Two very different publicans
By Mick Roberts ©
THEY say that Braidwood, on the NSW Southern Highlands is a diverse community, a place where the city meets the bush, where artists mingle with farmers, where mechanics and shearers share a beer with writers and tinkerers of information technology.
It’s indeed a varied town.
On this Time Gents’ road trip we discover the diversity of Braidwood when we met the historic town’s two colourful, and well-known publicans, Brian Kuehn and Jamie Raynolds, and chat to their regular customers.
Although the publicans’ differences are many, their objectives are not. Both are tasked with providing hospitality, and more importantly, both are focused on providing a cold beer, fine food and good service to thirsty customers.
Braidwood, about 200 kilometres south west of Sydney and 55 kilometres from Canberra, is a service town for the surrounding farming district, which is based on sheep and cattle grazing, and forestry operations.
First stop on our road trip was at the busy little wayside pub known as the Nerriga Hotel, about an hour north of Braidwood.
Established in the 1870s, the pub was originally known as the Commercial Hotel. It’s located on the old Wool Road in the small village of Nerriga, which boomed following the discovery of gold in the area. These days its population is less than 50; there are a few houses, two churches, a community hall and the pub which is now known as the Nerriga Hotel.
The Nerriga pub today is a favourite with bikers and day-trippers, and is a popular destination for a weekend lunch.
After a quick beer at this historic inn, we headed south to Braidwood, also popular with day-trippers from the larger centres of Canberra and Queanbeyan.
The history of Braidwood’s pubs is rich. As far back as 1848 there were three inns trading in Braidwood, the Doncaster, Dog and Stile, and the Royal.
Gold was discovered in 1851, and within 10 years an additional seven pubs joined Braidwood’s three inns. By 1865 there were 11 pubs servicing the thirsts of the town, which by 1871 boasted a population of about 10,000.
Long after the gold petted out, the village became a rural service centre for the surrounding farming community.
By 1920 there were seven pubs remaining in Braidwood – the Albion, Court House, Criterion, Royal, Commercial and, a little out of town, the Willow.
Three of those pubs, the Court House, Criterion and Willow Tree, were closed in December 1924. The Albion Hotel followed, when it shut for business on January 29 1932. That left just two pubs in the town – the Commercial and the Royal.
Today those two pubs remain to service the population of less than 2,000, who still call Braidwood home. Our first stop was at the imposing Braidwood Hotel.
Formerly the Commercial Hotel, the Braidwood Hotel was built in 1859 during the prosperity of the gold rush.
The hotel is undergoing restoration, but continues to offer a selection of beers and wine, dining, entertainment and open fires. The current owner’s next major project is the restoration and re-opening of the second storey accommodation rooms.
This is Brian Kuehn’s first pub, but he’s no stranger to management, and certainly he’s no novice when it comes to hosting. Before becoming publican he was a little unsure of how Braidwood would accept him, especially his alter ego, ‘Beryl’.
“I did have some reservations about taking on a country pub. However, the community here have embraced me,” Brian said.
There are plans to bring drag shows to the Braidwood Hotel in the near future, and maybe even a few appearances from Beryl.
It was in the mid 1990s at ‘Pash in Parramatta’ in Western Sydney, that Beryl was born.
Brian knew many of Sydney’s drag queens and organised fortnightly shows.
The Braidwood publican was also studying in the mental health field during the 1990s, and was starting to see what this type of entertainment could do in terms of encouraging positive mental health in the LGBTQI community.
In recent years he moved to the NSW Victorian border town of Albury, where his work with the LGBTQI community became well-known.
“Beryl’s shows became legendary in Albury-Wodonga, where she regularly performed at Paddy’s night club,” Brian said of his alter-ego.
“We’re in the process of putting the finishing touches to our entertainment room at the hotel, where we hope to stage shows,” Brian said.
Vince, who was sitting in the sun on the pub’s back steps having a smoke, returned to the bar. He has been a regular at the Braidwood Hotel since 1985.
“I grew-up in Canberra and came here looking for work. I’ve never left, I love it here” he said.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. They’ve done substantial restoration work to the old pub, which is really good to see.”
A mechanic, who lives about 13 kilometres out of town at Mongarlowe, said he preferred the Braidwood Hotel over the nearby Royal Mail Hotel.
“I suppose you could say this pub’s more of a hippy pub, where as the Royal’s more working class,” he said.
Vince still refers to his drinking hole as the Commercial.
“Ten or 15 years ago they changed the name to the Braidwood Hotel, but it will always be the Commercial to me and the mates.”
Vince says Braidwood is changing, with new housing attracting young families to the area, and a growing tourist trade bringing fresh life to the once sleepy township.
Alisa Walker, who has been a barmaid at the Braidwood Hotel for 15 years, says her customers include a wide cross section of people, from all walks of life.
“We have country folk, lots of artists who have settled in Braidwood, and a lot of day trippers,” she said.
“I really enjoy working here. It’s a great old pub, full of character and never dull.”
Most of the restoration work at the pub was undertaken by past owners, John and Kate Mitchell, who now run the Majors Creek Hotel, located in a small village 16 kilometres north of Braidwood.
Today the Braidwood Hotel is owned by Gordon Conroy, who is continuing the massive restoration project.
Leaving the Braidwood Hotel we called into Jamie Raynolds’ Royal Mail Hotel, a short walk over the hill in the shopping centre’s main street.
Like Braidwood Hotel, the Royal Mail is steeped in history. But that’s where the similarities stop.
The host of the Royal Hotel, 70-year-old Jamie Raynolds is from a vastly different background to his neighbouring publican, Brian Kuehn.
The former Araluen farmer bought the freehold of the Royal Mail Hotel in 2016, retiring from the land and leaving his 2,000 acres property in the care of his son to operate.
“I was a regular customer at the pub, and was looking for something to do in retirement,” Jamie said.
“So I bought my local pub.”
Originally the Royal Hotel was built in 1890 by James O’Brien, and was a staging point for coaches during the boom time of the gold rushes. The hotel was made famous in 1969 when Mick Jagger played Ned Kelly in the film of the same name, with the pub used for several scenes.
Jamie says he enjoys the interaction with his customers.
“It’s been hard work, but very rewarding,” he said.
“We’ve put every cent back into the pub since taking it on.”
Jamie said he has learnt a lot during his time behind the bar.
“Part of the job means listening to my customers, and offering support and a friendly, sympathetic ear when I can.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt while behind the bar it’s that whatever a customer tells you stays with you. The number one rule is that you never gossip.”
Sitting in another room with a “locals bar” sign above over the door was Ralph Elliott.
Ralph was born and bred in Braidwood and has drank at the Royal most of his life.
The farmer, shearer, panel beater and spray painter said he started drinking at the Commercial Hotel, but defected to the Royal when it put Melbourne Bitter on tap.
“I love my Melbourne Bitter,” he said as he nodded to Jamie for another schooner.
Ralph, 62, lives four kilometres out of town, and says he wouldn’t call anywhere else home.
“I love the country, and everything it has to offer,” he said.
“The clean air, the open paddocks and lack of traffic.
“I also enjoy a traditional pub, like the Royal Mail, with a proper bar.”
Ralph says Braidwood has a bright future.
“It’s 50 minutes from Goulburn, Bateman’s Bay and the ocean is 40 minutes away, Queanbeyan is 45 minutes, and the snow and Cooma an hour and 40 minutes away,” he said.
“Sydney’s international airport is two and half hours away, when you need an overseas holiday. What else could a bloke want?”
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019