A decision to make a park on the banks of the Wilge River on the south-west edge of Harrismith town was made by the newly-established town council in 1877 (the council having been established just two years earlier).
Mainly thanks to the efforts of the Landdrost Mr. Warden who came to Harrismith in 1884, and Harrismith’s first Town Clerk Mr. A. Milne, the area was laid out with winding roads, walking paths, a “lovers lane of poplar trees” and a variety of other trees (up to 38 species) in what park enthusiasts described as “a bare, crude piece of ground” but which was probably really open highveld grassland.
The troops stationed in the town around the time of the Anglo-Boer War erected the suspension bridge seen above, near where the Hamilton sandstone and iron bridge is today (named after Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the then Orange River Colony):
Tree planting commences on that bare piece of ground:
The river was narrow and shallow at the time and so an attractive little lake with a central island was added and used for boating. Swans were introduced from London ‘for beauty’ (as for trees, so all local life was regarded as inferior to things imported from “home”!). The swans did quite well, cygnets being sold for £15 a pair, but they met their end at the hand of ‘some unidentified vandal with a .22 gun.’ As the trees grew, so more and more birds roosted in them, large heronries eventually being established. Predictably people complained and as predictably, the council ‘did something about it,’ shooting the birds and causing a big stink when their carcasses dropped into the lake!
In 1887 the lake was named Victoria Lake in honour of the Queen of England’s silver jubilee (along with thousands of other things named ‘Victoria’ that year around the world in a mass-hysterical colonial spate of arse-creeping!). The park itself was called the President Brand Park (when?), similarly to curry favour, no doubt – this time local favour, not far away ‘little island called home’ favour.
More & more trees would be planted over the years by schoolkids and enthusiasts:
At ‘a colourful ceremony with troops on parade and a military band in attendance,’ the park was officially opened in 1906 by Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, Lieutenant-Governor of the Orange River Colony.
In 1907 the river was dammed by a weir just downstream of the park, thus creating a wider and deeper river for the full length of the park, greatly adding to its charm and allowing for swimming, more boating and bigger boats – even the first motorboat in 1918, owned by Mr E.H Friday. Later a boat house and a landing stage were erected by the Boating Syndicate who advertised ‘Boats for Two and boats for Four and boats for All’ in 1922. The Syndicate graduated to a motor launch capable of taking 14 passengers slowly along the river, including full-moon evenings where people would sing the songs of the day accompanied by ‘the plaintive sounds of the ukelele.’
On the edge of the park nearest town sportsfields were laid out, starting with a cricket oval and an athletic track, then rugby, soccer, softball and hockey fields, and jukskei lanes.
The park was extended across the river and a new suspension bridge about 300 yards downstream replaced the one the military had erected. The thrifty town council using some of the metal from the original in the replacement. Jolly good. In time, a caravan park was started, but this was soon moved to the town side of the park.
An impressive entrance gate of wrought iron between sandstone pillars was erected and named the Warden-Milne gate in honour of those who had done so much to get the park established.
Thanks to Harrismith Historian Biebie de Vos for most source material, and to SA Watts’ military history article
Personal memories of the park were about cars – cars before we were actually allowed to drive! On the town side in Steph de Witt’s black Saab. Actually Gerrie Pretorius’ Saab but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ We would hurtle around the atletiekbaan at speed , drifting sideways left then sideways right long before ‘drifting’ had a name. One night we hugged the final bend coming into the home straight and there was a moerse big bloekom stump in the headlights right in front of us! Someone must have seen our tracks and thought ‘I’ll put a stop to this!’ or ‘Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys!‘ How Steph missed that huge log I do not know, but we hosed ourselves and roared off. Instead of Yee Ha! we’d say Arrie-ee! (from a joke about camels . . )
On the other side of the river it was in Tim Venning’s light blue Triumph 2000. Actually Dr Dick Venning’s Triumph, but ours for the night – ‘borrowed!’ Tim behind the wheel, laughing his head off as we roared around in a cloud of dust late at night, drifting sideways most of the time.
We were good kids all in all though, of course. Nostalgia makes it ‘naughtiness,’ ‘mischief.’ Nowadays people would slate the ‘Hooliganism Of The Youth Of Today!’ Maybe adults did then? Tut tut, how wrong they were . . and are.
atletiekbaan – 440 yard athletic track – a cinder track
moerse big bloekom stump – huge ‘blue gum’ eucalyptus log or stump – about half a metre to a metre in diameter and three to five metres long. If we’d hit it, the SAAB would have been moertoe
moertoe – varktap
varktap – damaged
Ek sal hierdie bliksems wys! – I’ll show them! Ha! You missed!
Later, a zoo was established in a corner of the park.