Drought Cunnamulla
Drought Cunnamulla

Decade of pain, but Eddie still serving town

HIS dad and mum bought the store in 1946 on Eddie Mills' first day at school and 73 years later he's still there, serving the people of Cunnamulla during the toughest business conditions he's witnessed in a half century of retailing.

The drought, the decline of the wool industry and the population drift to cities have all combined to make the last 10 years the worst he has seen, but nothing can deter him from the 6.30am starts in a business he still loves.

Mr Mills, 76, who runs the Cunnamulla IGA with wife Chris, is the longest-serving IGA retailer in Australia and, like hundreds of small business people across Queensland, is reeling from the drought's impact.

Eddie Mills helps regular customer Patricia Powyer with her groceries. Picture: Lachie Millard
Eddie Mills helps regular customer Patricia Powyer with her groceries. Picture: Lachie Millard

"Over the past nine years, we have had an average of around three inches (75mm) of rain a year in areas around Cunnamulla,'' he said.

"The last decade has been the toughest I have seen.''

The old Mills store became an IGA about 25 years ago and only in about 50 per cent of those years Cunnamulla has received its average annual rainfall of 375mm.

Mr Mills traces the store's history back to the days of the metho-powered fridge and the hungry and well remunerated shearing teams.

"You would once get up to 20 big orders of food every Saturday for those shearing contractors,'' he said. "And they were big orders.''

Eddie and daughter Stephanie Mills say the shearing teams have dwindled, and with them much of the prosperity of the region.

Where once there were six "general stores'' in Cunnamulla, now there are three.

Yet, like many small businesses across the west, the Mills IGA still pours huge sums of money into the region, helping keep alive sporting bodies, schools and community organisations which bring the district together.

"We would put around $15,000 back into the community each year,'' Stephanie said.

They also buy local when they can, including table grapes from a nearby property.

"But we haven't done so for a while now,'' Stephanie said.

"People are simply not able to grow things to sell.''