Oudtshoorn, a town steeped in history
Most visitors come to Oudtshoorn to see ostriches and to experience the Cango Caves, but the town itself is a treasure of interesting historical facts and -buildings. The good news is that it will cost the visitor less than an average meal to experience it. Why not spend a day or two just exploring the history of the town?
A brief background
Oudtshoorn celebrated its 150th year as an official self-governing town in 2013. It officially became a town on 26 August 1863 when the first town council was appointed. This does not mean that a town suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The first steps to establish a town were already taken by a farmer, CP Rademeyer in 1847. He applied for permission to the Government of the Cape to relinquish a part of his farm, Hartebeesfontein, for the development of a town. Permission was granted and a surveyor mapped out 476 plots with irrigation-water in the same year. By 1855 the town had 70 dwellings, an official population of 500 people and a permanent magistrate.
Rademeyer chose to name the town Oudtshoorn, in memory of Geesje Ernestina Johanna van Reede van Oudtshoorn. She was married to a magistrate of George and was the granddaughter of Baron van Reede van Oudtshoorn who was second in command in the time that the Cape was under Dutch Administration.
Businessmen and professional people soon discovered opportunities in the new village. Some of these are listed in the book Oudtshoorn – 150 jaar which was published to commemorate the 150th birthday of the town.
1850: A lively tobacco and brandy industry was flourishing
1853: The first post office was opened in Oudtshoorn.
1855: Three medical practitioners had already opened their practices in town
1857: The largest general dealer opened its doors and brought the number of stores to four.
1860: Six lawyers had already established offices in town.
1870: Three hotels, four butcheries and a chemist had opened their doors.
1876: Standard bank opened a branch.
1878: Oudtshoorn received its first Jewish resident, a Mr. Rouff.
1879: Oudtshoorn Courant printed its first edition.
1880: Cape of Good Hope opened the second bank in Oudtshoorn.
1887: Local businessmen, lawyers and doctors established the Oudtshoorn Permanent Building Society.
1895: The first drinking water via a pipeline of 35km reached the town.
This is all very interesting, but few visitors would have the time, or the inclination to page through volumes and volumes of books to learn more about the history of the town. There is a much easier, more enjoyable and very affordable way to experience the history. Simply visit the remaining buildings where much of the history has been preserved.
CP Nel Museum
Start at the CP Nel Museum on the corner of Voortrekker Road and Baron van Reede Street. Not only will you find all the information about other places of interest to visit and walks to undertake, but the museum itself will keep you occupied for many hours.
Housed in the original sandstone building which was once a boys’ high school, you will find the stories of Oudtshoorn and its people. The rooms house the history of ostrich farming, the first pharmacy, a Jewish synagogue, the story of forced removals and so much more. If you visit the archives, you will also find every single copy of the Oudtshoorn Courant published to date since May of 1879.
To think that this asset to Oudtshoorn was started by a man who came to Oudtshoorn to work as a postal messenger when he was only 14 years old. C.P. Nel became a successful businessman in Oudtshoorn and started his own private museum in 1937 in a building which he rented from the municipality. The museum was moved to a building which he purchased in High Street in 1840 where it remained until it found a new home in the old Boys High School building in 1973.
This magnificent building was on the brink of being demolished by the council at one stage but was saved by local residents, some of whom are still seeing to it that historical buildings are being preserved. Unfortunately, they could not save the old sandstone hostel, which was adjacent to the main building, from being demolished. (During dry spells the pattern of the foundation of that old building can still be seen when it appears as the grass turns yellow.)
Le Roux Dorpshuis and its neighbours.
A short walk of about two blocks from the CP Nel Museum will take you to the Le Roux Dorpshuis in High Street which has been preserved exactly as it was when it was the house of the Le Roux family. The Le Roux’s were affluent farmers in Bakenskraal just outside of town. They came to town by horse drawn carriage every two weeks and then stayed in their “dorpshuis”.
The Le Roux Dorpshuis is surrounded by at least 15 other historical buildings. Each of these buildings is identified by plagues on drums placed on the sidewalk in front of each building. This was done in 2020 on the initiative of businessman, Johan Breunissen, who owns one of the historical buildings which used to be a bank. All the buildings are situated in one block between Church- and St Saviour Street.
If you are wearing walking shoes, follow Church Street down to the Grobbelaars River and cross the historical suspension bridge. Then turn right into Jan van Riebeeck Street where you will find another of Oudtshoorn’s famous museums, Arbeidsgenot. This was the home of renowned Afrikaans author, C.J. Langenhoven. He was born in Hoeko near Ladismith in 1873 and passed away at Arbeidsgenot in 1932.
Langenhoven was a colourful character, a prolific writer and an accomplished carpenter. The house has been maintained with furniture, some of which was handcrafted by him, exactly as it was during the time he and his family lived there. A theatre was built on the property some years ago and is now being used by the organisers of the KKNK festival as their headquarters.