A Free State Harem

It is always an honor to share a writing of Leon Strachan. This  was taken from Blinkoog (2002). Thanks Andrew Barlow for translation, Mia Prinsloo – the granddaughter of Jurie who introduced us to the ruin on the hill,  Niek Swart who show us around and Biebie de Vos for sharing some of the photo’s

“Look at that, that is crazy Jurie’s harem…no there….. on top of that hillock directly behind Reennenhoop’s homestead. He imported French girls, indeed from the Moulins Rouge.” In the puritanical reformed Free State rural area? A harem? Naughty French girls?

The sandstone ruin on Reenenshoop created a phantasy which held its fascination for many generations thereafter. Perhaps it is something still derived from ages ago herd instincts which have not died out fully yet. So that the very idea would still raise mens’ blood pressure.

The satisfaction of a bull with a whole herd of heifers, or something like that.

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The house was to be in a T shape, with the living area in the long leg, and the reception area in the top of the T. The walls were more than four metres high of solid sandstone with no mortar, no shortcuts were taken  – which is why it still remains almost intact. Top Italian artisans who were part of the  1200 workers who had completed work on the Union Buildings, and who were clearly highly competent did the stone masonry.

There was an unusual amount of building shortly before the First World War. “Juri costruisce castle”  remarked an Italian stone mason in his broken English-Italian in the bar of the Central Hotel.

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“Yes the Hall of Mirrors is much longer than the whole of the Central, and the walls are this high” said Retief  as he pointed to a spot halfway to the top of the second storey” as the men were gossipping in the Central Hotel. Niek and the Hall of Mirrors

“I hear that it is harem?” Si…il harem” replied the Italian. The harem story spread like a wild-fire. When the unusual door and window frames arrived there from England  a few weeks later the wild fire became a raging fire

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Leon and Mia in a “window”. Mia shared a little information that her grandfather would stand here would tell them about many lights and water” Suzie would put blame old age to it.
“My husband, do you have fever?”  she asked him because it was still many decades before the Sterkfontein dam and the Tshiame township would arise there..

“The harem story is then really true” remarked one of the men on the truck. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and wiped his forehead. He hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and kicked against one of the crates. “Look. this what a harem’s windows should look like!

“How would you know Thys?” The others burst out laughing. Later some of the clerks from the station  walked over to the goods shed to see what all the noise was about. Two ox wagons were loaded with the crates in which the unusual door frames were packed – wide and high. Solid frames with sky lights , all of Oregon and made on special order in England. Some of the window frames were higher even than the doors, extraordinary pieces. “Yes Jurie will have massive mirrors against the walls of the reception room and seven French girls have already arrived in Cape Town.”

“Never”.

“That cannot be true”.

“It is so, Chris Cloete had to have them fetched from Cape Town”

“Nonsense, Chris is a man of the church. He would not do it. In any event where are they now?”

“He merely paid them and put them on a ship back to France.”

Oh no!  Why the devil would the man have done a thing like that?”. said cross-eyed Thys, “if Jurie does not want them, I will take them.

“Yes you old loud mouth, you cannot even keep Zina satisfied!” The men roared with laughter but had to dodge quickly  – cross-eyed Thys throws anything he can get hold of, even empty cream cans.

The story starts much earlier, at the time 1840 – the stretches of land belonged to the Uys family in 1840 including Reenenshoop. Dina Uys married Louwrens Wessels.Three children were born Jurie Johannes in 1883. He passed matric at Harrismith in 1899 – this was unusual. Boer children at the time did not have much schooling  – Boer Matric was the norm –  catechism, writing, reading and arithmetic. Jurie was the first person in this predominantly English-speaking town to have achieved this distinction in spite of the fact the English speaking people had a completely different attitude about learning.He achieved this in the first class. Jurie, perhaps had little choice other than to farm.

By 1906 the economy had improved slightly and Jurie was able to go to the Cape Colony to buy sheep. The handsome 23 year old red-head  had a head for business. Faan Bekker of Rietvlei in the Aliwal North district had sheep for sale. He stayed with the family for a couple of days. At first Jurie was only vaguely aware of her, until he caught her eye – the ‘bywoners’ girl with a ‘kopdoek’ and soulful eyes which haunted him so much that on his return to the Free State, he wrote to her. He wrote in English but halfway through the letter he switched into Afrikaans. It is in this language that she replied, explaining her life as a ‘bywoner’s’ daughter. In his reply, in his neat handwriting, he declared his love for her.

They were married within a year.Without the headdress Suzie was beautiful woman – he  had quite an eye for beauty. With increasing self-confidence Suzie made her mark on Reenenshoop. The neat sandstone house became a home with a warm and friendly atmosphere.  The spontaneous girl from the Colony made friends easily and liked to entertain.

The fairy tale transformation of the servant girl to a popular hostess married to an anti social man. He did not visit people and didn’t go to church and had not even been confirmed. Suzie only much later persuaded him to be confirmed and even for this she had to get the parson to come to the farm.’

Suzie had entered a world of riches but it was not easy at all. Her intelligent and well read husband was forbiddingly strict he didn’t tolerate any opposition, his “no” was “no”. This she could respect but his unreasonable obstinacy later became a thorn in her flesh.

Jurie was an enigma; as strict, miserly and relentless as he was, he could spend money lavishly on something which he regarded as worthwhile. He overwhelmed his beautiful wife with valuable jewelry and started to build a dream hose for her. On completion it would probably have been the most imposing house in all of the Free State, Suzie’s complex husband, in his own way cared very much for her.

Jurie’s favorite spot on the farm was the high ridge to the north of the house which dominated the surroundings. From there he could survey the whole farm and see to the farthest horizons. He could sit there and dream and plan  – and even see visions. In a moment of inspiration he decided to build a palace for Suzie, her a castle. On the eastern point he measured out the foundation. He planned a large home with a wide passage, four large bedrooms, a big kitchen and a large reception area for his Suzie.

It was the gigantic reception room with its very large windows that set the tongues wagging. This room was 80 feet long by 24 feet wide, with a surface area of 175m2 which in 1912 was bigger than the average house. Imposing, overpowering it was comparable with the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles which it probably inspired.

The fact that French girls were involved furnishes the clue. Jurie was well read and had an excellent general knowledge and had traveled too – certainly, he had visited Versailles. He knew how Marie Antoinette’s room of mirrors had entranced, impressed and even intimidated and he wanted his Suzie to come to her own in this hall. The outside wall of that room had six very large high windows as well as two similar ones at each end. With mirrors at regular intervals in the spaces between the windows and mirrors along the opposite inner wall, the effct of light, reflection, unspoilt nature and phenomenal view it would have been astounding. Like Versaille’s Hall of Mirrors.

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Hammer blows on metal chisels were heard daily from sunrise till late at night, in between shouting, threats, cajoling and encouragement of drivers  of drivers and guides of teams of oxen drawing sleds full of fashioned stone from the quarry to the building site.

Jurie kept his plans to himself. Even his neighbors could get no information from him.”Why are the rooms so large, – heavens you could turn a span of oxen in them.” Jurie had no patience with fools. “Well, I see that you are not gong to talk. But tell me one thing – how are you going to get water to that hillock ?” That was a body blow – it is a dry hillock . There are limits to reasonable man’s patience. “Hey man! A harem does not need water. That long room is for the French girls that I am going to import. Do you understand?”

When the walls were roof high the imported doors and windows arrived at the Harrismith station. They were transported from the station with ox wagons. The last heavy lintels were raised and mortared in position  when the Great War broke out in 1914.  Jurie rebelled and joined the commando of Wessel Wessels. The building stopped and the ‘bywoners’ had to look after the farm. It was during this time that Jurie heard that some of his cattle were missing. He arrive at Reenenshoop late on a Friday night. Suzie had measles, and he heard that a neighbor had stolen his cattle. To crown everything his fine black piano had also been taken. That was not the end of his troubles; one of his workers had betrayed him. On the Saturday morning the police came to arrest him. He saw them in time and fled to the cliff from where he fired at them. He informed them but he would surrender voluntarily on Monday morning if they would give him enough time to recover his cattle.

On Monday morning with Suzie well wrapped in blankets he and she went to town. She convinced the magistrate that she had written to him at the request of the government.  Suzie managed to have him released but he did not recover his stolen cattle. This was the beginning of three important events in his life –

  • a feud with his neighbor which would last for more than a generation
  • his conflict with the law
  • the ‘bywoner’s treachery

This would torment him for the rest of his life.

In spite of all his eccentricities he cared very well for Suzie and the children – Jurie was happiest when his children and later his grandchildren entertained him with music, and need only to have listened.  Irene who was born nine months after the marriage had two brothers – Laurence, who they called Laurie nine years later and  Hugo who was named after the in-laws as they had also moved to the farm to assist with the farming. Suzie accepted the fact that he  was a miser. With farming with laying hens and making butter she had an own income to finance her social activities.

Drama with the law did not remain absent for long at Reenenshoop.

  • Jurie bought a Spanish donkey stallion in order to improve his donkey stud and he was convinced that it was a mule, he refused to pay  and had to go to jail for a few days and the seller had to pay for his board in jail.
  • During the East Coast Fever epidemic the movement of cattle was prohibited. The border guards caught him and was fined fifty pounds. He went to jail again. Suzie had to face her prominent friends while Jurie could not be bothered about it at all.  She paid the fine. Jurie was enraged. “You are wasting money, I was happy in the jail, nobody bothered me.”
  • Jurie, Suzie and their last child Hugo were on holiday in Durban. Jurie was fined by a traffic policeman and again refused to pay. He was in the cells in Durban and commanded Suzie not to pay the fine. She took a tomato crate put a few cushions on it, Hugo could hardly see over he dashboard but Hugo took the Studebaker and Suzie back to the Free State. Days later Jurie telephoned, he is out and “I am enjoying the holiday and will return by train.”

Suddenly Jurie dressed with care when he had to go to town, this was every second day. Suzie wondered what was going on. He whistled happily when he thought that she could not hear him – she became suspicious. Suzie in a roundabout way found out about the English speaking very grand woman. Suzie wrote a scathing letter in Afrikaans and her daughter Irene translate it. She then re wrote the letter and had it delivered by hand. She had insulted the temptress in her own language. A day or two later Jurie came home, very annoyed. “And then you pretend that you cannot read or write English!”

Jurie paid no attention to social norms. This with his eccentricity, his self centredness and strangeness which was due to his bi-polarity made him known as Crazy Jurie. A severe condition of suspicion gave rise to an anecdote of Crazy Jurie without which Jurie’s history would be incomplete. Jurie wanted his son, Hugo, to become a surveyor because he was convinced that he had been cheated out of land by those who had sold farms to him. He wanted his son to measure his farms accurately. Jurie did go to university but came nowhere near the department of trigonometry but enrolled for medical tuition with the assistance of his mother without the knowledge of his father.

Suzie has by this time accepted her fate and did not doubt that Jurie would refuse to pay for Hugo’s studies if he had enrolled for anything else except to become a surveyor. A white lie was the only recourse to get Hugo started. Hugo did extremely well in his first year and Jurie expected that he would in the December holiday survey the farm properly. This was naturally and Jurie was told the truth. He was angry but still proud of his son and thereafter supported and encouraged him.

The infamous rondavel was not only a refuge from the sheriff, it was also the place where he isolated himself when he became depressed and could last for weeks. Laurie and the ‘bywoners’ had to see to the farming. The rondavel revealed much about him – sandstone, thatched roof and white scrubbed wood floor. At one end there was a copper bedstead and a shelf with many books. Across from this was a Queen stove which in winter was fired with corn cobs and a comfortable sofa draped with a karos. Next to this he had his desk on which were heaps of books, magazines and a radio. Jurie did not miss the morning news and listened to classical music while he did his accounting, opened the post and attended to correspondence in his neat handwriting. This was where he read the newspaper, he had subscribed to “Die Burger”  and received a bundle weekly by rail from Cape Town.

The cartoons from Die Burger and Die Landbouweekblad were collected religiously – Kaspaas, Häger and Waldemar were collected and pasted and kept in  large books. The pleasure which he obtained from the cartoons indicate a healthy sense of humor which gives rise to the suspicion that he may have laughed at his own escapades.

Suzie was an excellent hostess and smothered her guests with charm and hospitality and entranced them with beautiful jewelry. Besides rings with large diamonds, a heavy slave braclet, a gypsy charm, a gold lucky bean bracelet with rubies and amethysts but the Star of David necklace was her favorite. This necklace was a large white diamond surrounded by blue sapphires and a host of small diamonds.

Dressed in this finery she on a certain Sunday invited several guests. Her back then had become slightly stiff, and on this day the guests included the local member of parliament, the bank manager, doctor, school principal and naturally the parson. However, Jurie was again in isolation.

Her assistant had arrived there earlier that morning with a basket suspended on each end of a pole, each basket filled with fruit from the orchard. Leg of mutton had been cooked to perfection, the turkey was filled and gammon spliced with bacon. Beef, potatoes, sweet potatoes and vegetables were on the stove and the aroma from the kitchen was delicious.

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The table had been laid with fine delicate porcelain on a white damask table cloth with a large vase of red roses in the middle. With the start of the meal the guests were in a jovial mood after a few rounds of drinks. While wine was poured in crystal glasses Suzie lifted the lids of the dishes one after the other. She looked up questioningly.

“Johnny where is the turkey?”

“The trukey is gone.”

“What?”

“Yes.”

“How is it gone?”

‘It was stolen”

“Who stole it?” She was dumbfounded, angry, livid.

“The master.”

Jurie was a teetotaler but he enjoyed eating. He and a young man who worked for him had gone to the river with the turkey. Under a large willow tree they sat and ate the turkey, calmly, without affectation and without any worries.

Till next time

Hennie & Sandra

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