Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Greatest Adventure
Johannesburg, May 1890
I met Julie Bechman at church. We fell in love and decided to build a life together. She was twenty, and I was twenty-six. Julie was my first love, the daughter of a German immigrant who set up a blacksmith business, making wagon wheels in Port Elisabeth Colin Beckmann. Soon after I started my transport business, we got married.
Her grandfather on her mother’s side was the British High Commissioner to Zambia and was very English. My parents were delighted with our relationship. Not on account of her grandfather’s position but because they thought I would never find a wife! Julie’s mom, Pat Beckman, was a remarkable woman. Quintessential English in every sense of the word. She drank a small cup of coffee after every meal. The spoon used to scoop the coffee was smaller than a regular teaspoon. The coffee had to be heaped up in the spoon just the right way.
Christmas lunch was always the same. Gammon was perfectly prepared with a sausage that she made on Christmas morning. There were always party hats and crackers and good wine. Every weekend, Colin would bring her a rose from his garden, which she would put in a vase in the living room.
While I opted for a family life, my friend, David (Dawie) de Villiers-Graaff, had different priorities. He insisted that he would marry as soon as he made his millions. I thought about those words often over the years and wondered who was a millionaire at twenty-five. Dawie with millions in the bank, or me with my family with two kids. Then again, he created a wealth that would 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 one hundred times over, and even though Julie and I found that we are better friends than companions, I am deeply thankful for my choice to marry Julie and the children who resulted from that marriage. Julie is a remarkable woman, and I am thankful that our children have her as their role model. I would later discover that my soon-to-be partners in the bacon venture and I were equally incompatible regarding our life view and basic ethics, but I am getting ahead of myself. As far as Julie is concerned, I have no regrets about our relationship. The opposite is true. I am deeply thankful for the amazing years we had together and the kids we could raise.
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 driven by a strange mix of a 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.
On one of my trips in 1890, I was crossing Vijoensdrift. It is a few hour’s ride outside Potchefstroom and one of the best places to cross the Vaal River on your way to Johannesburg.
A certain Mr. Vincent Reeves contracted me 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 the lucrative Reef market where gold mining was exploding. (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 was. 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 mule 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 noticed the river’s speed and level better. We should not have crossed at that time.
Hans Viljoen had set up the ferry and, by 1857, was taking travellers, 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 it from the front, but it was too heavy. Mr. Reeves’s chickens, salt, maize, and building materials were on it. I had little chance.
On the Transvaal side of the river, a Boer from the Potchefstroom district was waiting to cross himself. His name is Oscar Klynveld. He was sitting on the bank, on his horse, when the anchor rope came loose. Without 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. He kept feeling the depth of the water with the handle of his whip (5), with water swirling around his horse’s chin as it tried to keep its head above the water. The surging river caused the ferry to tilt dangerously, and grain bags dislodged from the wagon. Oscar jumped into the water and swam the last few meters beside his horse.
He pushed himself up onto the ferry. His trusted steed turned to make it back to the land. 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. Five Boers were on the ferry within the blink of an eye, and we held the wagons back till it was steadied. I saw Hans Viljoen running down to the landing site of the ferry, cursing and swearing at his workers who, by this time, had re-fastened the anchor that had come 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 the next decade.
Oscar invited me to his farm, close to 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.
For a few years by then, as the realisation dawned that riding transport would soon end for me, I have been looking at the opportunity to produce my own bacon in the style we did on Stillehoogte. I spoke to my dad about it, who suggested I discuss it with Uncle Jacobus Combrink. One evening, I did just that. Uncle Jacobus was intrigued. He was no longer actively involved in running his business, Combrink & Co. He handed the management over to Dawid de Villiers Graaff and suggested I talk to Dawid about it since I knew him well. I was reluctant to do this as I saw Dawid as someone I would like to sell to someday.
Sitting with Oscar in his living room (voorkamer) on his farm after my near tragic river-crossing, I realised that Oscar has ambitions to expand his horizons and my dreams about a bacon company might be the building materials that could create something of great value. When I told him about Mr. Reeves and his chickens, I noticed he was more than casually interested in the story. He had heard related stories about farmers in Europe and America who set up successful pig farms close to large cities. It turned out that he was 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 could take the pigs to the market sooner. There were already large chicken farms around Potchefstroom, and he had no interest in competing with them.
On my account, I did not know much about farming, but I did know a great deal about bacon. The De Villiers Graaff brothers and Uncle Jacobus farmed for themselves. They supplied the public in Cape Town and 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 supply Johannesburg when the railway line was linked from Johannesburg to Cape Town, so why not sell the pigs to Combrinck & Co.? My question was more to the point. Why not turn the pork into bacon and supply the bacon at higher margins?
Oscar and I talked till late in the night. His wife, Trudie, kept making us fresh coffee. I knew how to dry-cure bacon. It was, so to speak, in my blood from childhood. One thought led to another, and as we spoke, a clear plan emerged, giving substance to my dreams of a bacon company. Later that evening, after supper, Oscar and I transitioned from coffee to witblits (4). I told him my misgivings about the country’s future and that I did not consider riding transport a long-term occupation. Not only was I sceptical about the safety of such an occupation in a land that I saw becoming more divided by the day and racial prejudice and distrust increasing, but I also expected the railway line between the Cape and Johannesburg to be completed very soon and there would be no more need for the transport rider.
We discussed my Oupa Eben, my dad, and our dry-cured bacon. On his side, he was eager to diversify away from cattle farming, and the prospect of processing the meat further appealed to him.
That night, I was not just a young man who cured bacon once a year on his grandparents’ farm. I was a master butcher who could do anything. Together, we saw ourselves as invincible, and everything seemed easy. We knew the right people and had the right skills to farm, make the bacon and sell it. How difficult could it be?
Over the years, we have often thought back to our initial discussions. Little did we know what skill, knowledge, and capital it took to set up and run a bacon-curing company. Especially to make excellent quality bacon like the Harris family’s 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 scepticism of experience, nothing new will ever be started. There are few times when ignorance is a good thing, but in this case, it was. If we knew how difficult the voyage we embarked on would be, we would never have done it! As it is, it turned out to be the start of the greatest adventures ever!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Vincent H. Reeves from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, was a chicken farmer and an entrepreneur in the 1890s who owned a 10-acre farm in the Golden Valley. He carefully studied 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 had a pond and could ferry people, wagons and livestock over the Vaal on his father’s 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.” (rural exploration)
(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 a brandy made from grapes.
(5) The image of measuring the depth of the water with a whip I got from a series of articles I did on the life of Petrus Pooe. “Petrus remembers that the Vaal River was in flood, and describes the difficulty experienced in crossing it above Lindequesdrift. “I had never seen such drama in my life,” he says. He remembers his father feeling the depth of the water with the handle of his oxen whip, his brother Samuel leading the oxen into the water until it was swirling around his chin, the surging river dislodging bags of grain from the wagons.”
The photo is Crossing the Vaal (at Vereeniging) published on the web by The Heritage Portal. The life and story of Perus Pooe is from, Facing the Storm: Portraits of Black Lives in Rural South Africa by Tim Keegan, 1988, published by David Philip, Cape Town.
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.
Crossing the Vaal – https://www.moltenofamily.net/picture-gallery/transport/
The Viljoensdrift Ferry, courtesy of the Vereeniging Museum.