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Inside the Iconic Pub With the Tallest Bar in the Southern Hemisphere

The Black Stump Hotel, an unassuming pub in Merriwagga, New South Wales is shrouded in outback mythology and local folklore. There’s the tale of how the pub got its name; a woman named Barbara Blaine who burned alive in 1886 in the area, whose husband reportedly said “looked like a black stump”, or it could be because the surrounding area is known colloquially as “Black Stump Country”. Then there’s the legend of how the bar came to be so tall; the tallest in fact, in the southern hemisphere. It might be because it was built so that local stockmen could ride their horses into the bar, order a beer, and drink it without ever having to dismount. Owner Sharon doesn’t know which of the tales are true, however, if you were to ask any of the locals drinking at the bar on any given night, they’ll likely tell you that they all are. 

The town of Merriwagga is home to only thirty-eight people. Yet an evening spent sharing yarns over a few beers at the Black Stump proves that no matter how small a country town is, there are many tales to be told, and the pub is the place to tell them. Since the closure of the pub down the road in Goolgowi last year, The Black Stump has become the last remaining watering hole for the farmers, truckers and travellers in the area. I visited the Black Stump on a Thursday night in search of stories and was not in the least disappointed.


On arrival, I was greeted by Kiersten, the bartender and a Canadian immigrant who is completing her regional work at the pub so she can acquire a visa to live with her Australian boyfriend in Sydney. The locals can’t pronounce her name so they call her ‘Miss Canada’ and some of the local truckers have even gone to the effort of writing a list of questions for her to ask farmers so she can make conversation while pouring beers. Some of the questions include “How many Jack Russells do you own?”, “Do you get much sleep?” and “Are you a horseback rider?” She has one month remaining and is looking forward to leaving, she tells me it’s been a very isolating experience being the only young person in town.

A group of regulars soon wander in; a three-legged Kelpie named Arsehole who lost the fourth leg falling out the back of a ute, a farm worker named Greg, and a trucker named Brett. There’s a bloke with a moustache in high-vis who won’t tell me his name, but says he used to hunt buffalo with Rod Ansell, the inspiration for Crocodile Dundee. He also says he was the stunt horse rider for the film Australia, and his horse ‘Skitzo’ featured in many scenes. He’s a truck driver now, which is why he’s in town. There’s a local called Steve who says he used to work with Ivan Milat for the Department of Main Roads, building highways.

 


A man I met back at the local caravan park named Cookie wanders in and orders some spring rolls while watching the rugby on the television. Cookie is a nomad who’s been living on the road the past seven months in his van ‘Goanna’ (“because she’ll go anywhere, this old bastard.”) He’s mapped his route by finding a pub to drink at each night, and shows me photos of some of his favourites: Renner Springs and Daly Waters. He’s on his way back home now but has been looking for detours to delay his return, which is how we stumbled upon The Black Stump.


On the Black Stump’s front verandah, the locals tell me about the history of the area and the many occurrences at the pub. They’ve shot some films at the pub, where actors rode in on horses to live out the myth of the reason for the bar’s height. Another reason for the bar’s height is hypothesised that at the time of the opening of the bar, the railway was being built across the road. Apparently the railroad workers were somewhat rough and would occasionally jump over the bar, so they had to increase the height as a deterrent. As we discuss whether any of these myths are true (Brett tells me “they’re all true!”) Sharon puts ‘Beyond The Black Stump’, a BBC film featuring the pub on the television for me to watch. Steve runs home and returns with a copy of his book ‘Tales of Tragedy from Gunbar’ by Aaron Grugan, that chronicles tales of the local area. Kiersten finds a folder behind the bar with printouts of stories featuring the pub from over the years.


Across the road some of the truckers point out the memorial stone to Barbara Blaine, the farmer’s wife who burned to death while cooking dinner for her husband over the campfire, and whose husband supposedly gave the pub its name in describing how he found her. There’s a poem about the Black Stump legend by Stuart Clarke framed up on the wall. Sharon even has a copy of her death certificate, which notes she was thirty-two years old at her time of death and described her cause of death as “accidentally burnt at campfire.” 


Sharon’s been publican of The Black Stump for twenty years now and says living here is like living with your family; sometimes they get on your nerves, but you like them all the same. “It’s a good atmosphere here, people want to talk to you” she tells me. There’s also another hidden benefit to the local pub in regional towns that Sharon knows all too well living among many ageing farmers; it doubles as a sort of welfare check for the local community. She says many of the elderly farmers will phone in daily to let her know whether they’ll be coming in for dinner so she knows whether someone needs to check up on them if they don’t come in. Without the local pub, if anything were to happen to these farmers in a rural town like Merriwagga, there’s a good chance nobody would know about it for quite some time. 


The Black Stump celebrates its centenary in two years, and Sharon wants to plan something big to commemorate the milestone with the locals who keep the pub alive. It’s no small feat for a pub to continue running for a hundred years in a town this size, and as far as Sharon’s concerned, there’s many more tales to be told well after its hundredth birthday for The Black Stump Hotel.

The Specifics:

What: Black Stump Hotel
Where: Corner of Aix and Mons Street, Merriwagga, NSW
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