Holbrook, a little town on the old Hume Hwy
A street scape of Albury Street, Holbrook NSW. Photo: Paul Jeffers
When they first talked of diverting the highway around Holbrook, a number of families sold up as quickly as they could, before the housing prices dropped to nothing. For a while, a feeling of impending death came to sit upon the NSW town, much like the fog that plays on the little river that cuts it in two. That was 40 years ago. Back then, the Hume Highway was murderous and the town's population about 900.
''People just thought things were going to be real bad,'' says Arthur Larcombe, retired truck driver and president of the Woolpack Inn Museum for 28 years. Mr Larcombe has lived in Holbrook from the day his parents arrived on a motorbike and sidecar, little Arthur bundled up against the dust. He was three months old, and the road was rough as guts.
Time passed, Mr Larcombe is now 82, and the highway bypass was finally opened, 10 days ago - making Holbrook the last town on the Melbourne to Sydney route to lose the endless parade of trucks grunting down its main street.
''The threat's always been there and it's eventually happened … but we haven't had time to see what's going to happen,'' Mr Larcombe says. ''If they open up some sort of service centre [on the highway] it might hit the town hard. We really don't know.''
Holbrook's population now stands at 1400 and, save for a minor recent drop, is reported to be climbing.
But 40 minutes to the north, the town of Tarcutta, population 220, is reportedly dying a slow death - it was nudged off the highway at the end of 2011, with local businesses reporting up to 75 per cent losses in income.
''We're nothing like Tarcutta,'' says Gail Chynoweth, president of the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce, owner of Lady Gail's Bookshop and Curios, and legendary for a bird-startling laugh that can be heard halfway up the main street. ''We have more to offer. But really, if for no other reason that will ensure the travelling public will keep coming to Holbrook … our town spends in excess of $42,000 a year on toilet paper for our very clean public facilities. Where else are they going to go?''
Plus there's the submarine in the park - Holbrook's version of the Dog on the Tuckerbox - to keep the school buses calling in. ''Yes, yes, we have the submarine. But we're more than that. We're … well, it's different now without the trucks. It's a nicer town. Even nicer than what it was.''
The Sunday Age visited Holbrook five days after the bypass was opened. Mayor Heather Wilton has been visiting various businesses, including Lady Gail's, every day to see if the sky has fallen. ''There was quite a bit of anxiety,'' she says. ''People weren't sure if things would completely fall in a heap or not … and, in fact, they seem to be ticking over reasonably well.
''I'm quietly confident the town will be fine. We provide good services for the locals and the farming community, and I think the travelling public provides something extra.''
Tony Brennan moved his family to Holbrook 10 years ago, from Bright in Victoria. He loves the schools (primary, one state, the other Catholic), the community clubs and lively sporting scene - and the fact that his children are happy here. For eight years he ran a butcher shop, which has been expanded into a FoodWorks supermarket. There's a rival IGA supermarket up the street, but Mr Brennan feels there is enough business to support both - as long as the locals stay loyal.
However, in recent weeks he has seen a 10 per cent drop in sales. Some of this he ascribes to the dozens of roadworkers moving on. There were 150 roadworkers toiling on the bypass and the extended freeway works for about six years - some of them lived in Holbrook rental properties with their families, others lodged at one of the six motels for months at a time. Others commuted to Albury but would pick up supplies on the way through.
''We're down on last year … but that was probably a false economy,'' he says.
Plus, there's online supermarket shopping - everyone in town seems to know who gets visited by the Woolies truck out of Albury - and people running into Albury, now only 35 minutes away to the south, to do their big shop.
Mr Brennan has kept on his 24 staff, including after-school casuals, but six weeks ago began cutting hours. He says: ''I'm aware that if I start letting people go, there's a flow-on effect for the whole town.''
Loyalty runs big in Holbrook. Perhaps its greatest exponent is Dr Arunachalam Lakshmanan, OAM, aged 73. He has been in Holbrook for 42 years and is regarded as one of the local treasures. He had worked in Wagga Wagga and returned to Sydney for postgraduate training, with a view to becoming an eye specialist, but when he failed to get work in ophthalmology, he ventured south again.
Dr Lakshmanan set up his shingle in Holbrook, just as those first whispers of a highway bypass started scaring people into leaving. He delivered babies, took out inflamed tonsils and appendixes - and was too frequently called out to the road where people had died in their cars. Four years ago, he delivered a baby in an emergency, at the hospital outpatients clinic, but was forced to abandon regularly bringing children into the world 28 years ago because of insurance concerns.
About that time his wife died, leaving behind two sons, aged 9 and 10. ''When my wife passed … the town helped bring up my children and helped me to live myself, too,'' he says. ''It's a wonderful town. Holbrook gave me life and for as long as I am physically and mentally able, I'll keep on working. It would be difficult to bring a new doctor to town, so I do my best to hang on.''