Words by Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Middelburg historian Hennie Coetzee never imagined he’d end up writing a 490-page book.
In fact, twenty years ago when he retired from his years of being in charge of Rosmead’s massive fuel tanks, he thought he might just write up a little history on the railway junction where he’d spent 35 years.
But once Hennie started writing down the stories, one just led to another, and he slowly became something of an authority on how life unfolded in Middelburg and the surrounding district.
It wasn’t just the broad sweeps of formal history he recorded, but the poignant and hilarious anecdotes that bring it to life – the neighbourly squabbles over leiwater, the time a team of horses panicked, ran into the local chemist shop and had to be enticed out by a local one-eyed horse-whisperer; the furore when the huge dog belonging to Sir Frederick de Waal (first Administrator of the Cape) walked out of a Middelburg butchery with a leg of lamb De Waal refused to pay for.
There’s hardly a gravestone in the area Hennie doesn’t know, along with the story. Like the tragic incident of Hendrik Jacobus van Heerden who was falsely tried for treason and shot by the British troops. He died in great pain in his wife’s arms. His last words to her were:
“Put these words on my gravestone: ‘Innocent blood. Innocent blood’.”
Hennie uncovered an incident from shortly after the Anglo Boer War, when the British Peacekeeping Forces were stationed at Grootfontein until 1910. One particular day, a heavy bag of silver coins (payment for the troops) was being transported in a Ford motor car through Middelburg.
But the bag was so heavy that it broke through the wooden floor of the Ford motor car and damaged the prop shaft. The town’s people helped pick up the coins and not one penny was missing at the end of it.
Hennie also cleared up a persistent belief among Middelburgers that American gangster Al Capone was born near Schoombee, while his father worked for the contractor building the Hofmeyr railway-line. It’s a good story, but alas, not true.
On the other hand, Middelburgers are quite right to say Doris Day’s father once lived in this Karoo town.
Hennie also uncovered the account of the Chinese workers who were brought in to build the railway line between Rosmead and Conway in 1880. Apparently they devoured all the river frogs. To this day there’s a belief that the scarcity of frogs in this area dates back to those times.
He can tell you about the wild youths of a well-known local farm, who took the wool clip to Cape Town by ox-wagon decades ago, sold the wool and used the money to hire the Mount Nelson Hotel for the mother of all parties. They ended up having to hand over the oxen and wagon too, to settle the bar bill.
He’s also knowledgeable about current history. The first cross atop Teebus hill was a wooden one, made by the Dominie who was the housefather of Herwin Tehuis in Steynsburg.
The Dominie had some experience of rock climbing, and on Christmas day they went to Teebus. He climbed to the top with a rope, hoisted two boys up and they hoisted the sections of the cross up, assembled it and planted it with big stones to keep it upright. When the wooden cross distintegrated, singer Theuns Jordaan’s father Colonel Jordaan had a new one made of metal. He deployed soldiers under his command at a Graaff-Reinet regiment to erect it as part of a training exercise.
To buy Hennie Coetzee’s Middelburg: Hede en Verlede (R350), call him on 049 842 1834 or 082 489 4009, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.