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The sons of the former owners of the iconic Conargo Hotel have brought it back to life after a ruinous 2014 fire.
STORY CARLY MARRIOTT PHOTOS NEIL NEWITT | OUTBACK MAGAZINE
Many moons ago, a young bloke wanted to make a quick dollar, so he made bumper stickers to sell over his Dad’s bar. CONARGO PUB. Two words, no graphics, black on white.
To the uninitiated it might have meant nothing, but to every self-respecting ute owner, it said everything.
Today, that same man, Paul Lodge, in partnership with his brother Michael and a pair of local cockies, has rebuilt the burnt-down hotel in the heart of the NSW Riverina and in doing so, has resurrected the iconic pub behind the sticker. “Our parents Betty and Neville ran the Conargo Pub for 25 years through the 1960s and 70s, Dad was a prime mover in making it famous,” Paul says. The bumper-sticker businessman cut his teeth manning the front bar before spending the next 43 years splitting time between his stockbroking firm’s offices in Melbourne and Sydney.
Ben Airdrie (left) and his son Will, 14, chatting with Joel Lester and his son Bentley, 7, in the beer garden; (l-r) Charlie, Will, Claire, George and Michael Bull.
Paul recalls the good old days on the banks of the Billabong Creek, hosting B&S Ball Sunday sessions after the Conargo Burr Cutters Ball and the Jerilderie Round Up. Having the keys to the place in his pocket during those formative years was, apparently, a lot of fun. “I operated the hotel from when I was 18 to 25 and, I must admit, it was a good position to be in at that stage in life, with mates on both sides of the bar,” Paul says.
Back in the day, the surrounding sheep stations boasted an abundance of Peppin Merinos and jackaroos, both co-existing in the often-harsh conditions of the Riverine plains. When the working week was over, the farm hands would all naturally gravitate to the Conargo Pub, its walls adorned with stud-ram memorabilia, to spend their money and quench their thirst.
But in 2014 the town’s watering hole went up in smoke, leaving nothing but the facade standing. Brothers Charlie and Bobby White, who owned the Conargo Junction Store at the time, purchased the shell of a building but were too busy running shearing teams and a general store to do anything with the charred remains.
Paul Lodge and his wife Lesley.
Paul and Michael got chatting about what a shame it was that their parents’ beloved Conargo Pub was nothing more than a memory, when the idea formed to re-establish the local establishment. “We spoke with the White brothers a couple of years ago, and we all agreed the town needed its meeting place back,” Paul says. “Michael and I wanted to honour our parents’ legacy, figuring that Betty and Neville spent their lives building the Conargo Pub brand, so the least we could do was all chip in and rebuild it.”
Michael was nominated project manager (thanks to his lifetime of experience in civic earthworks working on subdivisions in Queensland) and last year, over the October long weekend, Deni Ute Muster crowds were able to walk into the bar for one off the wood.
“This is not a profit-making venture for us,” Michael says. While he’s keeping the publican’s stool warm for now, he’s keen to get back to his farm at Dorrigo in northern NSW, more than 1000km away.
“We are on the lookout for an active couple who are happy to manage this iconic hotel,” Michael says. “It has so much potential – the area is booming. We’re not young people anymore and running the show takes a certain amount of energy.”
When the Lodge children grew up, the pub was a place for drinking. If you were hungry, and you were lucky, there might be a bag of chips or peanuts available. However, according to Paul, there’s been a cultural shift since Mum and Dad held the fort. In Neville’s day he only had to pour beers, dole out advice to regulars and serve up the fear of God to unruly young patrons.
“The culture of pubs has changed,” Paul says. “People travel for meals and functions these days, which is why we have put in a commercial kitchen that’s capable of catering for large events. We have the Peppin Room bistro, the front bar and Neville’s function room. It spills out into the beer garden and can cater for up to 150 people.”
The naming of the function room is a nod to the man who was a World War II pilot, married the daughter of a Deniliquin publican and was, according to his sons, “a very generous chap”. “I remember Dad telling the story that, after he married Mum, they took over running the Billabong Conargo Hotel, as it was known then,” Paul says. “Dad thought, ‘I’ll get in, do it up and move on,’ but of course, he forgot to move on!”
Migration in and out the Conargo region has nearly always been dependent on weather conditions, market fluctuations and varying degrees of confidence in its vast open plains. “The 1990s drought broke a lot of people,” Paul says. “Those growing up here looked around and thought, ‘Bad weather, bad prices, we’re out!’”
Elle Gray serves customers on a Friday night.
But local sentiment is now positive with the economic and climatic stars aligning. According to Paul, there is a sense of pride among those farming sheep, cattle, and crops in the region. The Bull family, which farms 20km north-east of Conargo, is thrilled to once again roll into town on a Friday night for a counter meal. None more so than Claire Bull, mother of 3 teenage boys, and wife of local fire captain Michael Bull. Claire beams at the prospect of someone else cooking dinner for her growing sons.
“This is our meeting place; it’s so easy for families to catch up and relax here,” Claire says. “The next pub is a 100km round trip, which takes the fun out of it. Michael was the first on the scene when the pub burnt down. It’s been a long 8 years since.”
The landscape, like the hotel, has changed over time, with lateral irrigators, swathes of corn and rice crops, huge grain silo complexes and large-scale feedlots breaking up the once revered sheep station country.
And with a thriving agricultural sector, comes a thriving social scene. Thankfully, the sons of Conargo have set the stage and are open for business. And yes, the infamous Conargo Pub stickers are still available.