The store which made history, sadly may become part of it

The building has changed dramatically over the years as owners have come and gone, adding extensions, expanding and fixing. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.
The building has changed dramatically over the years as owners have come and gone, adding extensions, expanding and fixing. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

Older residents are remembering with fondness the old Katherine Stores in its hey-day as today's Five Star supermarket loses its lustre.

It has become such a landmark in Katherine, most of us walk and drive by with barely a glance at one of the oldest buildings remaining in our town.

The Katherine Stores arrived just a few decades after the town was properly founded, and it has been closely associated throughout most all of the town's history.

An older sign above Five Star Supermarket reading Katherine Stores, est. 1926., is the best giveaway.

It is the name most would remember from a time Katherine's main street was one narrow, dirt strip. and the population numbered in the hundreds.

Before the bombing, before Tindal, before the flood.

A dwindling customer base has recently forced management to close the long-standing store, but years ago, it was the buzz of the town.

Les and Fay Cox remember their time as owners of Five Star Supermarket, better known to them as Katherine Stores.

Les and Fay Cox remember their time as owners of Five Star Supermarket, better known to them as Katherine Stores.

It kept the town's residents and station families afloat with its stockpile of reserves through torrential wet seasons and strikes at Darwin Harbour, where many shipments were delivered.

And at one point around 1969, more than 40 staff rotated through shifts, most of them shelf packers who had to work quickly to keep the shelves full.

Most of the first owners are not around anymore, but two long-term Katherine residents, Les and Fay Cox, remain with many fond memories.

"My sister-in-law, two brothers and myself put in 500 pounds each, we took out a loan of 2000 pounds and bought Katherine Stores in 1950," Mr Cox said.

The Cox family already owned a general store where Woolworths stands today.

The family fought to operate the two, selling the same products at the same price point.

The idea failed, and Les Cox took over on his own.

The building he remembers is that of a tin shed. The only similarity was the roof we see today. Over its long lifespan the store was expanded many times to keep up with the growing town.

Les and Fay Cox married on November 26, 1960. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

Les and Fay Cox married on November 26, 1960. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

"It was always a typical country store with a counter around the internal perimeter and shelves around the outside," Mr Cox said.

"There was no pre-packed food, everything was bought in bulk and weighed.

"We sold everything - it was like a mini department store, we had petrol in drums, shoes, diamonds, sewing stuff, anything the public wanted.

"We were also an agent for airlines, bus services and insurance."

Fay Cox, juggling three children and the challenges of running a busy store recalls long queues on Saturday mornings worse than current day Woolworths in the midst of the grey nomad migration.

"People would come to do their shopping and always meet and have a natter," she said.

"You could buy more variety than you can now."

Before 1965, residents had accounts with Katherine Stores.

Shoppers would simply hand over a list and packers would gather the goods.

Katherine Stores staff. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

Katherine Stores staff. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

"There was a problem with this, though," Mr Cox said.

"We were making good profits, but our customer debt to us was increasing, our taxation bill was rising and our cash balance at the bank was getting nowhere."

Mr Cox, keeping on top of latest trends sweeping through southern Australia, introduced trolleys and the idea of roaming through aisles. They called it self service, and the customers thought it was "amazing".

In the earlier days goods would be transported to the store, which was bigger than it is today, once per week by train.

The Katherine population sat at around 200 people, the Indigenous population was not yet included in the count, he remembered.

"As trade grew and the town grew a lot of our orders would come from Queensland and Western Australia. They came by ship to Darwin," Mr Cox said.

"The time of dispatch to the time of receipt was approximately six weeks.

It was bedlam. Every second truck delivery there would be a rollover because the roads were so bad.

Fay Cox

"The big problem was every time the ship would arrive in Darwin the 'wharfies' would go on strike. Nobody knows why, at one point it was over sunglasses.

"We were renowned for keeping up with whatever was available. When the grey nomads started to come through they were always surprised by what they could get."

Show stalwart, Mrs Cox remembers "hard going" early days mired by late night truck deliveries, a store too small to hold their varied stock and shelf-stackers worn to the ground, only just coping to keep up with outgoing trade.

"It was bedlam," she said, "every second truck delivery there would be a rollover because the roads were so bad."

The main street of Katherine barely existed before 1926, the township was situated on the banks of the river at Knott's Crossing.

1926 was a busy year for Katherine. The bridge was completed, and James William McAdam and Herbert Gill "who owned the Sportsman's Hotel at the crossing in old Katherine (now Knott's Crossing) decided to shift their business to the new town of Katherine," a snippet in an old newspaper reports.

Katherine Stores was one of the first buildings in Katherine in 1926, the year buildings began to emerge once the bridge was complete. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

Katherine Stores was one of the first buildings in Katherine in 1926, the year buildings began to emerge once the bridge was complete. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

"They built the Sportsman's Arm Hotel, later named the Commercial Hotel and now known as Crossways (we now know it as the Stuart Hotel) and beside it they built a store which is now Katherine Stores."

According to the Katherine Historical society, the first building to be built in the new township was the Post Office. But the other buildings followed in quick succession.

James and Herbert sold the store to John and Kitty Bernhard around 1928.

"The store was sold to Bob McLennan and a partner," according to the newspaper.

"Later it was taken over by a co-op managed by a Mrs Simpson. Many of the local farmers had shares in this co-op. Among them were Bert Nixon, Galloping Jack and Long John Ivanetz."

Similar to the store's current struggles, the co-op collapsed due to lack of trade, Mr Cox said.

Katherine Stores passed through many hands during its long history as one of Katherine's main general stores. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

Katherine Stores passed through many hands during its long history as one of Katherine's main general stores. Picture: The Historical Society of Katherine Inc.

In its long history it has stood strong in the centre of town, only closing a few times, most notably during the war and more recently the devastating 1998 flood, which saw water lapping above the doors.

After more than 30 years of testing dedication running one of Katherine's busiest stores, Les and Fay Cox decided to sell up.

"It was a rat race," Mrs Cox said.

"As Katherine grew and the Meat Works and Tindal began operation, we couldn't cope.

"Les was a workaholic, and I nagged all the time for him to take the boys to sport.

"It was just too much pressure with family commitments."

An article appeared in the Katherine Times on June 28, 1984, about the sale.

Katherine Stores (Five Star) today.

Katherine Stores (Five Star) today.

Mr Cox had already received a British Empire medal for services to community and according to the article the store was turning over an excess of $4 million.

"Katherine Stores has been sold for an undisclosed sum to new owners Richard Neil Dolan and Robert David Oaten," the article states.

"The trademarks of Katherine Stores have established a business from a very small beginning into the large complex it is today, providing employment for a considerable number of local residents."

Mr and Mrs Cox have dedicated themselves to many local charities in the years after and travel, mostly to see their children, who live in Adelaide and Canada.

But for now the Katherine Stores (Five Star), still the centrepiece of the Katherine Terrace CBD, faces an uncertain future, hoping that perhaps there is still one more adventure left.

This story Store which made history, sadly may become part of it first appeared on Katherine Times.