Chapter 3: The Greatest Adventure

Johannesburg, May 1890

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Crossing the Vaal River, c 1890

Soon after I started my transport business, I married the daughter of a German immigrant who set up a blacksmith business, making wagon wheels in Port Elisabeth, Colin Beckmann.  I met Julie at church. We fell in love and decided to build a life together.  She was 20 and I was 26.

Her grandfather on her mother’s side was the British High Commissioner to Zambia and my parents were delighted with our relationship.  Not on account of the position of her grandfather but because they thought I would never find a wife!

My friend, David (Dawie) de Villiers-Graaff had a different focus. He told me many times that he will marry as soon as he made his millions.  I thought about those words often over the years and wonder who was a millionaire at 25.  Him with millions in the bank or me with my two kids.  Then again, he created a wealth that will last many generations and engineered advantages for his children and successive generations.  Looking back on my life, having children early is still a choice I would make 100 times over.

Very soon after our marriage, I was back on the road, hauling mainly food and building materials between the Cape and Johannesburg.  Even when Julie was pregnant with our two children, Tristan and Lauren, I did not stay home very long, always being driven by a strange mix of a somewhat misplaced quest for adventure and a drive to care for my young family.  When I was home we were happy together but being away from home had its toll on our relationship.

viljoensdrift-ferry
The Vijloensdrift Ferry, c 1900

On one of my trips in 1890, I was crossing Vijoensdrift.  It is a few hours ride outside Potchefstroom and one of the best places to cross the Vaal River on your way to Johannesburg.

I was contracted by a certain Mr. Vincent Reeves to transport chickens to the Johannesburg market.  Mr. Reeves, originally from Minnesota in the USA, purchased land in the Parys district and set up a chicken farm.  He studied chicken farming intensely and was successful in Minnesota.  Upon learning about the discovery of gold on the Rand, he conceived a plan to buy land in the Transvaal Republic, not far from Johannesburg to farm chickens for sale in Johannesburg. (1)

Mr. Reeves was, by all accounts, a very good chicken farmer but not well versed in geography.  An unscrupulous fellow back in Minneapolis convinced him that Parys was closer to Johannesburg than it actually turned out to be.  The reality is that Parys is in the Orange Free State and Johannesburg in the Transvaal – two different Boer republics.  Nevertheless, he thought it was close enough, which it is, and forged ahead, setting up the farm.  On this day I was trying to cross the Vaal river at Viljoensdrift with Mr. Reeves’ chickens on my ox wagon, taking them to the Johannesburg market.

It was after a particularly wet spell and the river was high.  I was tired after a long journey, eager to get to Johannesburg and my exhaustion caused an error in judgment. I should have taken better note of the speed and level of the river.  We should not have crossed at that time.

Hans Viljoen had set up the ferry and by 1857 was taking travelers, their horses, and wagons across the Vaal River.  Over the years, the crossing became known as Viljoensdrift. (2) This was where I was making the crossing.

Everything went according to plan.  Just before we reached the Transvaal side of the river, one of the ferry anchors came loose.  It tilted slightly to one side and dipped into the rushing current.  As the ferry got pushed down, my wagons started rolling forward.

Desperately I tried stopping the wagon in the front but it was too heavy.  On it was Mr. Reeves chickens, salt, maize and building materials.  I had little chance.

On the Transvaal side of the river, a Boer from the Potchefstroom district was waiting to cross himself.  His name, Oscar Klynveld.  He was sitting on the bank, on his horse, when the anchor rope came loose.  With no hesitation, he spurred his horse on and raced towards the ferry while yelling to others on the bank to come and help.

His horse plunged into the water,  swimming to keep head above the water.  Oscar jumped into the water and swam the last few meters next to his horse.  He pushed himself up onto the ferry.  His trusted steed turned to make it back to the land as soon as he jumped off his horse and started swimming.  Oscar scrambled onto the ferry and grabbed hold of the one front wheel, shouldering back against the forward motion of the wagon.  Together we held it.  Tentatively.

He continued to scream at others to swim faster to get to us.  Within the blink of an eye, there were five Boers on the ferry and we held the wagons back till they were steadied.  I saw Hans Viljoen running down to the landing site of the ferry, cursing and swearing at his workers who, by this time, re-fasten the anchor that came loose.

The ferry, my wagons and seven, very wet and cold, Boers made it safely to the Transvaal side of the Vaal River.  That was how a friendship started that would last a lifetime.

Oscar invited me to his farm, not far from Vijoensdrift.  I left one of my men in charge of the wagons and set off on my horse, Lady.  Oscar was farming in the old Boer republic of Transvaal, in the Potchefstroom district.  When I told him about Mr. Reeves and his chickens, he was very eager to learn more since he heard similar stories about farmers in Europe and America who set up successful pig farms close to large cities.  He was always looking for ways to expand his farming operation.  What interested him about pork farming was how one sow produced many piglets compared to cows and sheep and you can take the pigs to the market sooner.

On my account, I did not know much about farming, but I did know a great deal about Dawie, Uncle Jacobus and Combrinck & Co. who bought and slaughtered many pigs.  They even farmed for themselves.  They supplied the public in Cape Town, the passing ships at the Cape of Good Hope and had contracts with the Cape government to supply the navy and the army. (3)

Oscar saw the opportunity to not only supply Johannesburg but as soon as the railway line is linked all the way from Johannesburg to Cape Town, why not sell the pigs to Combrinck & Co.!

We wondered about selling pigs.  We could even cure our own bacon!  I knew that Combrinck & Co cured their own, but the best bacon, the kind which my dad liked, was produced by the Harris family in Calene, in Wiltshire, England.

If they can sell their bacon here in South Africa, why can’t we cure the bacon in Potchefstroom and sell it across the country?  Curing preserves the meat for future use and is the thing that makes it possible to transport it to other markets before the advent of refrigeration.  It would be cheaper than sending live animals to be slaughtered at the abattoir in the Cape and this same logic will apply to the Johannesburg market.

One thought leads to another and as we spoke, a clear plan started to emerge that involved producing and selling bacon.  That night Oscar and I drank a lot of witblits (4) and everything seemed easy.  We knew the right people and had the right skills to farm and sell bacon.  How difficult can it be to learn bacon curing?

Over the years we have many times thought back to the many similar discussions we had in the beginning.  Little did we know what skill, knowledge, and capital it took to set up and run a bacon curing company. Especially to make good quality bacon like the Harris family with their Wiltshire cured bacon.

That night in Potchefstroom we had all the answers to life’s questions and it is right that young people should think like this.  Otherwise, if tainted by the skepticism of experience, nothing new will ever be started.  There are very few times when ignorance is a good thing but in this case, it really was.  If we knew how difficult the voyage was that we embarked on, we would never have done it!  As it is, it turned out to be one of the greatest adventures ever!

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(c) eben van tonder

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Notes:

(1)  Vincent H. Reeves from the Twin Cities, Minnesota was a chicken farmer and an entrepreneur in the 1890’s who owned a 10 acre farm in the Golden Valley.  He made a careful study of the chicken industry and devised to use steam to do away with the hens altogether for incubation. (Saint Paul Globe, page 5)

Eben and Oscar met when Eben was the Johannesburg Depot manager for Goosebumps Frozen Foods and Oscar was the owner of Transwest Distributors, located in Potchefstroom.  Oscar was a sub-distributor, used by Goosebumps to service farts of Gauteng and the North West province.  One of the commodities that Eben and Oscar worked on together during this time was the distribution of frozen chickens.  Oscar had Eben’s name saved on his phone for a long time as “Eben Chicken.”

(2)  “It started with the drift, that is a river crossing over the Vaal. Hans Viljoen advertised in 1857 that he has a pond and is able to ferry people, wagons and live stock over the Vaal on his fathers farm Witkop…. Until a few years ago one could still see the steel post to anchor the rope.  The crossing must have been active until 1927 when the road bridge (single lane) was constructed.”   (ruralexploration)

(3)  It is this tradition of supplying the general public, state departments and the navy of Combrinck & Ross (Domisse , page 26) that, I believe, laid the foundation of the future success of David de Villiers-Graaff with Combrinck & Co and later Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Ltd.  They continued to supply the British army and won the contract to supply meat to the British forces during the Second Anglo-Boer war which contributed substantially to the wealth generated through the company.

Woody’s Brands was created in the first place to supply retail.  This is a notoriously difficult market to enter but both Eben and Oscar had mainly retail experience and for them was a natural starting point.  It was buyers at Shoprite and Pick ‘n Pay who motivated Eben to create the Woody’s Brands and who gave the company its first break.  Retail remained the almost exclusive focus of the company during its first 5 years, until around 2015 when its own factory made it possible for them to enter catering and food services markets.

(4)  Witblits or “white lightning,” similar to Moonshine is brandy made from grapes.

References:

Dommisse, E.  Sir David de Villiers Graaff, First Baronet of De Grendel.  2011.  Tafelberg.

Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota), 3 March 1890, Page 5, Chickens by Steam.

http://www.ruralexploration.co.za/

Photo Credits:

Crossing the Vaal – https://www.moltenofamily.net/picture-gallery/transport/

The Viljoensdrift Ferry, courtesy of the Vereeneging Museum.