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LEITICIA Harmer pounces on a straw broom to sweep the entrance of the red-brick Memorial Hall in the tiny Victorian town of Dookie as if it were her front porch.
She’s town proud. A dead ringer for Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched character with her blonde hair and impish smile, she and her co-conspirator Alice Tallis could do with some nose-wiggling powers in the countdown to the arts festival they hope will be the heart-starter this speck of a rural community needs.
So many tasks clamour for attention as the deadline hurtles towards them. Ten thousand flyers must be printed and distributed; there’s a website to launch, events to be finalised. The bare hall where dust motes dance in shafts of light awaits thick black curtains for soundproofing. They plan to paint the foyer, hang picture rails, remount the all-purpose stage, install mobile screens to create flexible exhibition spaces. Their hands point here, there, everywhere, one voice talking over the other as they rattle off last-minute preparations for “Dookie Earthed” — a 12-hour feast of film, lectures, storytelling, music and cultural events that will spill into the street and on towards the grand natural amphitheatre of an old basalt quarry on the town’s fringe.
Home to 250 people, 220km north of Melbourne, Dookie — it rhymes with spooky — is fighting the ghostly hush enveloping country towns throughout the land. Tallis and Harmer belong to a plucky band of professional women who wound up here through marriage or fate, bringing marketing and fundraising skills and, most potent of all, their stirring passion for this place. The moment they heard about the Small Town Transformations project, run by Regional Arts Victoria, the group held all-night sessions dreaming up their plea for one of five grants, each worth $350,000. This is the story behind their Herculean bid to avoid the rattling bones of nearby historic Devenish and countless other cobwebbed towns sucked dry by satellite regional hubs or freeway bypasses and the inevitable exodus of young blood.
This weekday morning there is a trickle of traffic in the main street that once bustled with two bakers, a butcher, a haberdashery, a lolly shop, a couple of hairdressers, a tannery, and a general store offering everything from farm machinery to crockery and frocks. In between vacant shop windows, a post office now sells sandwiches and newspapers. The renovated Gladstone pub, wrapped in wrought-iron lacework, and a cafe with an emporium stuffed full of retro goods herald the recent spurt of gentrification.
Janie Christophersen, who part-owns the cafe with her partner Sol, is one of the women fighting for this town’s future. She laughs at her leap of faith in Dookie’s revival. “Soon after Sol and I bought the building we were polishing the floorboards and we stopped to have a rest and a cup of tea. We were sitting here looking out at the main the street and we saw a goanna crawling along the middle of the road. We just looked at each other and thought, ‘What have we done? Are we completely insane?’ ”
The spaghetti loops of ring roads and multi-lane freeways leading drivers out of Melbourne on the Hume Highway are choked with peak-hour traffic and the snarl of shortening fuses. Two and a half hours later, at a speed limit of 110km/h, it is easy to miss the turn-off to Dookie or any number of rural settlements hidden in the gently undulating landscape. Morning sun streaks through the gum trees lining the narrow sealed road that offers the scenic route from the sleepy hamlet of Violet Town to the even smaller village of Dookie. The wattle is in blossom, a colourful crimson rosella dives across my path and the fields of canola are ripening into brilliant downy beds of yellow.
Tree-changers and artists such as cartoonist Michael Leunig, based near Violet Town, who gravitate to bucolic havens for the lifestyle and economic benefits are sought-after citizens in shires desperate to secure fresh reserves of human capital. Boom and bust cycles are written into Australia’s landscape. There are droughts and fires and floods. Wars drained towns of young men. Railway lines dictate access to markets. The closure of a single enterprise can wipe a small settlement off the map. But if a hair fracture triggers an earthquake in these molehills it is also possible for a kernel of folk with hope and spunk to generate rejuvenation.
In 1888, Dookie’s residents lived on a hilltop where the new railroad could not climb, so they loaded their dwellings onto bullock-drawn wagons and slid them down beside the track. Local historian Margaret Feldtmann points out holes in the ground from the cellars these householders left behind. She blames mass car ownership for the drift to bigger regional centres. Shepparton, a 20-minute drive away, is on a roll. But there are many scapegoats: stronger farms have swallowed smaller landholders; powerful farm machinery has replaced a multitude of labourers; rail and roads bypass this pit stop; residential student numbers have dived at the former Dookie Agricultural College, now a campus run by The University of Melbourne; city skylines beckon with jobs, services, anonymity and cultural diversity.
“Once it was an important town in this area. Not now,” sighs Feldtmann, 75. Ranks have thinned. The Red Cross, active for a century, is on its knees. “I’m the only member left.” The Country Women’s Association has dwindled from 45 to eight. More than 100 lawn bowlers used to compete with Feldtmann’s parents at the club where today 34 players field teams. The nearest golf club also scrounges for bodies. “There used to be around 60 women who’d play golf midweek. You were flat out finding a chair at afternoon tea. Now we’ll be lucky if it keeps going,” she says.
Feldtmann’s been leading the Dookie cubs as “Akela” for more than 30 years. Her sister, Una Feldtmann (they married brothers) wins prizes galore at the annual show. “The town has changed,” Una agrees. “When I first got married I knew everybody who lived here. Now people come and go.” These matriarchs are the old guard. Una learnt dressmaking at a Melbourne college that no longer teaches the craft. Barista courses fill its curriculum in an economy built on hospitality and services.
Nostalgia for the bustling days hastens paralysis, however. The less activity, the more likely future generations will be to take flight. So when farmer’s wife Norma Sutherland enticed her two sons Sol and Rhys back to Dookie after years in the wider world it was a coup, not least because the boys brought their vibrant partners with them. “But the girls didn’t know anybody,” recalls Norma’s good friend Colyn Moylan, who with a matchmaker’s eye for alchemy glimpsed an opportunity for magic to happen. “We needed to get a group going to put Dookie on the map,” she says. “Everybody had to change their thinking.”
In true country style she hosted a lunch, inviting younger women who’d come to her notice for their verve and ideas. One of them was Alice Tallis, who was part of the gun marketing team behind King Island Dairy and who later married local farmer Richard Tallis. She arrived with a canny awareness of how Victorian regions had begun pitching for a tourism edge. Innovative farming, resort spas, fine dining, museums, art galleries and music festivals were converting forgotten places into weekend destinations.
Tallis raised $30,000 for a feasibility study to see if the gnarled vineyards at Dookie agricultural college could become commercially viable by harnessing a kitchen to a cellar door. “Not enough critical mass” was the verdict. “I came home and bawled my eyes out and I said to Richard, ‘We’ve got to do something.’” So they did. He planted vines on their property, learnt winemaking and built a cellar door, perched on a hill with sweeping views across the Strathbogie Ranges to the snowy peak of Mt Buller.
Around the table at Col Moylan’s lunch Janie Christophersen, Alice Tallis and Leiticia Harmer dared to imagine how together they could muster opportunities. “That’s where it started. They just flew with it,” Moylan says. “They developed confidence in one another and confidence in the area, knowing we’ve got something here to sell.” Armed with city-based experience in event management, fundraising and advertising, they lifted their eyes beyond the narrow dimensions of past campaigns such as “Don’t Dirty Dookie”. Beautiful town awards chime last century’s bell. Flower beds and tidy reserves are no drawcard in a modern economy where outlying communities hustle for tourist trade.
“You need an influx of younger people,” cheers former school principal Peter McManus, an activist in the Lions Club, who remembers the former Dookie Progress Association’s focus on fixing a broken street light or a pothole. “Thirty-five years ago locals were largely born and bred here. No disrespect intended but these younger people are tertiary-trained and they’ve come in here with fresh ideas to make things happen. It’s been really exciting for us,” he says of their vision for an arts and tourism-led revival.
The ginger group of 12 women formed Lifestyle Dookie in 2004. All volunteers with children and part-time jobs, they started with bite-sized projects that would make Dookie a better place to live, visit and do business. They used their marketing skills to design logos and promotional material for the Dookie and District Development Forum. A scarecrow competition was introduced; at Christmas, fairy lights were strung around buildings while businesses erected large Santas; calendars with black and white photographs of citizens and landmarks went on sale; children’s play equipment was installed in the reserve; a “Wine’d Down at Dookie” event became part of the annual SheppARTon Festival; in 2007, a new community centre was erected; the old rail track was converted into a trail ride for visiting cyclists.
“We were trying to keep Dookie alive,” says Harmer. “Little towns suffer and we wanted to develop a positive voice and jump onto every grant and every idea that came along.” She lobbied in 2008 to secure a Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden at the primary school, where cafe owner Janie Christophersen leads weekly classes in a spanking new kitchen built in part with donations from Bunnings in Shepparton. “The benefits for a little school like ours were so important. If we’d got much smaller we’d have struggled to stay open,” Harmer says. “Once you lose kids to another district they don’t come back. They make friends there and play sport in another place and they’re gone.” Since the garden opened, the school’s population has doubled to 44 students.
“From little things big things grow” says the sign outside the primary school. This refrain by Australian songwriter Paul Kelly was adopted for the grassroots campaign behind federal Independent MP Cathy McGowan. Dookie falls just outside her electorate but exemplifies the spirit she tapped. “We just thought we could do things together,” Harmer says of the tipping point in Dookie’s fortunes. But despite their sweat and brainstorming, the lack of critical mass remains a daunting fact underscored by the Dookie Township Marketing Plan in 2007. Highlighting the need for more visitors, more residents, more investment, more of everything, it warned: “Realistically the Lifestyle Dookie group has limited resources and has taken on so many projects in the last three years that there is a real risk of member burn-out.”
Whoever wrote the plan underestimated the fire in these bellies. Dookie was the last stop on a statewide tour by Regional Arts Victoria’s director Esther Anatolitis, drumming up entrants to the inaugural Small Town Transformations project, born of a $2 million promise by the then newly elected premier, Ted Baillieu. A former architect, Baillieu believes art can be a driver of unexpected returns: “From my point of view, the power of the arts can be unrestricted if you’ve got people with passion who let their imagination and creativity run, so we made the commitment to put up a bucket of money.”
Bestowed in the warmth of victory when state coffers were flush, this experiment may be a one-off. RAV has commissioned consultant Natalie Fisher to quantify its success, since economic currency is the best means of persuasion. Baillieu wants the program to continue. In August, days before announcing his retirement from politics, he met representatives of the guinea pig towns pedalling furiously towards their October curtain-raisers. He regards Dookie as one of the stand-outs. “If you have bold artists and brave towns you can create a mindset and a culture that leads these places forward. They become go-to places,” he says.
Saving rural communities is a preoccupation that has sprouted solutions ranging from $1 blocks of land in the western Queensland town of Richmond to Britain’s lottery-funded “Village SOS”. Victorians gained startling insights into art’s therapeutic benefits after the Black Saturday bushfires burnt Marysville and Kinglake, but culture also delivers streams of prosperity. RAV’s Anatolitis was influenced by the Swiss ski village of Vercorin, where artists create works every summer with the dual purpose of engaging locals and encouraging outsiders to visit. Lifting spirits while luring tourists is a potent mix.
The grants worth $350,000 were pitched at towns with populations below 1500 that could come up with schemes for creative enterprises not involving bricks and mortar construction. Community enrichment mattered most. The women of Dookie had five days to lodge their expression of interest and two weeks to write a detailed 15-page application outlining their project, budgets, partners and the legacy it might leave.
“You’ll never get it,” jeered some doubters when these wives and mothers went for broke. Ideas had been stockpiled from years of dreaming. All that remained was to pick the cherry and polish it irresistibly. The centrepiece was an old quarry near the heart of town with sheer rock walls rising from the red Dookie soil, forming an auditorium that begged for live performances and an audience to behold them.
“The last few days we didn’t sleep,” recalls Tallis. “We’d go to Leiticia’s house and spend all night brainstorming and writing.” They workshopped proposals to fit the criteria precisely with eye-catching flair. Let’s get an aerial shot of Dookie, they thought. So Leiticia Harmer rang a local who tinkers with homemade planes. In this geographical cranny everyone knows their neighbour’s tricks and traits. People would do anything for this patch of earth. Serana Hunt, the photographer among them, flew up and framed her shot. “It was quite euphoric,” Tallis says. “We thought, even if we don’t get the grant we have cemented friendships and put together something we were pretty proud of.”
The noon-to-midnight program of film, music, photography and cultural events was dubbed “Dookie Earthed”. When nine finalists were unveiled in May 2013 the girls were beside themselves at making the shortlist. To find themselves one of five winning towns — alongside Ouyen, Neerim South, Avoca, and Natimuk — was sobering and scary. Their apprehension was justified.
Weather-beaten, practical folk often look askance at dreamers. Comfortable harvesting crops or herding stock with roughened hands, they do not fuss over shades of meaning or aesthetic nuances. Third- or fourth-generation farmers consider themselves natives who like where they live well enough and are wary of recent arrivals spruiking “transformation” or frittering money that could be better spent hooking up homes to sewerage.
Dookie is known for its stable climate and rich agricultural acreage, not for the art produced here. None of the members of “Dookie Arts”, as the steering group is called, had ever run a festival, so they hired artist Helen Kelly. She had no hands-on experience either but she’d grown up in the area before joining the exodus of young talent pursuing careers in the big smoke. Settling in Castlemaine with family of her own, she always felt strong connections to her home. Locals trusted her. Rod Dow, who owns an engineering workshop in the main street, was a neighbour when they were kids. Valda Dickins, a pillar of football and netball, taught her at primary school.
But the challenge was fraught with risks. She got Dookie but would Dookie embrace the whimsy and ephemeral nature of art? Soon after taking charge, one local gent told her that his idea of art was a painting on a gallery wall in a gilt frame. From the very beginning tensions emerged over the budget and questions of whether the town would be left with long-term, tangible proof of money well spent.
Bowling club veterans were sceptical of plans to illuminate their manicured green as part of light and sound shows for the Dookie Earthed festival until the local seed bank curator Andrew Sands, who sculpts and paints in his spare time, set them at ease. An integral member of the team pulling this show together, “Sandsie” used a leaf-blower last month to spray-paint his Holden Rodeo ute with red Dookie soil. He parked it in the main street and posted a photograph on the festival’s Facebook site with a spoof blurb describing a significant archaeological find that dated from the Autovician period.
This playful piece of art was a promotional stunt. “I’m afraid some people were not sure how to take it,” Kelly explained in The Major Saddleback News, a monthly newsletter publishing rainfall, netball results, recipes and now progress reports on art happenings around town. “The work was not meant to affront anyone and I would like you all to feel ‘in’ on the joke of this crazy act of art-making.”
Outside artists have been enlisted to direct film and theatre productions. Inside talent has stepped forward from surprising quarters. Kelly’s old neighbour, Rod Dow, opened his engineering workshop for welding lessons where locals have been constructing sculptural barbecues in a masterful marriage of practical skills and imaginative gambols. Old bicycle frames, truck fenders and washing tubs have been welded into quirky contraptions to fire up catering on the day and service community functions in years ahead.
The Men’s Shed is helping autistic children fashion a blacksmith’s orchestra. Primary school classes are producing an animated film with characters created from native seeds they’ve studied. Citizens can choose workshops in movement, weaving, theatre, digital storytelling and shadow sculptures.
The town’s quarry offers a perfect showcase for the grand finale. Rock blasted from its craggy pit built the foundation of Victoria’s Parliament House. No longer mined, it sits on land owned by plumber Paul Trickey, who recalls the real estate agent warning him: “The block’s got a bit of a hole at the back.” Trickey has shovelled tonnes of gravel to level the dirt floor and built an earth stage. His kelpie barks excitedly while he works in singlet and dirt-stained jeans to ready his private joy for public display. Eerily beautiful, the sheer walls will be lit by projected images as darkness falls, but this natural masterpiece almost needs no adornment.
Trickey is happy for the quarry to host occasional arts and music events but he baulked at their original proposal to use it as a permanent venue. This unexpected hitch became a blessing that spotlighted the potential of the Memorial Hall to be muscled up as a contender. This is the community’s hearth. Locals gathered here to send soldiers off to war and welcome them home. Families have hired the space for years to host 21st birthdays and golden wedding anniversaries. Prizes are awarded from the stage and town meetings kindle democracy’s flame.
On October 4, crowds will flock from the launch into the main street. The silos that mark Dookie’s agricultural glory will be lit up at night with photographic portraits of the people who live here. Serana Hunt has knocked on almost every door to take their picture. “Sandsie” wants to dress the surroundings in red dirt sprayed with his leaf-blower. A carnival will unfold along the route to the quarry as the sculptural barbecues sizzle and flame. This is the plan.
“But what if it rains on the night?” I can’t help wondering. “It won’t,” the women shriek, before hooting with laughter. “It can’t.” These souls are mothers of invention. “We’ve got risk management plans but we’re not acknowledging the threat. We’ll put raincoats on. It’ll be OK.” They’ll find a way forward, gritty and determined to overcome every setback and snag. Hope is in the ascendancy. Such bold can-do spirit is so much sweeter than surrender. It’s the stuff of survival. Success stands a chance.