Harrismith History – Free State Fables – Rural Legends . . well told.
Harrismith has had a few published authors over the 171 years of the town’s existence. One day I’ll make a list. The best by far is Leon Strachan – imho of course! I have four of his books and am searching locally for the others.
In 1999 Leon wrote Blafboom, tales of Harrismith characters bravely told even when some may not have wanted them told! Admittedly some are told anonymously, but those in the know would know exactly who he was writing about . . and shudder. Some, I must confess, left me in the dark, but with a burning curiosity: One day I’d love to ply him with whisky – he drinks scotch, as like me, he has Scottish ancestry – and get him to tell me who the culprits, the instigators and the victims were! Known characters include ‘the man who swapped his wife for a bicycle;’ Petronella van Heerden, pioneer, leader, doctor and farmer; Caveman Spies, famous local mischievous strongman; He also tells the story of some Byrne settlers who moved to Harrismith from Natal – a step up.
Blinkoog followed in 2002. My mother Mary Bland grew up on Nuwejaarsvlei on the Nuwejaarspruit. Their neighbours were Badenhorsts on Stratherick, and Odendaals on Sterkfontein and Eskol. She told the story of how freewheeling downhill was known as ‘using Casper’s petrol’ – ‘ons ry nou op Casper se petrol’ she would say, smiling. He was known as Suinige Casper (Frugal Casper Badenhorst would be one way of explaining his nickname). Today the beautiful and precious wetlands and streams and valleys of Nuwejaarsvlei and neighbours are irreplaceably lost, drowned under Sterkfontein dam. Sacrificed to feed the industrial monster of Gauteng / iGoli / Joburg. Dead water waiting to be flushed downstream and then flushed down a toilet, where before an amazing ecosystem existed. You’ll notice I love wetlands . .
Botterbek in 2004 – I’d love to know the true identity (identities?) of ‘Botterbek,’ Leon’s narrator! More whisky! Characters who feature here include the very well known Kethlaan Odendaal, Jan Schambreel and jackal hunter Frans Olivier. Jurie Wessels’ remarkable ‘Harrismith Harem‘ is featured and explained in Strachan’s characteristic way: he seeks to understand the people involved; and while he will tell you the scandal and the rumours, he won’t simply leave accusations hanging without investigating them. And so it turns out the impressive building was really meant to be the most impressive home in the district for his wife. And it would have been had the 1914 rebellion not intervened . .
Bergburgers: his fourth book published in 2017 tells of Platberg, the beloved mountain that looms over the town and is visible for miles around; the book’s title alludes to the fact that the citizens of the town – past and present – all consider Platberg ‘theirs.’ The annual foot race up and down the mountain, started by an insult and a challenge; the geology of the mountain and how it formed over the millennia; Leon corrects the injustice done to the families living in the Lost Valley by telling their real story – a fascinating tale of quietly capable people living their own lives, yet interacting regularly with neighbours and townsfolk, not at all totally isolated; old Professor Bloch the violin teacher who lived down the road from us in Stuart street; old archeological and fossil findings by Arthur Putterill – one of them maybe the same as the one Donald found? and two boats built in our district, far from the coast, that sailed the high seas – one in 1886 to England and one in 1986 to the Caribbean;
Some of his stories are in the fine English he was taught by Mrs Ella Bedford, mother of Springbok rugby captain Tommy Bedford, but for most of them you have to be able to read Afrikaans.
I know of three heftier tomes he has written:
Leon’s Grandad’s Story
Probably all in suiwer Engels, Son of England, Man of Africa (2009) is the story of a Harrismithian who led the South African chapter of The Sons of England – Leon Strachan’s grandfather Charles Davie. Leon tells the little-known inside story of a secretive organisation for the first time. He then takes a look at other similar societies which took a leaf out of the SOE book. The SOE’s aim of uniting men who were loyal to England and wanted to remain ‘English,’ – sometimes more ‘English’ than their fellow countrymen ‘back home!’ – was based on the Freemasons; SOE was more influenced by the ‘correct’ political and religious powers of the day; plus they were more into charity work. The Afrikaner Broederbond, the Hebrew Order of David and the Caledonians based their organisations to some extent on the principles of the SOE. Ah, well, nothing exceeds like success . . and there was a time when little ‘England’ was the centre of the known Universe. Leon and I both had grandparents who lived secure in that knowledge!
Then Matters Military:
Krygers en Skietpiete (2011): The 150 year history of the Harrismith Kommando, excluding the Boer War, which tale is told in his next volume. From Thabo Bosigo, through the ‘skietpiet’ period; to duty on South Africa’s borders; to deployment against fellow-citizens (though this was denied – ‘they’ were not citizens of South Africa, remember?!) in South Africa’s ‘townships’ – towns in which indigenous African people had to live by law. Leaders and interesting characters; the influence of political developments; incidents, good and bad.
Krygers en Guerrillas (2015). Experience the Anglo-Boer War as it was experienced by people in the Harrismith district, daily as the war unfolded; sometimes far and away and only read about, sometimes in their midst. See why the defenders, invaded by a foreign power, called it the Tweede Vryheids Oorlog – they were fighting for their freedom. Good tales and shocking deeds, including war crimes; the whole war time is unfolded from beginning to end. Comprehensive, the data includes names, casualties, Boer deaths, Brit deaths, prisoners, concentration camp deaths; ‘hensoppers,’ Boers who surrendered; ‘joiners,’ Boers who joined the British invaders; and ‘verraaiers’ who were outright treacherous. Boer Jews and Boer Irishmen and men of other nations who joined the Boers to help them against the invasion by the world’s biggest war machine, deployed by the world’s biggest looting and plundering machine. The war is presented from a local ‘on the ground’ perspective as well as a wide-angle perspective, showing how national and international decisions affected the people doing the actual fighting, suffering and dying.
A keen horseman, Leon leads an annual ride down into and through the Lost Valley every year.