Small Town Big Hearts
The Australian Women's Weekly|Christmas 2019
Old timers say it’s the worst drought they’ve seen and it’s devastating small towns across NSW and Queensland. Samantha Trenoweth visits Thallon and meets a community that won’t be beaten.
The flight north to Moree crosses an ocean of smoke – trees, rivers, homesteads, townships, all lost beneath thick, blue-white eucalypt smoke, all the way to the horizon. North-eastern NSW is ablaze, but the northwest has other problems. On the far side of the Nandewar Range, the sky clears to reveal the western plains below – grey and black and dusty brown, crisscrossed by parched riverbeds and dotted with empty grain silos. “Drought is insidious,” says Theresa Pilcher a farmer, wife and mother of four, who lives just beyond the tiny town of Thallon, two hours’ drive from here, across the Queensland border.

“Drought is not like flood or fire, where you have it but then it’s gone and you start pulling your life together. Drought is like a cancer that slowly grows and grows and grows.”

Driving north to Thallon, the road is littered with kangaroo carcasses. This is the northern tip of Gamilaraay country, once a land of rushing streams, abundant Murray Cod and Golden Perch. Now, the Moonie River has stopped running and there hasn’t been a drop of rain worth mentioning for more than three years – nor a grain crop. Hundred-year-old trees are dying. On the historic Bullamon Plains station, paddocks are entirely barren. There is nothing but dry, ochre-coloured earth. The old-timers say it’s the worst drought in living memory.

Yet the people of Thallon are fighting back with everything they’ve got. And that’s why The Weekly has travelled here this Christmas – not to see the country at its worst but to celebrate human nature at its best and most inspiring – to introduce our readers to some of the people who call this country home.

The greatest gift

You might have heard of Thallon, the little town that could. Once a lively railway town and a thriving centre for grain production, it fell on hard times a decade or so ago. Passenger trains stopped visiting and the railway depot, service station, cafe and general store all shut their doors, but locals rallied to bring their town back to life.

Leanne and Stuart Brosnan were mightily involved in that first lifesaving bid. Leanne was a country girl from Goondiwindi when, back in 1987, she arrived in Thallon, age 20, straight out of uni, to take up her first teaching post. The town was booming. There were 90 children and four teachers at the school.

Within a month or two, Leanne met Stuart, a wool classer and rugby player from one of the district’s old farming families: “It was love at first sight and we were pretty much inseparable from that moment. I rang a friend and said, ‘I’ve met the man I’m going to marry’. Stuart proposed just a couple of months later.”

However, tragedy struck when a diving accident left Stuart quadriplegic. Doctors warned Leanne of the problems they’d face but she supported Stuart through months in hospital and rehabilitation, and the town stood by the couple in ways that now bring tears to her eyes. There were fundraisers and offers of physical assistance but most importantly, she says, “they didn’t take a step back with Stuart. They just treated him like they’d always treated him, and that was the biggest gift”.

The couple moved east to Bundaberg for Stuart’s health, but when they learned that the town was in trouble, they were determined to give back. Word had reached them that the pub could go under, so the Brosnans rallied a group of former Thallon teachers and locals to buy the social and cultural hub of the town.

Today, the Francis Hotel is the only shop in Thallon, offering hospitable accommodation, great beer, damn fine pub food, take-away pizza, a morning espresso, plus it handles the mail run (because the teachers also bought the post office) and a side room has been seconded for a tiny general store. The publican, Bryan Guppy, is doing it tough this year but the owners are committed to keeping the Francis open.

Thallon reaped a record grain harvest in 2013 but they weren’t out of the woods yet. So a plan was hatched to put the town on the tourist trail. The Progress Association applied for grants, raised funds and enlisted a pair of Brisbane artists – Joel Fergie (‘The Zookeeper’) and Travis Vinson (‘Drapl’) – to paint an eye-catching mural on Grain Corp’s silos. They also erected a two-metre high sculpture of a northern hairy-nosed wombat.

The ABC’s Back Roads got wind of the excitement, and as Bullamon Plains grazier and cropper – and the town’s top tourism ambassador – Bill Willis says: “We had our 15 minutes of fame, and that put Thallon on the map”. By the following winter, a steady stream of travellers was calling in.

But that was before the worst drought in living memory.

All for love

At 94, Maureen Pagan has a spring in her step and a sparkle in her eyes. She wears a perfectly pressed linen dress in shocking pink and arrives bearing home-baked biscuits that are sweet, golden and break in two with a perfect snap. She still makes her prized Christmas pudding from a recipe she found in The Weekly in 1978.

Maureen has been out in the yard this morning feeding the birds. “There’s nothing for them to eat,” she begins. “And the kangaroos are dying. When I came home from Toowoomba last night, I looked around me and said, ‘Why did I come back to this?’”

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