Toolamba: Little Town — Big Heart

By John Lewis

The welcome sign sums it up: Little Town — Big Heart.

Toolamba has had its heart broken twice in the past 13 years and, both times, it has bounced back stronger than ever.

Talk to Toolambians and it is something to do with a community that opens it arms to people, then wraps those same arms around anyone who is hurting.

Let’s find out.

Hurting is the last thing on anyone’s mind in Wren’s General Store and Newsagency on Wren St — unless it’s the hurt of a lost bet.

It’s 8.45am, newspapers and postal packages are being collected, coffees are being ordered and Toolamba Fore Brigade 2nd Lieutenant and secretary Colin James is adamant the town’s new fire station is only six or seven years old.

Store owner Cliff Lockwood reckons it’s a lot older than that.

Colin shakes his head and sips his coffee.

‘‘Righto — bet’s on. Mine’s a free latte.’’ Colin has the look of a man who knows.

He’s been in the Toolamba fire brigade for 21 years and reckons the town has an ‘‘old style country feel’’ and is in a good location, being close to the bush and close enough for people to work in Shepparton.

This can present problems when the weather heats up.

‘‘Our biggest challenge is the Monday to Friday response. We keep tabs on each other and we do try and keep one or two people here in town every day during the fire season,’’ he says.

Colin says it’s a welcoming brigade, which is always on the lookout for new members, including female firefighters.

‘‘We’ve got quite a few active women firefighters and people from different cultures — they’re all more than welcome,’’ he says.

His sentiment is echoed by Caroline James-Wilson and Mel Hall, who are watching Mel’s two young kids kick up the woodchips and give the swings a good workout at the town’s new playground.

Caroline and Mel are the coiled springs that make country towns tick.

Caroline arrived in Toolamba 19 years ago when her children were small.

‘‘We wanted a sense of community where our children could play across the road with other parents watching and feel safe,’’ she says.

Mel says she became a Toolambian two years ago when friends told her how great the school was.

‘‘We met our neighbours within two days. They came over and said come and join our community group,’’ she says.

Caroline talks about people who deliver meals to schools for families who might be doing it tough, and junior CFA members who mow lawns for the elderly.

Then there’s the town steering committee and the recreation reserve committee, the Lions Club and the newly-formed CWA, the food swap program, and the latest idea — a town beehive to make Toolamba honey.

Anyone planning a visit to Toolamba should avoid Tuesday nights — that’s community meetings night.

Caroline says the Junction Hotel is another town social hub with live music on Fridays, Christmas carols in the back paddock and fish and chips on a Sunday night.

Toolambians have also drawn people from other towns to their Christmas festival and their annual trick or treat dress-up party in October.

‘‘If one person has an idea, everyone gets behind it,’’ Mel says.

But just like any big family, Toolamba has weathered darkness and light.

One of the darkest times was the cruel murder of Toolamba sisters Laura and Colleen Irwin in their Altona North home in January 2006.

Thirteen years later, Caroline still tears up when she remembers how the whole town felt a stab to its collective heart.

‘‘In a way it felt like your own kids,’’ she says.

A memorial garden with granite slabs and a mural dedicated to the sisters now sits in the town’s Colaura Gardens near the new playground.

Four years after that terrible summer, darkness returned to Toolamba when its primary school burned to the ground.

Caroline remembers the early morning in February 2010 when she woke up and smelt smoke.

‘‘I ran down the driveway and I could see all the fire trucks and the blaze and then there was an explosion,’’ she says.

Then the ‘‘phone tree’’ swung into action.

‘‘By 7am, everyone knew not to come to school. The school burnt down on a Wednesday and by Friday all the kids were invited to the hall for handball games with footy players,’’ she said.

Caroline said the town ‘‘phone tree’’ is also used for fundraising muffin mornings, telling people when the school camp bus is back, if there’s an outbreak of headlice at school or if the Toolamba bridge is closed.

She said the current bridge closure is a problem for some, but not everyone.

‘‘You just have to plan a bit more when you travel,’’ she says.

However, she says her family daycare business has been hit.

‘‘I’ve lost two daycare families because of the bridge — it does impact business.’’

A more permanent change to the landscape of Toolamba is a 250-lot subdivision planned for the west of the town.

‘‘We’ve had a meeting with developers. We’re a little bit worried — if it has Shepparton-size blocks it will really change our way of living,’’ Caroline says.

At the town’s shiny new playground, we’re joined by Pat Patt who moved to Toolamba 20 years ago — because she liked the bridge.

‘‘It’s a really pretty town. Over 20 years it’s got even more connected,’’ she says.

Mel says the connections seem to be gaining momentum.

‘‘You hear some country towns are not that welcoming — but here it’s completely the opposite,’’ she says.