It was an offhand remark, like an afterthought, made by an acquaintance in the very isolated dorpie of Rosendal , situated precisely halfway between Ficksburg and Senekal in the Eastern Free State. Terri and I were spending a few days in the area, and had met a lady Terri had worked with at the University in Maritzburg many years ago. She was a mine of information about Rosendal, which had become her home, pointing out all sorts of facts and things that I found absorbing. It was as we were leaving that she asked: “Have you been to Gumtree?” It wasn’t on any or our maps (Terri is an ardent navigator) and we’d not heard of it. “It’s a very interesting place,” said the lady, “between Ficksburg and Clocolan. It’s not easy to find, though.”
Back at the Kersiehuis B&B in Ficksburg that evening we asked the owner, Ina van Jaarsveld, who seems to know just about everything about the area, where to start looking. “It could be difficult,” she said, “because of all the roadworks after the main road was washed away recently.” By now we were intrigued, and early the next morning the Pathfinder went looking for Gumtree. The Pathfinder, of course, is the car, not me.
It took a while to get there, having to share a railway bridge with trains, the road bridge having disappeared downstream. But there it was, a huge square block-like structure standing almost as tall as the highest bluegums around it. It was just a case of guessing which farm road was the one that would take us there, and after a couple of false starts, there we were.
You can see from the surrounding trees how the mill got its name.
In its time it was a maize mill building, built of local sandstone. The walls were nearly a metre thick in some places, and it rose to what would be about the equivalent of a normal six-storey building, complete with the original roof and a steel staircase running up the outside. I’ve done a lot of work in feed mills over the years, and this was the perfect mill building, built for height to use gravity for the transfer of grain through the various processes. The building was a uniform, dour grey-brown with many streaks of lichen showing yellow on the stone. The masonry work was spectacular, testimony to the expertise of those who’d erected it.
It's a huge construction, and one needs to put some scale to it to get an idea of just how big it is.
The door and window frames had long since disappeared, and the square and rectangular openings stared blankly at us in the mid-morning sunlight. There were scars on the stone face where steelwork and conveyors had been bolted to walls and then removed, leaving interesting patterns of bolt holes that looked like blackheads on an adolescent forehead. The structure had a baleful look to it, as if it resented being empty and lifeless.
Seen up close, it's a massive building, and is the tallest sandstone structure in South Africa, taller even than the Union Buildings in Pretoria, whose sandstone came from the same area as Gumtree's.
There was some activity right next door, where a fairly modern steel building had been put up and was being run as a small mill. It seemed a pretty low volume operation, with just a few people around. One of them, who turned out to be the manager, was a real find. He’d taken an interest in the story of the stone mill and had collected some very useful information, much of which he was happy to share with us by means of his photocopying machine.
This was the story we heard.
The founder of the mill at Gumtree, Charles Stevens, arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1875, a young man on his way to make a future in Basutholand, now Lesotho. Over a period of years he established a chain of trading stores in that mountainous little protectorate, as it was in those days, and gradually acquired a string of farms across the border in the Orange Free State.
The rail siding that was once the busy nerve centre of the Gumtree community.
In 1907 Gumtree was connected by rail with Bloemfontein, and Stevens sold a portion of land to the SA Railways for the establishment of a rail siding. This was to become the hub of the area. There is a story that the railways offered to name the siding Stevenage, but Stevens declined the honour, instead opting for its present name of Gumtree. I’ve found just one early photograph of the spot, and that shows no substantial trees, but there must have been some bluegums already growing there. On an adjoining property Stevens built the sandstone mill, beginning operations under the name Schuttesdraai Milling Co. Schuttesdraai was also the name of one of his farms.
The overgrown siding used for loading finished products that were ready for despatch, and for delivering raw products from the Farmers' Co-op, all perfectly placed for efficient operation.
The area was becoming a major grain-producing locality, and with the presence of the railway, other functions followed naturally, such as a staging post for freight bound to and from Basutholand. It was an ideal arrangement for the delivery of coal and grain to the mill, and for the transport of the produce.
Some of the external steelwork remains, its rust colour interestingly offset by the lichen on the sandstone.
Soon a community had sprung up, bringing with it the need for a school, and in 1908 a small government school relocated from the farm de Hoop to Gumtree, with 31 pupils, but just three months later that number had grown to 77. Other buildings had been established, such as a house for the mill manager, still used for that purpose today, and a small shop to supply the basic necessities of the inhabitants.
The mill had become a thriving concern, and in 1916 amalgamated with the Bloemfontein mill of the SA Milling Co, forming the Orange Free State Milling Co. When, in June 1919, Charles Stevens died, his shares in the company were bought by the SA Milling Co who were the owners for the next four decades.
This little infrastructure grew, adding a post office, a blacksmith’s forge and a company the handled the goods destined for the trading stores in Basutholand. There were social activities like tennis, and a new sandstone school building, with a house for the school principal were erected to replace the old school. A second shop was added, and there was a constant buzz about the settlement.
The little railway station became a focal point of the community as the trains running between Durban and Cape Town crossed over there at around two o’clock each afternoon, bringing with them necessities like the daily newspapers. It was a daily social event, and also provided the transport for those travelling to boarding schools in other parts of the country and back.
In the days of that station the trains would have been hauled by steam beasts like these gracious old girls waiting for restoration at the Sandstone Estate some 20km from Gumtree.
This idyllic life in the village came to an abrupt end in December 1958 with the shutting down of the mill. The company had opted for a large modern mill on the reef, near Kempton Park. The machinery was stripped from the mill and sent off to Salisbury in Rhodesia, and the property was purchased by the Ficksburg Farmers Co-operative to be run as a country branch.
Everything was stripped from the inside of the old building apart from these few steel beams and girders that were probably left in to stabilise the walls.
The information in this post comes partly from conversations with local people who kindly gave us their time and so impressed me with their enthusiasm for the mill and its story, and from an article in a magazine, Nouveau (Spring 2005) which I believe is no longer published. My thanks to them all.
This had been a completely unheralded highlight of a trip that had been new territory for us. It’s always a good idea to get talking to the local people instead of relying on books, maps and tourist brochures. It’s the real people who have the real stories. What a wonderful morning.
The only activity the old mill sees today is the occasional bunch of locals taking potshots at the many pigeons that have made the place their home, leaving holes in the roof sheeting as testimony to their poor marksmanship.