Willow Tree: The secret to this tiny NSW town’s success

These were the words once describing the small town of Willow Tree in rural NSW.

Sitting on the New England Highway, halfway between Scone and Tamworth, a mere 308 people call it home.

But thanks to the chance decision of one Sydney man and the vision of a dedicated group of locals, Willow Tree has made its mark on the map – and now on weekends the visitors more than double the population.

Despite suffering through a devastating drought which cancelled many local events in recent years and saw the downfall of other small rural towns in the area, along with Covid-19 restrictions, the town has flourished.

And while the recent lockdowns and restrictions have continued to affect local events and tourism, Willow Tree continues to go from strength to strength with the community supporting their own.

Like any rural town in its heyday of the 1960s the Willow Tree streets were filled with everything from a butcher and a baker to a bank.

But over the years doors were shut, businesses dwindled and barely anything was left along the kilometre stretch of New England Highway.

Willow Tree was fading away – one more dot on the map with little significance.

Sydney man’s bold move

For almost 50 years, Charles Hanna had run North Richmond packaging company Hannapak. But he’d always wanted to own a rural property.

After searching the countryside, including at Ebor and Goulburn, a real estate agent told him and his wife Cheryl about Colly Creek – a property that wasn’t on the market a few kilometres outside of Willow Tree on the New England Highway.

“Where’s Willow Tree?” was Mr Hanna’s first question.

“We got in the car and drove up to the property and he showed me around Colly Creek and I fell in love with it straight away,” he said.

“It had undulating hills and good cropping country over at Plainview (a separate property on Merriwa Road) and so I decided to invest my time and money into commercial farming.”

That was back in 2005. Now, Colly Creek is a cattle farm, running 1259 head of Angus cattle.

The Hannas have since bought another local property – Castle Mountain, near Quirindi on the Wallabadah Road, which runs 3761 head of sheep and lambs and 159 head of cattle.

When Charles and Cheryl first came to Willow Tree, the local pub in town was run down – and Mr Hanna began financially supporting the publican to pay his bills just to keep the doors open.

“In the end I said this is silly I may as well buy the pub off you – which I did,” he said.

While the beers were still flowing around the building works, a five-month renovation using mostly local tradespeople began.

The Willow Tree Inn officially reopened in November 2011, barely recognisable from its past self with Graze restaurant, the Grain Store bistro and boutique accommodation with more rooms added since.

Where Willow Tree’s residents once had to describe where they lived by giving their proximity to Tamworth or Sydney, the town quickly became known as “where that great pub is”.

A long list of accolades followed – such as Best Country Restaurant and Best Steak Venue.

The Hannas initially bought the Willow Tree Inn with the idea of marketing their own Colly Creek Angus beef through the restaurant. The dry-aged paddock to plate steaks are what the pub is now famous for.

While seatings are now often booked out when it all began Mr Hanna went in with no expectations.

“When I started I had no idea whether we’d get 10 people to come here for dinner or one person so I was quite surprised,” he said.

Sitting on the New England Highway, halfway between Scone and Tamworth, a mere 308 people call the village home
Sitting on the New England Highway, the town’s population is just 308.

“The one thing I did notice about the Willow Tree Hotel was that it was all men and maybe one woman that used to go there but I decided I wanted to make the hotel family-friendly and good for the kids and grandkids and particularly women.”

As the pub became more successful, it, in turn, helped the town, with more stores opening. There are now more than 20 businesses including several cafes, homeware shops, an art gallery and a leatherworker.

Plains Pantry adds to thriving small town

In 2014 it appeared the town was in for another blow with the closure of the general store and post office.

A lifeline for locals needing their milk and bread, the store had been in town since 1916.

But the closure was a blessing in disguise, with another successful business rising in its place.

The Hanna family bought the building and completely renovated it with Debbie and David Shaw taking up the lease, opening a gourmet grocer and cafe, The Plains Pantry in 2015.

Serving up house-made pies and stocking a range of mostly local goods and fresh fruit and vegetables, business is booming.

Having left Shaw’s, a fruit and vegetable business in nearby town Quirindi, on the Kamilaroi Highway, after opening the Plains Pantry, Ms Shaw said they never expected business to be going so well.

“I thought I was going to be the only one running it and now we have 16 casual staff,” she said.

Opening what she thought to be an up-market and scaled-down version of the store in Quirindi, Ms Shaw said the coffee and food was initially just on the side.

“On the first day we opened, we only had one bench facing out the window in case people wanted to sit down with their coffee but I remember having to run out the back and grab milk crates – we had all these people sitting around on milk crates,” she said.

The cafe side of the Plains Pantry grew from there, becoming another landmark for the town. Then Covid-19 saw the business adapt and start taking fruit and vegetable orders for the locals.

“In the beginning, I saw more local people than ever before and the fruit and vegetable side increased and then it became busier with more people coming to country areas,” she said.

Ms Shaw said Willow Tree benefits from its New England Highway location, but it’s all the local businesses working together that has really helped its boom.

“It’s a quaint little place and the pub creates interest in the town which we all benefit from,” she said.

“I’m very positive about the town – we have a great little cluster of businesses that creates more people stopping.

We’re a great group of businesses promoting each other.”

Capitalising on success

It’s a Sunday in Willow Tree and there’s not a parking spot to be found in the main street. People are spilling out of the cafes onto the footpath and rows of caravans are pulled up outside the Information Centre.

This is the phenomenon local Ted Wilkinson often finds – but he said it wasn’t always like this with basically nothing in the town when he arrived in 1999.

“Like many other little villages it had a decreasing population and lack of interest,” he said.

Mr Wilkinson said the success of the Willow Tree Inn and the Visitor Information Centre in bringing more people to town turned things around with others taking advantage of the boost.

“It created a pattern of visitors walking around the streets looking for something to do and entrepreneurial people started to want and come and have a part of the action,” he said.

As well as weekend markets held once a month, the garage is used for groups to meet including knitters and canasta players
As well as weekend markets held once a month, the garage is used for groups to meet including knitters and canasta players

A derelict garage with an old boat that sat at one end of town soon became a talking point for people passing through.

And it quickly got its own presence on Instagram.

“Why is it there? Does it still go?” captions would read.

Local artist Robbie Marheine said when she told people she was from Willow Tree, the first thing they would say was: “That’s where the boat is under the old garage.”

“It sat there for 25 years and became an identifying landmark as you drove along the highway,” Ms Marheine said.

After opening Random Rural Art Gallery in 2019 across the road from the Northern Garage, she started tidying up around the building. So naturally, when the garage came up for sale, Ms Marheine bought it.

And of course the boat had to stay.

“My sense of preserving something of Willow Tree was strong,” she said.

“In essence Willow Tree isn’t just the pub – it’s still a village.”

With the help of locals, Ms Marheine transformed the garage into a market space still preserving the character by filling the walls with old tools, tyres and signs found during the clean-up.

As well as weekend markets held once a month, the garage is used for groups to meet, including knitters and canasta players.

“This has become indirectly like a community centre, and I can see what this is for connecting different age groups and something that can remain for the community,” she said.

The small-town charm and a community with a big heart that has really helped the town prosper
Local artist Robbie Marheine bought the garage with the old boat and it now serves as a community space.

Boost from the pandemic

While small, the village punches above its weight, having this year been named a finalist in the Top Small Town Tourism Awards.

Nikki Robertson, who until this year had been at the Visitor Information Centre in Willow Tree since it opened in 2010, said they saw 9000 to 10,000 tourists a month from all over the world.

“For a small town like Willow Tree, it’s a lot,” she said.

When the Information Centre first opened, she said Willow Tree was still a sleepy town but an emerging destination with only a general store, gift shop and a cafe, and another cafe opening.

“People were saying there are too many coffee shops in Willow Tree,” she said.

“They were very critical about the whole thing, but it took off quite quickly with the Willow Tree Inn opening up and more tourists stopping.

“It’s all snowballed from there.”

Ms. Robertson said Covid-19 has actually helped boost the local tourism, turning Willow Tree from a stop along a journey to a destination.

“Because people can’t go overseas they came to Willow Tree for the Willow Tree Inn – the main attraction is Graze without a doubt,” she said.

“We had heaps more tourists. They feel safer out in regional areas because you’ve got natural space and no crowds.

“Covid has been very positive for regional tourism.”

And while the drought heavily affected the area in recent years Ms. Robertson said in a similar way to Covid-19, it helped boost visitor numbers.

“The drought has pinpointed a lot of attention to rural Australia – a lot of people are traveling inland to specifically support rural towns,” she said.

“Even if it’s just a coffee, they want to spend money in little towns.”

And Ms. Robertson sees a positive future for the village, even after borders reopen.

“Willow Tree still has the potential to grow and flourish – I don’t think it’s done yet,” she said.

“This is a great time in tourism and will be until the borders open and even after that people have been inland, they’ve seen what’s here and I think they’ll come back.”

The boost during Covid-19 was seen across all the businesses in town with the Willow Tree Inn seeing sales go up by 50-60 per cent.

But it’s the small-town charm and a community with a big heart that has really helped the village prosper.

“I just felt that if you did things properly, the local community and the people would support it. And that’s what happened – the local people particularly supported it,” Mr Hanna said.

It was the same for Ms. Marheine in developing the Northern Garage markets and community space.

“It’s all the people that have helped,” she said.

“A lot of people have met each other here – there were quite a few who just talking to them I got to meet them and everyone somehow along the way found something to contribute or be a part of.”

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com

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