Six years ago Geoff Tiller was looking for a theme to transform the historic Spalding Hotel, in the Clare Valley, SA. He got hooked on barbed wire. 

Story by Ken Eastwood

Rolls of razor wire. A rusted circle of World War II entrapment wire. A giant tangled ball of thorny wire by the front door. You’d think these would form a pretty ferocious barrier to getting a beer. But at the Barbed Wire Pub in Spalding, SA, they’re part of the attraction. 

Spalding – population 200, or 350 if you scratch around the area – is a whisper-quiet town halfway between the wine hub of Clare, and Jamestown, birthplace of RM Williams. It’s only ever had one pub – the Spalding Hotel, first licensed in 1877 and still serving beers out of the original building.

On a drizzly mid-winter Tuesday arvo, there’s a cozy fire going inside, and larger-than-life publican Geoff Tiller sits at the bar having a yarn with shearer Nathan Whellum and cropping and sheep farmer Tyson Panley. Geoff’s dog toddles around their feet. Above the bar are the standard rural pub hallmarks – old saddles and bridles – but it’s the barbed wire that’s unusual. There’s a canoe made entirely out of barbed wire and down a hall to the right of the bar are hundreds and hundreds of examples of different barbed wires, fencing tools and posts. “It’s amongst the best collections in Australia, one of the biggest on public display and certainly the biggest collection of barbed wire in a pub in the world,” Geoff says proudly.

Born and raised in the Clare Valley, Geoff wandered for a few decades through Broken Hill, Renmark and the Adelaide Hills, running a catering company and working for the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, before 2010, when he hungered for a simpler life. “I was more of a country bloke than a city fella – I’d rather wear a beard than a tie,” he says. “This pub was on the market and it’d had a bit of an up-and-down history. It needed a bit of a lift and a bit of vibrancy. It needed a bit of a theme.”

He bought the Spalding Hotel, and was tossing up what theme to go with (Irish? Pommy?) when in walked a bushy and horse trainer by the name of Leon Dobbins, near the end of his fight with a fatal disease. Leon told Geoff he was worried about what he’d do with his barbed wire. “I thought, ‘What the hell is he worried about barbed wire when he’s going to die?’ I thought he had rolls of it down the shed or something,” Geoff says. But Leon’s father had started a large collection of historic and unusual wires, and Leon had added to it for 30–40 years. There were 500 varieties, and hundreds of other historic pieces. “I had the vision then of putting it in the pub and theming the pub around barbed wire,” Geoff says. He won’t say how much he paid for the collection, but it was more than either he or the (former) missus would have liked. 

Some of the decorative pieces date back to the 1870s, and one example even has round spurs that spin in the direction of the wire. 

. Leon told Geoff that Spalding was a good area to collect wire because people from different regions had settled it, so there was a wide variety of wire.

Spalding got its first post office just two years before the pub was built, and the first school six years after. Beautiful sandstone ruins, and a heritage-listed railway bridge and reservoir site surround the town. Geoff loves this history so much that he regularly takes small bus tours out from the pub. He bought an 11-seater troopy so that he can assist bikers on the 900-kilometre Mawson Trail, or walkers on the 1200km Heysen Trail. “If they’re within 80–100 kays of the pub and don’t want to do the camp out thing, I’ll do shuttles and run out and pick them up,” he says. The pub has seven hotel-style rooms with shared bathrooms, and one with an ensuite. Dinners are on offer Thursday to Saturday, but the rest of the time meals are available by arrangement. “Basically they get whatever I’m eating and, as you can see, I’m doing alright,” he says, patting his tummy.

Geoff has some cracking stories that have been passed down to him about the pub, such as blokes riding horses through the bar, or a publican who pulled out a pistol and put some bullets in the wall when some fellas from Broken Hill looked like they were going to clean up the locals in a two-up game, but what he loves most is the current locals and the support from the community. All the farmers come in on Friday nights and “You can’t put the music on until they’ve had their conversations about who’s had wins, losses, rains, the crops, the price of wool, etcetera”. He loves the fact that the social club, which has raised $50,000 for local community groups over the past 10 years, has more than 100 members. “A lot of places this size would struggle to get five,” Geoff says.

With a hint of emotion in his voice, he describes a well-attended wake held in the pub the day before for an elderly local woman. “They’re the heart-warming things about running a country pub,” he says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #109

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2016