History

A BRIEF HISTORY OF RHODES by Dave Walker
White farmers settled the more remote areas of the Highlands of the
Eastern Cape in the 1860s living in caves until they had built their houses. Prior to
this, the only inhabitants of this inhospitable region were seasonally migratory
members of the San tribe. They, at least, were sensible enough to follow the
exodus of most game species out of the mountains during the harsh winter
months! A land surveyor, Joseph Orpen and his brother Richard laid out farms in
the Barkly East district and parts of the Herschel area. They immigrated to South
Africa in 1864 and although originally from Dublin, the farms were given Scottish
names. Their descendants still conduct farming activities on a property given to
Orpen in lieu of payment for the job. Farms thus demarcated became available for
purchase from the government on a “huurkoop” basis.


The origin of Rhodes lies in the establishment of agricultural activities and
the concurrent development of the Dutch Reformed Church in the region. It was
founded on the farm Tintern that belonged to a Mr Jim Vorster. Vorster agreed to
the establishment of the village on condition that 100 plots be sold and that it be
named after the then Prime minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902).
A Mr Shaw of Sauer & Osmond duly sold the plots and Rhodes was founded on 16
September 1891. The rest of the farm was given to the village as commonage.
Rural legend has it that the village was first named Rossville. Despite
careful archival research of extant documentation by the School of Architecture of
the University of Natal, including a publication by P Raper entitled the “Dictionary
of South African Place Names”, no evidence of a name change from Rossville to
Rhodes was found. However, a possibility exists that as Ross was the Dutch
Reformed minister at the time, this misconception is probably based on confusion
between the name of the local church ward named Rossville, in his honour, and
that of the village. Another possibility is that it was the figment of somebody’s
imagination seeking to romance the origins of it’s name. Ross was based in Lady
Grey and ministered from there to the far-flung outposts in the region, travelling
from farm to farm on horseback.


Ross was of Scottish origin and alternated between English and Afrikaans
each Sunday whilst conducting his ministry. The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War
interrupted his activities. He was perceived to be too closely aligned with the
opposition by the British and was summarily arrested. He spent the duration of
hostilities in the concentration camp in Aliwal North. On cessation of the war, he
was released with the clothes on his back and no shoes. Ross walked from Aliwal
North to Lady Grey barefoot. Thoroughly disenchanted with the British he vowed to
never conduct another church service in English ever again. Credit must be given
where it is due. He religiously stuck to his word. On the 15th June 1892, the
cornerstone of the Dutch Reformed Church was laid. The population at this time
was estimated at between 250 and 300 people. The construction of the church was
soon followed by that of the Post Office, Court Room and Gaol complex that was
completed in 1898 at a cost of the princely sum of 558 pounds 14 shillings and 10
pence.


Construction of the Naudesnek Pass was started in 1895 on the advice of
Stephanus Naude of the farm Dunley who was the first person to cross the
mountain range with an ox-wagon. Heavy snowfalls during the Anglo-Boer War
stopped construction and the pass was completed in 1905 under the direction of
engineer Alfred Bain. The old wagon route can still be seen in places. Early
records show that schooling started in 1894 with 45 pupils. By 1895, Rhodes
boasted the largest school in the Barkly East district with 67 pupils. By 1912, this
had increased to 90. In February 1916, a process to acquire land for a school was
started. By the 6th of March 1918, the “Rhodes Education Site” was given to the
village for the construction of a school. Sir Herbert Baker allegedly designed the
school building, completed in 1924.


Baker left the Cape Colony in 1902 and South Africa for New Delhi in 1913
which was some three years before the good citizens of Rhodes started agitating
for a formal school premises and facility. His partners Kendall and Morris or
possibly Kendall on his own may well have designed it. Baker, Kendall and Morris
had a partnership until 1920 when Baker resigned. Kendall & Morris continued to
practise until 1925 when Morris left. A boarding school was started in about 1915
in the old Ginsberg Hotel run by Mr H Venter in 1905. It burnt down during its use
as a hotel and was rebuilt to become the school hostel known as “Opstal”. Its
hostel function ceased with the closure of the school. “Opstal” became a family
home followed by it’s heyday in the so-called “Hippie era” of the late 70s and early
80s. It was subsequently used as a base station for the Tiffindell Ski Resort
construction team in the early 90’s and which became Walkerbouts Inn - Rhodes
that was established in 1996. Major renovations were completed by June 1999 and
it has continued in its current state ever since then.


By 1928 there were 112 pupils and teachers with classes being given up to
standard 8. By the 1940s the number of pupils declined to 70 and by 1947 there
only 30 to 40 pupils with 3 teachers. By 1948, Std 6 was the highest pupils could
5 aspire to and by 1967, there were only 20 pupils in attendance. The school finally
closed in 1974. Another rural legend has it that Rhodes acknowledged the village
being named after him by way of a donation of a wagonload of pine trees.
Early photographs of the village as well as the life span of the species
concerned debunk this charming anecdote. However, records show that 1 pound
17 shillings and 3 pence was paid to the Barkly East Municipality for pine trees
(Pinus insegnus). Botanically speaking these trees have a lifespan of
approximately 70 years. Some can still be seen in the village which adds weight to
the non-C J Rhodes origin of the trees. The village is 1840m above sea level and
16km due south of the Kingdom of Lesotho.


The towns of Maclear, Ugie and Elliot that lie below the nearby escarpment
surround it. Barkly East lies above the escarpment to its west, about 60km or at
least 60 minutes’ drive from the village on a narrow and winding gravel road that
must be driven with care. Rhodes is a remote village, almost frozen in time, a relic
from the past and a living record of the trials and tribulations of the surrounding
farming community. The unique nature of the architecture finds its origins in the
Victorian era and is a compromise between fashion, availability of materials and
practicality.


Houses range from grand traders’ residences to flat-roofed ‘kerk-huisies’
used as town houses in days gone by when travelling to the village, mostly on
horseback, from the surrounding farms was a major outing. These buildings are
sprinkled amongst tree-lined streets and all contribute to the quaint charm of the
atmosphere. With a view to maintaining the character and ambience, the village
was proclaimed as a Conservation Area in Government Gazette no. 18152 on 25
July 1997. The village endured several phases starting off as a direct result of the
agricultural activities in the area including 29 invasions during the Anglo-Boer War.
In the course of the previous century, agricultural fortunes gradually declined until
the village became almost derelict by the late 70s.


It was “discovered” at this time by a group of people seeking an alternative
lifestyle, “Living off the land, man”. This period was referred to as the Hippie era
and a multitude of legends surround it, suffice it to say that amongst the last
proponents of this way of life was literally burned out of the village. His house burnt
down and in more recent years, the owner was compensated for the damage in the
course of the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The advent of
the hippie-era signalled the beginning of the current tourism phase.
The village gradually became better known as a tourist destination and with
the advent of the ruralised yuppies, property prices have soared making it
impossible for the average person who may have wanted to settle in the village to
do so. In 1970, houses were “sold” for the arrears in rates and taxes or even given
away. By 1987 good-sized houses sold for up to R30 000. By the mid-90s this had
doubled. The same properties would now command prices in the region of R1 000
000. Optimists are currently seeking up to R2 000 000! Unfortunately, as is the
case elsewhere, the nett result of this popularity is that there are now fewer
permanent white residents than there were ten years ago. The terrain in these
parts is rugged and the climate can be harsh. Historically, snow has been recorded
in every month of the year although the seasonal falls generally occur from May to
August. A snowfall was recorded in Rhodes on the 1st of January 2001!
Thanks to the Senqu Municipality for upgrading the water treatment plant
2004, however, we eagerly await a more permanent and large storage capacity
reservoir to ensure the continuity of quality water supply to our growing community
in times of drought. The lack of such a bulk water supply remains a serious
constraint to further local economic development.


Ben McDhui
Affectionately referred to as BenMac by local residents, this peak at 3001,1m
above sea-level, is the highest in the Cape Province. The slopes of BenMac have
provided enthusiasts with skiing for decades dating back to the early 50s. A hardy
bunch of young farmers from the New England area led by Paul & John Sephton of
Pitlochrie made their first pilgrimage on horseback in 1953. They were in fact the
first people to snow ski in the Eastern Cape. The slopes of the mountain were,
other than snow, completely bare, devoid of any structures or shelter. The group
accordingly lodged in the old stock-theft police station a few kilometres from the
mountain. From such humble beginnings, the slopes of BenMac have been
transformed into the winter skiing paradise that attracted visitors from far and wide
to the then only operating ski resort in South Africa. Taken over by new owners in
2008, trade declined at the resort to the extent that it did not even open in 2011,
being the subject of ongoing litigation that has had a serious impact on the local,
regional and national economy.

Moshesh’s Ford
Rural legend would have it that this river crossing was named after a famous
Basotho, King Moshoeshoe, whose subjects regularly raided farms in the area to
steal stock. A more plausible explanation is that a trader established his shop at
this point and whose name was Moshe. Either way, Moshesh’s Ford is located at
the confluence of the Bell River and the Sterkspruit. This is the beginning of the
Kraai River, a major tributary of the Orange River which it joins near Aliwal North.
Great plans were laid for Moshesh. It was intended to establish an entire village
and it was due to become the railhead for the district. Alas, the town-fathers of
Barkly East persuaded the authorities to rather build the line to Barkly first and
thereafter continue to Moshesh. Needless to say, work stopped at Barkly East and
the dreams of urban sprawl faded into oblivion. The shell of a hotel and livery
stables can still be seen at Moshesh which is also the home of the adjoining
Moshesh’s Ford Country Club.

 

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