September 22, 2023
People & Places

A crafty reinvention

It was early 2019 when Kimba locals started worrying their small Eyre Peninsula town could go the way of a ghost town. So, a group of dedicated and creative women devised a plan to bring life back to the town’s main street. Their story is now the stuff of legend.

You couldn’t actually see the tumbleweeds rolling down the main street, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure them up.

Another local shop had closed its doors – the third in the space of a few months – and the little Eyre Peninsula town of Kimba, population 600, was feeling decidedly like the ubiquitous ghost town in an old Western movie; quiet – too quiet – and above all, very, very dry.

Kimba is no stranger to dry times. This dot on the map is well north of Goyder’s Line, and working this country is not for the faint of heart. This is a community that has survived hard years of drought; that lived to tell the tale of the late ’80s, when interest rates on farm loans reached eye-watering levels, and farm after farm was sold by the banks, urgently and gracelessly – when some lark painted a sign on a sheet on the highway out of town: “Will the last one to leave turn out the lights?”

But despite a history of surviving, by early 2019 the fear was well and truly seeping in around the edges of this little main street.

“We knew the time was getting closer when one or two more families might feel they had to leave, and we’d fall below that critical mass required to maintain our school and our hospital,” says Kimba local Heather Baldock. “We’ve seen what happens to communities in that situation, and we were absolutely determined to do everything in our power to hold on.”

But what to do? Because if there’s one thing anyone living on the land understands, it’s that you can’t make it rain. While the headline story in Kimba in 2019 was the dry, it was not the only story in town. Something else was happening, at the kitchen tables, in the spare rooms and garden sheds … even, ironically, in an old, long-dry concrete rainwater tank.

The women were busy making, using their hands for respite and finding distraction from what was happening in the paddocks and not happening in the rain gauge. They were making soaps. Making candles. Making pottery. Restoring furniture. Repurposing salvaged wood into beautiful things. Baking to fill the freezers of their neighbours and seeking ways to supplement family incomes with their own hands.

The Small Town Soap Co is one of eight micro businesses operating along Kimba’s main street.

“We started to think about ways to make everyone feel better,” says Barb Woolford, farmer and candle maker. “And ways to bring out into the open some of the little businesses – or potential businesses – that we knew were hiding away behind closed doors. We had to do something.

“There’s no more visual reminder that times are tough than an empty main street, so Heather and Carmen started ‘dressing up’ the windows of some of the vacant shopfronts. We tried to think of ways to fill some of the shops and bring a bit of vibrancy back to the street, and to support the traders in town – our friends – who had supported us on the farms for so many years.”

And while they were at it, how could they reach the great untapped resource: the thousands of grey nomads, van lifers and big lappers that passed through – or passed by – Kimba on the Eyre Highway every day, travelling that long, iconic ribbon of tarmac that stretches west towards the Nullarbor.

It was early 2019 when the text message went out, calling five women together for a “planning meeting”.

It started with a bottle of Champagne. A nervous giggle. And the words, “So, I’ve got this idea”.

By the time the bottle was finished, Barb Woolford, Carmen Rayner, Pat Beinke, Heather Baldock and Maree Barford – four farmers and the local publican – had a new lease on life.

What unfolded over the next few months is becoming the stuff of legend on the Eyre Peninsula. The women (and their more-or-less willing husbands) banded together to buy the recently deserted farm machinery dealership in what was once-upon-a-time prime real estate in a thriving main street. They stripped it back to its bones, shovelled decades of oil and grease from its floors and repainted the signature John Deere green and gold colours that covered every surface, transforming it to jet black. They brought in shipping containers, fitted them out with doors and windows – and in one case a chandelier – and gave them a lick of black paint too.

Three of the five co-founders, Carmen Rayner, Barb Woolford and Heather Baldock, have created something of a legacy for their Eyre Peninsula town.

People scratched their heads. Wondered “what on earth…?”  But then, one by one, they started offering their help. “I’ve got some spare time this afternoon, why don’t I come and help you paint?” or “the forklift’s not up to much today, we’ll bring it up the street and help you shift those shippers”.

The local men’s shed was enlisted to repurpose empty chemical shuttles into planter boxes for a herb garden out the front. Metres and metres of hand-sewn bunting was festooned across the front of the building. The little old tractor workshop was remade by their own hands – and the hands of the community – into something beautiful.

Three years on, Workshop26 is home to eight micro businesses, operating mostly out of the repurposed shipping containers that now fill the space. This end of the main street is chock full of caravans who have found their way off the highway and have decided to spend a few hours and a few dollars in Kimba. People charter buses from towns across the region on market days or to take part in artisan workshops in the evenings.

The building is alive with chatter, from tourists asking about local attractions and where to get their spare tyre patched, to locals sitting around the fireplace (regardless whether or not it’s lit) catching up over a coffee from the baristas who brew in the retro caravan out the front.

Some of the little businesses have expanded, taking on a bigger physical footprint within the workshop and even employing staff – more and more local women are now part of team W26. Everyone wants to know, what’s the secret sauce that makes this little enterprise work?

Not only is Workshop26 a place where locals can congregate and forge friendships, it has become a serious tourist attraction – a reason people will turn off the highway and stop in Kimba.

“I feel like it’s legitimised my business,” says one of the five founders and owner of The Small Town Soap Co, Carmen Rayner, who hand pours and cuts hundreds of bars of soap on site at Workshop26 every week for retail and wholesale.

“I’m not working at my kitchen table anymore. I have a workplace – I leave the house and go to work, and that makes me feel like it’s a real job in the minds of my family and the people around me and, more importantly, in my own mind.”

Carmen’s mum Pat, also one of the five founding members, has a potters’ wheel and a kiln as part of her shipping container set up, and through her micro business Mud Pot churns out beautiful bespoke ceramics in real time while visitors watch. Pat has been a maker for years and is an absolute cheerleader for this little community.

“It will fill me with pride if we can put Kimba and Workshop26 on the map,” Pat says.

“We know our town is a must-see … now we just need to tell everybody else!”


This article first appeared in the June 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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