Life As Was

I am prompted to delve into this again as I observe the way children grow up in this technological age. I refer mainly to my family and own descendants. I was either highly privileged to grow up the way I did or conversely very deprived. If we ever put this to the vote it would be interesting to see how many would consider me privileged or deprived. You be the judge.

My first memories are from about five or six years old on the farm at Lydenburg. I was the proverbial afterthought or mistake. My mother must have been in her mid forties when I was born thirteen years younger than my brother John. My sister Meg was 19 years older than me and looked after me as I small child. My brother Gilbert was 17 years older than me. To all intents and purposes I grew up as an only child.

I feel it is necessary to describe the actual farmhouse that we stayed in. It had a very large kitchen which was elevated  and separated from the rest of the house by a breezeway. Cooking and heating water were done on a large wood burning stove. The kitchen, dining room, pantry, bathroom and my parent’s bedroom were brick and mortar. The rest of the house consisted of a very large lounge with a fireplace and three equally large bedrooms with a large storage area between two of the bedrooms. This was for the bulk storage in bins of sugar and many shelves for canned fruit and jams that were made. The walls of this part of the house were made of timber inside and galvanized iron on the outside. There was a gap of about six inches between the wood panels and the galvanized sheets. The floors and ceilings were made of wood. It made a nice sound when you ran on these floors. There was a large verandah around three sides of the house. The rats used to run around the ceiling at night. When this got too much one of the farm cats was put into the ceiling through a trapdoor for a couple of days. This normally sorted out the problem.

The house had no toilet, no lights or running water and no telephone. The toilet was a long drop about 80 meters from the house. If you wanted to go to the toilet at night you had to take a paraffin lamp with you or light the candle in the toilet with matches. In those days there was no toilet paper as we know it today. We used the farmers weekly which was torn into squares and placed on a spike for you to use to wipe yourself. A page was torn into four pieces. I cannot remember anyone having piles in those days. Each bed had a chamber underneath it. You were expected to use this to urinate into during the night. If you wanted to do anything else you had to walk to the long drop. My mother would collect all the urine in the morning and water her roses with it.


I have a memory of sleeping in a cot in my mother and fathers room. The reason that I remember this is that whenever I got a cold or the sniffles my mother would light a cresolene lamp which seemed to do the job for me. This lamp was similar to the one on the following picture. I eventually shared a room with my brother John.


Bath time meant you had to carry hot water from the stove to the bathroom. The water was heated in two large enamel pots of about 20L each. This of course meant you had to bath in about 50mm of water. There was no such thing as lying and soaking in a bath of water which covered your body. It was purely a functional thing to get you clean.

The clothes and linen were washed down at the furrow on a large flat rock. They were draped over the fence to get dry. The sheets and table cloths were whiter than white and were starched. The irons were made of cast iron and were heated on the stove.

The mattresses we slept on were coir. Coir which was the hair from a coconut which was stuffed into a mattress cover. There were no innerspring mattresses as such. The coir tended to come through the mattress cover and was quite prickly. You normally slept with a thick under sheet on top of the mattress. Once a year the coir was removed from its covering and placed on a flat cement floor. It was then beaten with broom handles to loosen it up. The coir tended to form hard balls if you just left it in the mattress. The following picture will give you an idea of what coir looks like.


My mother was a very highly strung individual who was fidgety, very busy and talked to herself constantly. She was always drinking grand pa headache powers. It has been said that she was mathematically gifted. She was a highly organized person who always seemed to be operating in top gear. In today’s life she would have been in all probability diagnosed as having ADHDD.  I cannot remember her ever hugging or kissing me. All the clothes that I wore were hand made by her. The khaki shirts had buttons at the bottom which fastened onto the shorts I wore. This of course presented its own challenges when one wanted to go to the toilet. I cannot remember wearing shoes until I was about nine years old when I was sent to school. All my jerseys were hand knitted. Once a month I received a dose of Epsom salts. This gave real meaning to the expression “shitting through the eye of a needle”.

My mother loved her orchard, vegetable garden and a rose garden. These were in different locations on different sides of the main homestead. The orchard was just over a 100M long by about70M wide. It had quite a few hundred different fruit trees. The first row had different apple trees and quite a few almond nut trees. The next row had different types of fig trees.

The third row had mainly plum and apricot trees. There was normally at least two of each variety. There were red, yellow, pink, golden colours of plums. Each different variety nicer than the previous one.







There was about another eight rows of different types of peaches and nectarines. They varied from the soft type to the different types of yellow peaches. We basically had fruit from the end of September to the end of April.

All these trees were pruned once a year by my mother.  She also sprayed them with the necessary insecticides to keep all the nasties away. She also supervised the irrigation of all the trees. There were little dams around each tree. The furrow that went past the orchard was diverted and the water methodically led to each dam which was filled up. This was repeated on a two weekly cycle.

In about February my mother would can a whole lot of peaches and make peach, fig, plum jam and dried peaches. The quantities she made were vast. Canned peaches alone were most probably a couple of hundred large glass bottles with glass tops that were sealed with a rubber ring. The glass lid was secured by a hinge like metal holding device.







There were also vines of Hanepoot and Catawba grapes growing in the actual yard of the homestead


The vegetable garden was situated to the south of the homestead about a 100M from the house. It was large and must have been at least 50M by 50M. We had vegetables throughout the year. I can remember cauliflower, cabbage, beans, peas, gem squash, pumpkins, marrows, beetroot, onions, turnips, radishes, potatoes, cucumbers, broad beans, tomatoes, capsicums, lettuce, egg fruit and different types of spinach. Vegetables that were used for lunch were picked the same morning.

Next to the vegetable were some large white cling peaches, walnut trees and some extremely large pear trees. Between these trees and the dairy was an earth dam into which the furrow ran. Next to this dam was a large grove of prickly pears. These were absolutely delicious. We had the orange and white flesh varieties. Draped over these prickly pears was an enormous granadilla plant which produced fruit almost right through the year. Just behind the dairy and the homestead were some very large loquat and rough skin lemons.




It is now time to tell you something about my father.  He was a large very powerful specimen. He was about 6ft 5in and about 300lbs. He was a very gentle person who loved his animals on the farm. Each cow, bull, horse, mule and donkey had their own names. Even some of the chickens had their own names. There were turkeys, geese and Muscovy ducks. You were not allowed to hit or mistreat any of his animals. Some of the cows would come to him when called by name. He would feed his pet chickens by hand. They would come and eat mielies out of his hand almost every afternoon.







He was always dressed in khaki clothes, His pants were held up by braces. He always wore a stetson type of hat, brown leather boots and most times he carried a sjambok in his one hand.

My father loved having his head, hands and feet scratched and tickled. Most evenings I ended up sitting under the dining room table either scratching or tickling his feet. Sometimes I stood next to the armchair scratching and tickling his hand. I was always paid a tickey a stint for my labour. This money was saved in a piggy bank. There is a story told how one day going to Lydenburg with Bobby and John who were tickling and scratching his head he fell asleep and went off the road. Luckily he never drove at any great speed.

My father would often go and visit the cattle in the different camps. He would climb into the Chevy bakkie to do this. I more often than not accompanied him. He always took one of the black farm labourers along with him. This was to keep an eye on me on the back of the truck and also to open the various gates. My father did not open gates. The cattle would come around the truck and my father would talk to them and generally check them out.

One of the excursions I remember is going into the lands to pick mushrooms. Just after the rainy season started my father would take us out in the truck with a very large basket. We would hammer on the roof of the truck when we saw mushrooms so my father would stop. We would pick mushrooms until this basket was full. The mushrooms were normally found on the edges of the lands. We did not know that poisonous mushrooms even existed. We obviously did not pick toadstools. These mushrooms replaced the meat dish and were also use for soup.

The other thing I remember about my father is the social visits we made to neighbouring farms. He always took gifts for them. The gifts had to be of the absolute best quality we had to offer. If it was fruit and vegetables it had to be without blemish of any sort. He was a generous man. The Jane Furses Hospital which catered for black people had a problem with getting fresh milk. My father did not hesitate. He gave them four of his in milk Friesland cows to help them.

I think it is time to give a brief description of the farm. It was situated about 16kms on the Dullstroom road from Lydenburg. It was at the foot of the mountain called Spitzkop. In size it was just less than 4000 hectares. It had a perennial river running through it. There was also a perennial furrow which had its origin from Spitzkop  running through most of the farm. There were a couple of vleis which had permanent natural springs feeding water into them.

The main farming activity was the dairy farming. There were about 80 Friesland cows of which about 60 were in milk at any one time. There were two bulls to service the cows. There were two milking sessions, one at about 3 AM in the early morning and the other one at about 4PM in the afternoon. All the milking was done by hand. The cows being creatures of habit would go to their own particular stall. The milk we produced was taken at about 6AM to our dairy depot in town. The milk which was transported in either 5 or 10 gallon cans was decanted into either 1 or 2 pint glass bottles. The milk was delivered by a delivery boy with a large carrier basket on the bicycle to the door of the customers. The previous days bottles were collected at the same time. All this was done for the massive price of a tickey per pint delivered. A tickey is basically the equivalent of about 3cents. A 2 pint bottle is the equivalent of 1.1L for 6cents. Most of the people bought on account.

Some of the milk was put through a separator so that we could have cream for household use and also for making butter.





The above are examples of the separator and churn that were used for extracting cream and making butter. It required a lot of physical activity to accomplish these two tasks.








The bulls Wellington and Rex were kept apart in their own enclosures. When a cow came into season it was driven either into Wellington or Rex’s enclosure. The bulls were allowed to hump the cow twice before it was driven out of the enclosure. This was always monitored and entered into a register. This was done to stop too much inbreeding. Wellington was very large mean and cantankerous beast.

There were about a dozen mules which were used for draft duties. There were also some horse mares with one male donkey called Jack. Jack was quite a character as there was not one gate on the farm that he could not open.  His job was to impregnate the horse mares to produce more mules. There were also about two dozen oxen which were used for pulling the large ox wagon and the ploughs and cultivators.






The mules were used for pulling a light wagon and also the cultivators some of the time.

 We also had a flock of about 120 black head Persian sheep. The sole object of these sheep was for our own consumption. At least once or twice a month a sheep was slaughtered for household use. This was normally done on a Friday. I can still taste the black tripe we used to have for breakfast on a Saturday morning. It was more than delicious. It would cook for the whole Friday night on a slow combustion stove outside the house. The sheep basically increased faster than we could eat them.







The crops we planted were mainly maize. There was yellow maize for animal consumption and white maize for our own use. There was also quite a lot of teff planted for hay for the cattle during the winter months. All the plowing, planting and cultivating were initially done by oxen and mules. The harvesting of the maize was done by black female piece workers. The outer leaves were stripped completely from the cobs. The cobs were placed in bags which were transported on an ox wagon to the main home stead. They were stored in large raised structures with a thatch roof. The sides of this structure were made of small poles that the maize cobs could not fall through These structures were about the size of a two story building  and about 20Ms wide 40Ms long. There was one for yellow maize and one for white maize. A lot of the maize was cut green and then turned into silage for the milk cows. These were large round brick and mortar structures sunk into the ground with a thatched roof over them. It was actually quite a mission to take the silage out and then put it into the mangers in the stable for the cows to eat.

The yellow maize was milled on the cob for use mainly by the dairy cows. The white maize pips were removed from the cob before milling for human use.















The teff was cut by an ox drawn mower. It was allowed to dry after cutting. Once dry it was raked up into small heaps which in turn were loaded onto an ox wagon for transport to the homestead. I can remember riding on top of these loads of hay on the ox wagon.  At the homestead this hay was made into enormous haystacks which made a wonderful playground for me.






Oats was also grown under flood irrigation from the furrows. This was for the milk cows to graze in the winter months to help with the production of milk.

Last but not least. There was an abundance of poultry on the farm. There were chickens, turkeys, geese and Muscovy ducks.





None of them were caged with the exception of the ones destined for the pot.






The chickens normally roosted in the trees. The hens would make nests all over the farm in close proximity to the homestead. Quite often you only knew a hen had been laying eggs when she appeared with a brood of chickens. More often than not the hens would give the location of their nest away as they were prone to cackling after laying an egg. We would search for a nest close to where they were cackling. Once the nest was found we would leave one egg in it. As additional eggs were laid we would collect them for household use. Once the hen turned broody we would place about a dozen eggs under it for hatching. You can say that our chickens were truly free range.

The other major event of the year was the slaughtering of a beast just before the onset of winter. A certain beast would be selected early in January. This chosen animal would be banished to the best pastures we had on the farm to fatten up.

At about the beginning of July this animal was brought to the homestead to meet its destiny. The slaughtering was cruel to say the least of it. The animal was basically upended and held down while its throat was cut. The animal was skinned and gutted and hoisted up onto a high crossbeam for the meat to set for the next day.







We also had quite a large pigsty with a number of resident pigs. One or two of  of these had also been selected for the chopping block. One very fat pig and one not so fat. The way they were killed was by also holding them down. A small cut was made in the throat near the torso. A long thin knife was inserted into this cut and plunged into the heart. You let the pig loose whereupon it would stand up take a few steps and then drop down dead. The cleaning of the pigs was a mission. They were placed on a large table. They were covered with hessian bags. Boiling water was poured over these bags. After a minute or so the bags were removed and the hair was vigorously scraped off with table spoons. This process was repeated until all the hair was removed. Certain of the pig intestines were removed and cleaned for use as sausage casings the next day. The pigs were also hung to set for the next day.







The fat pig was nearly all turned into lard. This was done by rendering it out in a very large steel pot. This pot was built into a structure with a chimney. A fire was made underneath it. It was very large at about 800mm wide at the top and about 600mm deep with a rounded bottom. The lard was stored in large earthenware jars for use in baking and cooking. My mother only used lard for cooking.

My mother used some of the lard to make soap which she also used to do in this big pot. This is the soap that was used for washing the clothes and linen during the year.

The other pig was turned mainly into ham, and bacon. My parents had large pickling barrels where all the hams and bacon were pickled for a period of time before smoking.






The fire was made of mielie stronke(maize cobs) in the furnace on the right hand side. They were always slightly damp so gave off a lot of smoke. The chimney was closed which diverted the smoke to the smoking house on the left. The hams and bacon were strung on cross members and the smoke flowed past them. There is nothing nicer than your own home cured ham and bacon.

Most of the ox was made into biltong and dried sausage. We had no refrigeration facilities so you had to either salt it or dry it. Certain cuts of beef were also placed in pickling barrels for later use as salt beef. The droe wors my mother made was more like polony. There was enough droe wors and biltong to last us almost the whole year.

My mother would make a very nice brawn from the pigs feet, jowls and ears. Very little went to waste.

I remember the day my mother dressed me early in the morning to go and fetch my brother Gilbert who was coming back from the war. This must have been round about 1946. He was the brother that I did not know I had at that stage of life.  He was some 17 years older than me.

I believe that I was very privileged to have grown up as I did. Not many little boys have a playground of just under 4000hectares. My Dad assigned a black lad of about 13 years old to look after me. He and I traversed this whole 4000 hectares from one end to the other. I could climb what tree I liked and nobody ever told me not to. We caught grasshoppers and small birds which we cooked on an open fire and ate. We went hunting rabbits with the farm dogs that were always very willing. We played in the furrows. We ate the gum from black wattle trees and also little white sweets from the blue gums.








The whole farm was our toilet. We could urinate and defecate anywhere we wanted to. I quickly learned to wipe myself clean with either grass or leaves.

This all came to a stop when I was captured and put in a boarding school in Lydenburg. When I came home for holidays I found myself helping with the farm work. I must have been about eleven years old when I started milking cows and feeding calves. At the age of about thirteen I was given access to the 12 gauge single barrel shotgun. I also started riding horses and fishing in the river for trout. It was nothing for me to take the shotgun and fishing rod and climb on the horse and go down to the river shooting and fishing. Nobody ever looked for me. It was an idyllic sort of life where I enjoyed my own company.

I also had to learn to drive very quickly. My brother John would take me to bioscope on a Friday or Saturday. He would buy two tickets one for him and one for me. He would buy me sweets and a cool drink and get me seated in the bioscope while he went to the local hotel. At the end of the bioscope I would go back to the truck and wait for him. He would eventually arrive in a very drunken state. The end result was I had to drive us home. I learnt to drive very quickly.

In conclusion I would say I was a loner who enjoyed his own company. I believe my early life was a privilege.

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