About halfway down Walla’s main street the names of Jeff and June Grosse loom high above their shop – painted into the town’s landscape.
For 56 years, Jeff has toiled in the shop. Day in and day out – bar about eight days holiday a year – since he got his first job, aged 15, in 1961.
“I finished school on about the 15th of December and started working here on the 18th,” he said.
“I started on 7 pound one and four pence a week - $14.15 cents roughly.
“When the wage got to 20 quid a week I reckon we were made.
“I had a small block my wife and I lived on, we milked our own cow, we grew our own vegetables, we had fruit trees, killed our own sheep with the help of my father-in-law, so we were laughing.
“Most of that money was going into our pocket for us to spend how we want, we didn’t have big expenses, just the mortgage.
“But I could see already at that stage that it was going backwards because as soon as the wages went up prices went up, so in other words the wage earner was probably worse off than if it would have stayed the same.”
An accidental career path
The shop feels like an extension of Jeff himself; paintwork faded by time, cobwebs creeping into the corners, wrinkles framing clear eyes, but everything in its place, proudly well-kept.
Walla history is weaved throughout, a map of the original settlement hanging above the disused fireplace. Walls clad with original advertisements that have faded into vintage posters, that wouldn’t be out of place in a hipster establishment.
I started on 7 pound one and four pence a week - $14.15 cents roughly. When the wage got to 20 quid a week I reckon we were made.Jeff Grosse
Now, 45 years after he first took ownership of the shop and 56 years since his first day, Jeff has sold the Commercial Street agricultural and hardware store, but plans to continue his Elders Stock Wool and Real Estate business from home.
Jeff’s rise from shop-assistant to long-term retail proprietor and agent was not a calculated path.
“I was offered three jobs when I was still at school and this was the one closest to the farming sector which I liked so I took this one,” he said.
“I was working for Eric Lowe when I started, he had a daughter but that’s all and she was married to a farmer.
“I was working here one day and a representative of Leader was here and was talking to Eric, this was eight years after I started, and he said ‘oh what’s going to happen with the business when you retire?’
“Eric said ‘Jeff will take it on’ – he hadn’t spoken to me about it! So in 1973 I took ownership on July 1.”
The future of a piece of history
Despite spending most of his days surrounded by Walla’s history and being a part of it himself, Jeff’s reasons for selling show his keenness for the town to grow, change and develop into the future.
When the Greater Hume Council were struggling to find an adequate location for a new Walla Early Years Childhood Hub, the 72-year-old decided it was time for a partial retirement.
“I sold it to the council, they’ll probably bulldoze the building, which some people say ‘they shouldn’t do it, they shouldn’t do it’, but it’s progress,” he said.
“The new children’s services will be built here, which is good.”
Through his constant vantage point at the shop, change is something Jeff has witnessed again and again.
His clients have retired, some being replaced by their sons farming the same land, others selling to neighbours as farm sizes expanded and the nature of the industry evolved.
“At the moment farmers are reaping the benefits, which they duly deserve,” he said.
“They’ve had to put up with years of things being very crook.
“I can remember years when they had to turn around and shoot stock, years when they’d turn around to sell cattle and the cow was making $20 to $25 a head.
“Well they can’t survive in things like that, the biggest bug bear I suppose is the weather, they’re a resilient mob, they get through, one way or another.
“And they’re loyal and they're hard working – put it this way, if farmers fall in a heap, Australia falls in a heap.
“The customers have been very loyal and I appreciate that. When they can they’d get stuff from me, at times I cant compete on certain items so they go elsewhere and I think that’s fair enough.”
As the agriculture industry changed, so does business for Jeff, but despite times of hardship Jeff said life at 80 Commercial Street, has been good.
“As farms sold and integrated into bigger farms your client base becomes less,” he said.
“But it’s been good for the wife and myself, we've raised a family of three.
“At times I probably would have been better off working for a wage rather than working for myself, because it’s up and down.”
Jeff said life at 80 Commercial Street has been happy, but it hasn’t always been easy.
“Being an agent for Young Husbands originally, then Elders when they took over, has been good – I was working in sale-yards while they were in Bandiana and that helped supplement the business here,” he said.
“I used to employ someone in the shop to help so I could get out and go around clients but it got to the stage where they were earning more than I was.”
Just around the corner
Despite the decades of change, some things remain unchanged – including Jeff’s account system.
A ledger, carbon copies and data typed with a typewriter onto index cards.
“My cash-book is up to page 1105 and I started on 01,” he laughs.
“Someone said ‘Why don’t you do it on a computer’ I said it’d be more work doing it on the computer than the present system!”
Overall, Jeff said, life has been good at the store – his only bug bear being the lack of holidays he and June have been able to enjoy.
But the born-and-breed Walla boy said he won’t be abandoning the town and driving off into the sunset anytime soon.
“I think our last holiday was about 20 years ago,” he said.
“Now we want to go on holidays, tour around, visit family. But the son has 190 acres out here that he got from my brother when he passed away, so there’s a lot of work to be done on that. Plus June and I have nine and a half acres with animals so we couldn’t go for too long.”
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