By reviving the Meningie Hotel, Ben Reusch hasn’t just restored the pub’s heartbeat, he’s defibrillated the entire community.

Story + Photos Colin Whelan

When Ben Reusch arrived in Meningie in 2015 on his fourth hotel-resuscitation mission, the town’s pub was on life support. “This was my biggest challenge,” Ben says. “There were pigeons living on the verandah and in some of the upstairs rooms, the bottle shop wasn’t working because the roller shutter door was jammed and there were nine full-to-the-brim 30 cubic-metre skip bins out the back, including one with 28 broken televisions.”

He attacked on two levels: upstairs he replaced all the broken windows, turfed out the pigeons and made the eight guestrooms liveable. They are now all air-conditioned, with fully screened windows, and the common room has a fridge, microwave, toaster and makings for your morning brew.

Downstairs, he fixed the roller door, replaced the beer pipes and carpet, fixed the plumbing throughout and gave it all a fresh coat of paint. There are now eight beers on tap and the refurbished dining room serves dinner every night and lunch Wednesday to Sunday. A decent bar menu is available every day. The house special is local Coorong mullet, best grilled.

“We wanted to get the pub back to being the heart of the town, the hub of the community, for friends to meet and families to enjoy,” Ben says. “We’ve made progress, but we’re not close to finishing.”

Once it all began to hum, Ben looked for magnets to bring more people to town. The pub re-purchased a big block of adjoining land out the back – land that had been part of the original lease in 1867 and then Ben, a long-term petrolhead, shared his dream with some locals.

When they called him crazy, Ben showed them some YouTube videos of what he had planned. This convinced them. In June 2017 the Meningie Hotel hosted its first annual ride-on mower racing championships. “I wasn’t at all sure how it’d all go – whether people would show up or whether it’d be a disaster,” reflects the publican, smiling over his drink at the end of a long day.

He needn’t have worried. More than 600 people crammed in to watch over 65 mowers race around the track on the new block out the back. The caterers, who’d been more confident, had still underestimated demand, selling out in 90 minutes.

Hay bales were brought in as safety barriers and were distributed at day’s end to the area’s farmers. Upwards of $6000 was raised for local charities.

This story excerpt is from Issue #124

Outback Magazine: April/May 2019