“If your pub’s no good, your town’s no good”

The Yinnar Pub has been bankrupt, burnt down and even turned into a hospital. Ten years after taking on the lease, Trevor Hornibrook is struggling to keep the place afloat. Report and photos by Charlotte Grieve.

Late one night in the 1980s, Yinnar “local bloke” Arnie Young rode a horse into the town’s pub. As pub regular Steve Cleft tells the story, Arnie and his horse rode through the narrow door, between the stools and around the billiard table.

The moment was immortalised and the story handed down from one generation of beer drinkers to the next. Until one night in 2005, Trevor Hornibrook decided to revive the legend.

“Arnie had done the horse thing so I thought let’s do the motorbike thing,” Trevor says with a grin.

“So, I come flying across. It had been raining, I stacked it. Put a hole in my jeans. Anyway, got it going again. Smoke going everywhere, had a ciggie going too. Rode around the pool table.”

This was not the first time Trevor, now 48, had been kicked out of the Yinnar Pub.

“Every single publican barred me at one stage or another,” he says. “That’s why I had to get the pub, so I wouldn’t get barred.”

Trevor has now been running the Yinnar Pub for 10 years. The hotel first opened its doors in 1885. It’s since been burnt down, bankrupt and even turned into a hospital briefly during a flu pandemic in 1916.

The bricks and mortar are community owned. A group of locals “saved” the pub in 1978, making it one of the first community-owned hotels in Australia.

But Trevor and 11 of his mates run the business.

 “Everything is ours bar the building.”

Reflecting on the past decade, the publican says business has been tough. “You’ve just got less people drinking I suppose.”

Tighter drink-driving laws and technology are to blame, according to Trevor.

“Generally, back then you didn’t have mobile phones and stuff. You might ring someone’s house, if they weren’t there, they would be down at the pub.”

But the biggest hit came with the closure of Hazelwood Power Station in March last year. Yinnar is the closest town to the station and workers would often pass through the pub for their knock-off beer.

“I’d get 20 blokes finish the job and that’d be four hours of power. People wouldn’t realise how much of a difference it would make to our day. It all adds up and that’s all stuff you can’t recoup.”

In response to Hazelwood’s closure, the Victorian state government launched a $266 million package to boost jobs and growth in the Latrobe Valley, including $22 million to support local businesses.  

“But Yinnar – no one’s got anything. And we’re the closest town to Hazelwood.”

Trevor has had to take out four unsecured loans to keep the business afloat. He feels the pressure of having “local kids” rely on him for employment.

“Has anyone come to see us or tried to help us? Or given a shit about this town?”

These questions are left unanswered but the look on his face reveals the sentiment among Yinnar’s business owners.

But in the past month, things have started to turn around. They’ve hired a new head chef, revamped the menu and launched a “farma parma” special that’s been pulling a crowd.

And today is Tuesday – parma night. The phone has been ringing off the hook.

“Afternoon Yinnar hotel, Trevor speaking. Very good thanks and yourself. There’s quite a few, we can fit more don’t worry about that. How many? You’ll be laughing mate. Roger that. Hooroo.”

Trevor expects they’ll sell around 100 schnitzels tonight with some of the money going to drought-stricken farmers. In between phone calls, he shouts to the kitchen, “We’re gonna need more chicken!”

As the sun descends on Yinnar, the pub fills with life. The dining room is packed. Coins are thrown into the “farmer donations” jar. A feature wall celebrates 10 years of acts by homegrown band, The Strzelecki Stringbusters.

In the bar room, men and women sit on stools sipping beers. The walls showcase achievements of community sporting groups across the ages.

A group of men stand around the pool table, as they do every Tuesday. It’s pool night. One a dairy farmer, the other a mechanic. Their “designated drivers” or patient wives, sit on the adjacent table, sipping pots of beer.

Sitting at the bar is Steve Cleft, who’s been coming to Yinnar Pub for 40 years. Steve’s got long white hair, a beard and two small heart tattoos on his hands.

It was a woman who brought Steve to Yinnar, but a job that kept him here.

“We’re quite happy now. I live in Yinnar. She lives in Churchill,” he says with a wry smile.

Hazelwood’s closure put Steve into early retirement. He had worked as a tools specialist at the power plant for most of his working life.  

With the payout, he paid off his house, bought a car and put $10,000 in the bank. But there’s a sadness in his face when he reflects on the plant.

“It’s a bit devastating. Bit of a shock. Thirty-four years I worked there.”

Trevor bounces between groups, beer in hand. He says that tonight is good but he will have to keep experimenting with specials until the pub gets back to the heyday he remembers from his youth.

“If your pub’s no good, your town’s no good,” says Trevor.