job, but a second and third on the go.

The 1960s dances in Cohuna’s Memorial Hall were a legendary part of the town’s history. Started during the war by the RSL, the dances were taken over by Cohuna’s younger crowd once rock ‘n’ roll arrived – attracting more than 500 people a night.

“Farnham was discovered here,” Mr Thompson said with conviction. The 82-year-old has fought over this fact before when, for a brief moment, Echuca stole the credit as the town that started it all for one of Australia’s most beloved musicians.

Thirty-five years after a young Johnny Farnham sang in a backing band on Cohuna’s stage, the plumbing apprentice turned icon made the unassuming dairy town his first stop on his The Last Time tour.

This time he performed on the street outside the Memorial Hall for 10,000 fans who were spilling across the road and climbed on top of shops to watch.

Mr Thompson and his wife Betty are still in the business of dancing, teaching debutantes before their big day at Cohuna’s thriving deb balls.

Despite Cohuna’s peaceful appearance along Gunbower Creek, it isn’t a sleepy town.

An insurance broker has started a business hiring out offices, the IGA owner planned the New Year’s Eve fireworks, the manager of Cohuna Neighbourhood House runs kayak safaris and even the Cohuna and District Historical Society has two roles in town.

Their side hustle began in 1970 when a group of locals started running tea parties and selling donated goods on the footpath to raise money for an archive. The society keeps this practice alive today with the Trash and Treasure Centre.

Society member June Bagg said money raised goes to the archives or is donated back into Cohuna through places such as the Neighbourhood House, which operates a foodbank and helps job seekers.

“Some of these old farmers and their wives were very interested in history,” June said.

“They most probably could see stuff that was getting thrown away and they wanted to try and hang on to it.”

Cohuna’s fighting spirit is on full display at the moment as the town makes no secret of its support for the Can The Plan protests. Within the ranks of Cohuna’s unofficial historians there is unequivocal support for the farmers’ demands of increased water transparency.

June’s grandchildren attended the rally in Canberra.

“The minute they sold the water off the properties, that was it,” June said.

“Now we’ve got corporations buying water and leaving us – the little ones – with not much at all.”

Fellow society member Doris Mathers is her old friend. Combined they have lived in Cohuna for 106 years.

“They’ve got to do something, our farmers work daylight to dark yet they’re having to sell their cattle,” Doris said. “Do they even want the man on the land any more?”

At an arts project in the town’s Red Brick Building three women are working on a mosaic of galah wings. One of them, Lyndsey Quinlan, is a born and bred local who’s managed to make a living as an artist in the town doing commission work. She went to the Canberra rally as well.

“It looks like a sleepy little town when you’re driving past but it’s full of passionate people,” Lyndsey said.

“People are passionate about the town, Gunbower Island and the water crisis, especially at the moment.”

One local who manages to be passionate about all three issues is Tanya Black, manager of Cohuna Neighbourhood House and operator of a kayak safari. She works protecting native turtles and has seen the government’s use of environmental water on Gunbower Island.

“I’ve been here eight years and five of those years they’ve flooded the forest,” she said while out on ground flooded in September, now completely dry. “It’s not gradual either, the water rushes through in waves. The water would have been half way up the car.

“These forests don’t need to be flooded every year, it’s not natural, especially during dry years.”

Tanya said grass created by environmental flooding feeds artificial booms in wildlife populations, increasing numbers of kangaroos and emus, only for them to starve off en masse.

“That water would have been better used by farmers,” she said.

“Farms are important for wildlife as well. There are dairy farmers like Jodie Hay, who have wetlands on their property, but just because one wetland is on a farm and another isn’t, only one gets recognised by the government.”

Tanya Black attended the Canberra rally. Jodie Hay went too.

For every dairy cow that leaves the district, Cohuna loses $4000 a year. The town’s agricultural wealth is visible when you look at the banks. In a town of 900 houses there were four banks operating until recently. The Commonwealth Bank closed in August.

Insurance broker Amy Treacy has just reached the one year milestone with her business Cohuna Co, which offers office spaces behind Cohuna’s main street.

“The town has the potential to grow. We have lots of good people and everyone has a really positive attitude, everyone is like ‘let’s do it, let’s make this better’ — instead of sitting back and going ‘there are no farmers left’,” Amy said.

On the day she was interviewed one of her rooms was occupied by a psychologist from Boort, and another was inspected by nurses from the hospital.

She said the business was growing in ways she didn’t expect, such as parents in need of a quiet place to study.

The idea for Cohuna Co came to Amy after spending massive amounts of time going to appointments for herself and her children.

When she started looking into why specialists couldn’t be in Cohuna she found rent and utilities were too much for someone with only one or two days of work in town.

“I’m launching a support group for local businesses,” Amy said.

“I would actually like to get Cohuna online.”

“The shoe shop on main street, she does a really lovely job but I work full time and I can hardly get down there to buy something, so how is someone from Echuca or Bendigo going to know what a good shop it is? There is a huge opportunity online, especially for our young people.”

Wendy McGlone is a born and bred local who owns The Una IGA, employing more than 50 staff.

“If dairy farmers do well, businesses do well,” Wendy said.

The creek running through Cohuna is filled to the brim with water residents can’t touch. Sitting beside it, Wendy described the water situation as “despicable”.

“I speak to people who aren’t even in a business, who just live here, and even they are angry. Everyone is angry,’’ Wendy said.

‘‘A lot of women in their 70s, especially, are just so angry because you think: what have we been working for our whole lives?

“And to think when I was a kid going to school, primary industry was the main thing — the main export of Australia. It is weird how that circle has changed.”

When it comes to the online revolution Wendy is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

“It’s going to be the ruination of all country towns,” the grocery store owner said.

“I’m not an online person, I mean I struggle with Siri, whatever that is, I’m old-school and that’s okay. I’m not interested in learning all that stuff.”

There are success stories in town which aren’t evident when driving through.

AWMA Water Control Solutions began in a Cohuna shed and is now globally recognised as a leader in penstock manufacturing, Flower Room Co florist Jodie McGlone is going from strength to strength as a boutique service, and the neighbourhood goat lady, Sarah Mostyn, can’t keep up with soap demand.

If anyone is looking to pick a fight with a small town, avoid Cohuna, it punches well above its weight.