Four Spies brothers lived in the Harrismith and Kestell district. These broers had very different personalities; it was said Andries fought for the Spies clan, Hans cursed for them, Frikkie drank for them and Martiens prayed for them all. Harrismith’s historian Leon Strachan has kept this lovely tale of an amazing Eastern Free State character alive.
Andries was known locally as Thor, as his strength was legendary. People soon knew not to mess with him. He was a boxer, wrestler and strongman, and he was also a very wily showman and self-promoter. Legend has it he would hop on his bicycle, pedal to Bloemfontein – that was over 200 rough miles back in the 1920’s – enter a boxing tournament at Ramblers Club, win it and cycle home with the prize money!
One day in 1929 his neighbour came to him with devastating news: his fiancee had upped and offed with another man. Hugely upset, Andries packed a suitcase and left the farm without a backward glance. It would be ten years before he returned. In those years he was mainly a boxer. He fought in Joburg and Durban. One fight at the Seaman’s Institute in Point Road in Durban so stunned an English preacherman – Andries’ style consisted of a non-stop flurry of furious blows from the opening bell with no thought of any defensive tactics – that he christened him ‘Caveman.’ And the name stuck.
His next port of call was England. He left on a below-decks ticket with just £10 in his pocket and one extra set of khaki clothes. In London in his first fight he KO’d his opponent with his first blow. He could still get opponents after that as his build was not impressive – he looked average and he used that to his advantage, as he was often underestimated. Soon his reputation started preceding him and it grew harder to find men who would fight him, so he crossed the Channel.
A typical story was a fight in Stockholm where the ref tried to stop him as his opponent Anders Anderson was ‘out on his feet.’ But Caveman wanted him out off his feet! So he KO’d the ref! Spectators stormed the ring in fury – so he KO’d a few of them too!
The same pattern happened in Holland, Belgium and Germany: He would knock out a number of opponents, then run out of people to fight and move on. When this happened in Germany, he issued a challenge to Max Schmeling, heavyweight champion of the world: Fight me for 500 marks! Apparently this was all Andries had in his money belt. Eventually Schmeling gave in to his persistence and agreed to fight this Caveman character from South Africa.
Well, this was a horse of an entirely different kettle of tea! In his own words he approached Max in his usual crouched stance and received a mighty short right hook to the head and after that ‘I don’t remember much at all! Except a minute or two of gloves raining on me and then merciful oblivion! The biggest hiding I ever received, but well worth it, as I met the great Max Schmeling. He was a good sport – and after the fight he sent me back to my hotel full of beer and Rhine wine, plus an amazing 1000 marks! Schmeling gave me his 500 marks too!’
In Spain he knocked out ‘The Basque Wrestler’ Antoine Germatte in the first round – drying up any chance of further fights, so he thought he’d try bullfighting. One look at the bull, though and he decided ‘this is out of my league!’
His French opponent Leon Cartout was disqualified for biting the Caveman. After eighteen fights on the Continent, he returned to England, where a raft of better fighters were keen to challenge him as his fame was now such that they wanted to be seen in the ring with him. Things were looking up.
Then he caught a bad bout of flu and ended up becoming asthmatic. He got so bad in the English winter he decided it was home time. Back in South Africa he won a few good fights then ran up against the experienced Tommy Holdstock. He lost so badly that he decided to switch to all-in wrestling which had become very popular and was paying well. The showmanship also suited his extrovert and mischievous personality and his remarkable strength.
In a typical rabble-rousing traveling series he fought a Russian named Boganski, who became a great friend. They toured the land. The legend of Caveman cycling to Bloemfontein was well-known, so at each scheduled fight venue he would stop their car outside the town and get onto his bicycle; timing his arrival at the ring just in time for the fight, covered in sweat having ‘just got there all the way from Harrismith!’ This put all the locals on his side like – our poor man now has to fight this blerrie Russian when he’s so tired, having cycled so far!
The showman promoter in him loved public wagers. On the wrestling tour in Grahamstown he bet the local auctioneer, a Mr King, that he could carry a 200lb bag of mealie meal across the town square in front of the cathedral in his teeth without stopping. He did it, donated the bag to child welfare and publicity from the stunt filled the hall for the fight that night!
In Chodos furniture store in Harrismith’s main street the guys were ragging him as they often did about his strength: You can’t really punch a hole through a meal bag! ‘Bring it,’ he said, and walked away with £10, leaving Woolf Chodos and his staff to clean up the flour all over the counter and the floor. He couldn’t resist a challenge or a dare. In 1936 someone said he’d never walk from Harrismith to Cape town in less than ninety days. He did it in seventy three, averaging twenty eight miles a day. This one earned him £75.
Whenever the circus came to town Caveman would be there, ready to shine. Owner and strongman William Pagel‘s feats of strength and his control of the big cats soon made him a household name in South Africa, particularly in the countryside. Small towns loved the circus!
Pagel had a wild mule and offered £50 to anyone who could ride it. Many tried, including Moolman the policeman. Very soon there was Moolman, soaring through the air back into the stalls in an ungraceful arc. Caveman stepped up, jumped on and the mule went wild, bucking, backing up, scraping his legs against the railing, but Cavemans’ legs were firmly hooked under its ‘armpits’ and he rode every move. In the end the mule lay down, exhausted, Caveman still astride it. Get off, said Old Pagel, ‘No, first give me my £50,’ said Caveman. Get off first, said Pagel. He then refused to pay on the grounds that Caveman ‘wasn’t allowed’ to hook his legs under the mule! Caveman threatened ‘Pay me or I shut down the show. Honour your bet!’ Two Alpha males at bay, both famous! Caveman got his due.
Stanley Boswell also had challenges meant to draw the crowds which drew Caveman like a magnet. He had a strongman lifting weights on a wooden platform. ‘Any non-professional weightlifter who can match (exotic strongman name – maaybe Otto Acron?) will win a prize!’ he boasted. The Harrismith crown bayed for their hero, ‘Show him Caveman! Wys hom! Show him!’
Caveman stepped up, nonchalantly lifted the main man’s maximum weight and looked at Boswell. Boswell, knowing Spies’ reputation, said, ‘ No, you’re professional,’ ducking out of his responsibility. Caveman looked at him, looked at the crowd and slammed the weights down, wrecking the stage as the crowd roared their approval.
Stories grow. Seldom will a re-teller tell a milder story than the original! And so Caveman’s legend grew. Not only did he ride a bicycle to Cape Town; when he got there he boarded a ship to America; the ship sank and he had to swim more than halfway across the Atlantic; arriving in America just in time (covered in sweat?) for a fight against Joe Louis! Of course, he bliksem’d Joe, caught a ship back to Cape Town, where he got on his bicycle and pedal’d back to Harrismith to calmly tend to his flock of sheep! Of course . .
In our time in Harrismith – fifties to seventies – Hansie and Pieter Spies were legends in their own right. Nephews of Caveman, they would apparently tell stories of this special and unusual extrovert uncle. In his old age his right hand started shaking – probably the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease. Challenged, he would blurt, ‘Ag, it’s my hand! Leave it alone if it wants to shake! Or I’ll donner you!’