Star News Group

FORMER dairy farmer Frank Gibbons had no idea how much his life was about to change when he stopped at his favourite pub one day to have a beer with his Dad.

For more than 13 years, Frank and his wife Anita had farmed on his mother’s Gippsland dairy farm in Victoria, and his father who had separated from his mother, had his own dairy farm close by.

“Thursday was market day and Dad would usually go,” Frank says. “Afterwards he’d do a bit of shopping and I’d meet him at the Robin Hood Inn at Drouin West at about 3 o’clock for a beer. We usually stayed for about an hour and then he’d go and milk his cows and I’d go and milk mine.

“One Thursday when Dad and I were at the hotel, Michael the publican said he was selling the pub. After he left the bar, I laughed and said ‘there you go Dad I’ll go you halves in a pub,’ then we both laughed and had another beer. When we finished, Dad went his way and I went mine, but a few days later he rang me and said ‘that comment you made about the pub, would you be interested?’ I said ‘well yes if it was the right price but I don’t really know what we’d be doing.”

Frank and Anita had always said it would be nice to have a country pub but it wasn’t thought about much more than that because they were dairy farmers. However, after deregulation they found working in the dairy industry hard so the idea of running a pub was appealing.

“This pub had its own bit of character,” Frank says. “I don’t know if I would have rushed in and bought a pub in the main street, but this place just had something about it and I thought if I don’t try it I might regret it, and if it didn’t work out I could always go back to the farm and milk cows.”

He says when his father was younger, he thought having a pub would be a nice idea and one of his friends had been in the game for years so he called him to get some advice. “We also rang a few hotels to get a rule of thumb as to how much we should pay because what Michael wanted was fairly up there,” Frank says. “We went to the auction and it was passed in but we negotiated after the sale and came to an agreement an hour later.”

At the time, Frank’s nephew had completed a dairy apprenticeship and had started working on the farm. “We came back from the auction and said to him ‘guess what? We just bought a pub’. We negotiated a price with him for the herd and he agreed to take over our lease. We moved into the hotel and he is still running the farm.”
The hotel is now a Gibbons family affair owned and operated by Frank, his wife Anita, his father John and his mother Jean.

“It was hard for the first few years,” Frank says, “but like any job, once we nutted out what we were doing wrong, we were right, and for a small pub a little bit out of town we poke along very well now.”

He says a man called Henry Dickens built the hotel in 1870. “People often ask me why the hotel is called the Robin Hood Inn and to the best of my knowledge it’s because the fella Dickens originally came from Sherwood in England. He also had a still down the road that produced eucalyptus oil to run the hotel’s lamps when everyone else were still using candles.”

While the hotel is now in a quiet place a few kilometres north of the Princes Freeway, it was once a busy hub providing food and accommodation for weary travellers coming through on Cobb and Co coaches along the main Old Sale Road. The coach journey from Melbourne through Gippsland took 22 to 27 hours and stopped at Dandenong, Beaconsfield, The Robin Hood Inn, Brandy Creek, Shady Creek, Moe, Morwell, Traralgon, Rosedale, Kilmany and then Sale. “People would also head up here to make their fortune at Walhalla during the gold rush,” Frank says, “so she was a busy little spot. There were a set of stables nearby at the top of Picnic Point Hill and there was another set across the road.”

From the time the hotel was built until 1910, it was bought and sold eight times with some owning it twice including the Snell family who first purchased it in 1915. There were 12 children in the family and two of the girls Clara and Anna, travelled around the world in circus sideshows as the ‘Giant Family’. Clara who we would now consider obese weighed 252.2 kilograms, which was a world record then. Their brother Tom also travelled with them and they were all musically talented. For a while, they travelled with the famous Buffalo Bill Travelling Show.

Originally, the hotel didn’t have upstairs balconies. It’s believed they were put on in the 1940s when it was a private boarding house and the liquor licence went to the Noojee Hotel near Mt Baw Baw. In the 1950s, the hotel was a milk bar and then it closed and became derelict for several years while a few local indigenous squatters moved in. In 1963, the Venstra family bought the hotel, and returned to its former glory and then operated as a byo restaurant. Michael and Carmel Martin took over the freehold in the late 1980s with a new liquor licence and ran it for 15 years until Frank and his family purchased it.

The hotel has 10 motel units, a bottle shop and a milk bar with a sub newsagency and postal facilities. There are two dining areas, a bar, verandah areas and a beer garden.

The food is pub grub and plenty of it and there’s plenty on the menu including homemade pies, curries, seafood platters, parmas, schnitzels, grilled and fried fish and steaks that are sourced from a local butcher who Frank says is exceptional. “When we first bought the pub, we had fine dining but to get bums on seats we went back to the home-style cooking and big meals, which seems to suit the place more and it works a treat.

“We have pool tables in the bar but we don’t have any TAB facilities. I thought about it once and mentioned it to a few of the locals but I think they would have got a posse and strung me up if I had. It’s good because people can just socialise and relax.”

He says on Friday nights, many of the local farmers come in to just chat about what they have done during the week and he holds a raffle to raise money for the local West Gippsland Hospital.

He says every year on the first Sunday in October, they hold a Bathurst Day to raise more money for the hospital and everyone enjoys it. “We put TV sets everywhere, all placed according to how serious viewers are about the race. We have people out on the verandahs and children running around in the beer garden where it’s safe. After the race, we have a big auction of Holden and Ford memorabilia and we round up everything we can for it, and because it’s for the hospital, people always have fairly long arms and fairly short pockets.”

After seven years, Frank still enjoys his work in the hotel. “I’m a social person,” he says. “I love it and it’s a great pub so I’m pretty lucky.”

By Wendy Morriss

Copyright © 2012 Wendy Morriss: Freelance Journalist. All Rights Reserved.