With a decorative roofline proudly displaying its construction date of 1912, Robertstown General Store seems as if it’s been transplanted out of history, into the 21st Century.
Much has changed in Robertstown over the past decades. During the 1950s, the town had a bustling main street with a railway, bank, butcher, deli, two garages, saddlery, school, bakery and even a blacksmith. But these have now gone.
At least one thing has stayed the same. When you walk through the doors of Lehmann’s General Store, the well-dressed Merv Lehmann, 87, greets you with a gentlemanly hospitality from another time.
More than 71 years since he started working at the store, Merv, or “Lehmy” as he’s known, is still behind the rustic timber counter, wearing a tie and a smile.
Robertstown is a humble farming community south of Burra, and the last stop and watering hole before Worlds End — a town which was declared to have ceased to exist in 1962.
“I’ve seen a hell of a lot of changes,” says Merv, referring to everything from decimal currency and the change to the metric measuring system to the closure of the town’s railway. He’s also seen droves of other businesses close around him.
“I bought the shop on the first of April, 1976, and I’ve been a fool ever since,” he laughs, but concedes that the store keeps him going. It is also a vital service for the local community of farmers, families and elderly residents who stop in for milk, newspapers, bread and a range of supplies typical of a country general store.
Merv works with his daughter Cheryl, who is integral to the business. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here because I can’t even switch a computer on; everything’s done online now,” he says.
“Why should I retire? I could either sit at home and talk to the walls or come in here and talk to people, and that’s why I’m still here. Plus, I enjoy working with Cheryl.”
Regular customers visit most days, treading across the creaky original floorboards for a chat with Merv and to grab odds and ends that would otherwise require a long trip to another town.
On Saturdays during the football season, Kids scamper into the shop for lollies and drinks from “Mr Lehmy”, while farmers pick up some bolts or pipe fittings from his hardware section.
The charming building itself also contains the original post office, which was built in 1888. The shop has no air conditioning, but the heat doesn’t bother Merv. “We used to sit on a reaper in the field when it was 110 in the shade and think nothing of it,” he recalls.
Merv’s great grandfather purchased farmland in Robertstown in 1881. Merv grew up on his parent’s farm of 200 acres, in the old measurement, or 81 hectares, just two kilometres out of town.
“I milked six cows by hand for about 10 years before we got a milking machine,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m still alive today, it was all the bloody hard work.”
He went to school in Robertstown, “not bragging, but I was top of the grade”, he says. “I got to high school in Eudunda and there were 40 in the class and it was history and geography that killed me, but in maths I beat everyone.”
His knack for figures meant he would be an astute shopkeeper. It was through word of mouth that he got a job at the general store when he was about 16.
“The owner, Reg Roberts, used to sit on a chair with his glasses down his nose, and if I’d have come to work without a tie on, he’d say ‘see you later’. Now, I’ve got about 80 of them in my wardrobe.”
Back then, it was a bustling store with four staff. Flour, sugar, wheat and salt came in large bags, and was then scooped and weighed for customer orders. “If you did that today the health inspector would be after you,” Merv says.
Robertstown was a booming agricultural hub in the 1950s, hosting sale days that would draw people from across the Mid North. When the railway and the town’s bank were closed in the 1970s, the local economy and population declined sharply.
Merv played football for Robertstown for about five years and although he was “just an average B-grader” he loved footy and held the position of club secretary for 42 years.
He met his wife Rhonda, a nurse, at a country dance in Saddleworth. They eventually took over his father’s farm, running sheep and milking cows, all the while operating the general store.
Along the way, Merv has knocked up a commendable record of community service. He is a life member of the South Australian Country Fire Service, was a justice of the peace for 32 years, and he even used to dress up as Robertstown’s father Christmas.
“I was in the CFS here and fought many a fire. There was one major fire between here and Morgan in the 70s. We sat by the pipeline waiting for the fire to come across the paddock to the road and when it hit, it just about got us,” he says. “We stopped it from getting over the road but by hell it was close, my eyebrows were singed.”
With the past two years of drought, Merv has recently been forced to sell his livestock for the first time in the farm’s history. “We had about 100 sheep and we just couldn’t keep them any longer,” he says.
“I can’t ever remember having a drought for so long. In the 60s we had a big drought, but it was only one year. We’ve had this drought for two years straight. We had dust storms in June and July; I’ve never seen that before. We had an inch of rain last week and that’s the biggest rain we’ve had for two years.”
The drought has a knock-on effect for the general store and the Robertstown Hotel, as locals have less money to spend. But, despite the setbacks he’s experienced over the years, Merv still has a positive outlook and always manages a laugh. “When we get our rain and a good harvest again, you’ll find people everywhere.”
A lady walks into the store during Merv’s chat with SALIFE, at which point he announces, “That’s Marie, one of our oldest ladies in Robertstown” …. “And one of the silliest,” she replies, proving that her hearing is still sharp.
Merv concedes that she is a great customer. “And he’s an excellent businessman,” says Marie. “I’m telling the truth.”
This story first appeared in the May 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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