The Fairworld and Van Aardt Family Museum on Mulberry Grove Farm north of Cradock is set in an old shearing shed still faintly scented with a comforting lanolin whiff of sheep’s wool.
One half of the airy museum is devoted to the fine art of farming Merino sheep. The other is full of fascinating family artefacts, carefully assembled and curated by retired farmer Willem van Aardt, a man blessed with a long line of very interesting ancestors.
Packrats, pickers and collectors
It is the packrats, pickers and collectors of the world who assemble and curate the objects that give history its truth and dimensional heft. And Willem van Aardt is one of them. “I collect anything,” he says with a shrug, as we stand before a long line of eccentrically branded, old tobacco pouches, the kind once favoured by shearers and farmers alike.
For 219 years, from 1797 to 2016, the Van Aardts farmed at Roodewal near Cookhouse. The family’s history is part of the warp and weft of the Eastern Cape, and Willem could throw away none of it. He kept all the old photographs of his family, the wooden carts used a century ago, his father’s World War I medals, wool presses of various vintage and provenance, shears, dosing spoons, every magazine cutting on Fairworld wool.
Then there are the old cream separators and butter churns that belonged to his grandfather, the whittled wooden cigarette boxes made by his father’s Italian Prisoner of War friends, ancient gunpowder dispensers, a 1940 Zenith valve radio that once brought the world to Roodewal, the musical compositions of Madelein van Aardt, one of the very first microwave ovens, venerable christening dresses, and pictures of two beloved carthorses called Melck and Monarch.
When Willem retired from farming in 2012 and handed over the now world-famous Fairworld Fine Wool Merino Stud to his son Acton, he set about assembling some of the artefacts mouldering away in old sheds, outhouses and storerooms into some kind of order. In 2013, to celebrate 100 years of Merino farming, they were displayed in the newly created Fairworld Museum on Roodewal.
More history than most
Only three years later, the Van Aardts closed the long chapter of their own history on this land. It was no easy feat moving all the animals plus the contents of the farmstead and museum to the Van Aardts’ new home, Mulberry Grove. “It took 49 trips with big trucks to move everything. On the plus side, there was more room for the museum,” says Willem.
Every little object there has a story.
For example, in a cabinet is the pair of spiffy suede boots (with socks) bought by Willem’s grandfather Carolus Johannes van Aardt (1854-1934). He squandered half his pay on them when he became a transport rider on Kimberley’s diamond fields, as a callow 14-year-old. “My great-grandfather apparently whipped him for the ridiculous waste of it all when he returned home. They were completely impractical for farming work.”
Carolus Johannes was a Van Aardt who saw more history than most. He was the one who took over the horse farm his father Bartholomeus had started, and who saw his entire stock and fortune gallop off into the dust with the British forces at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. The only stroke of luck he had that year came in the form of a young untried mare called Vlieg. She lived up to her name, fled the British horse agents and cantered home to Roodewal.
Time in an internment Camp
Willem not only created a museum but also wrote a book for the family on the Van Aardt history. In it, he records how, during the Anglo-Boer War, Carolus, his brother and neighbours had to walk with wheelbarrows every month to Bedford (a round trip of 44 kilometres) to collect their flour, sugar and coffee with coupons issued by the British town guards.
Willem writes, ‘When the farmers arrived [on 7 May 1901], a quarrel started and the two sides came to blows when the Town Guards refused to stamp the farmers’ coupons because they had expired. The reason for them being late that particular month was because of two or three days of very heavy rain which impeded their journey to Bedford.
As a result of the skirmish, Carolus Johannes was arrested and sent to the Port Alfred Internment Camp as an ‘undesirable’ until the end of the Anglo-Boer War’.
When Carolus returned to Roodewal, there was not much left to farm with. But the Van Aardts were undaunted. They began to make butter in ever-greater amounts, eventually driving a cartful of butter kegs to Cookhouse every few days, a total of 1 500 kilos of butter a year, on average.
By 1910, Roodewal was reasonably prosperous once more. “My grandfather really managed to turn the farm around. Other farmers started to call him ‘The Master’.” But how the Van Aardts stopped the butter from melting in the Karoo heat remains a mystery.
The age of the sheep
It was only in 1927 that Imperial Cold Storage opened its doors in Cookhouse, records Willem. From then on, all butter was delivered to them. Of course, the original cream separators, butter churns, kegs, urns and moulds are in the museum, as is the famous old Van Aardt botterkar (butter cart).
By 1913, Willem’s grandfather Carolus started buying up Merino sheep of the Bundemar bloodline. So began Fairworld stud. Carolus’ son, Willem Petrus (nicknamed Acton, who fought in World War I), took over and had the most influence on establishing the success of the fine wool line.
In setting up the family museum, Willem has also effectively curated a century of Merino sheep-farming history. Here you can see all the tools of the wool trade. There are hand-shears, the wool-classing table polished with lanolin, wool scales, wool presses and the strange devices used by farmers to open sheeps’ mouths and pour in medication using a brass dosing spoon.
There are samples of the sumptuous ultra-fine wool that has made Fairworld famous; the lootjies (tokens) that the shearers used to keep track of how many sheep they had shorn in a day; even the crisp white dustcoats that the wool classers used to wear.
The centrepiece of the museum is a beautiful old, wooden Donald’s wool press that Willem fashioned into a counter – the perfect height for a bar. It’s the first thing you see, apart from the rubbing post that countless Fairworld rams have worn down to smoothness while scratching itches.
There are also photographs of Fairworld’s most influential rams. Three are famous among Merino farmers across the world – Foreign Agent, Barrier and Google. Other significant Fairworld rams also have rather singular names – WhatsApp, Wi-Fi, Koos, World Cup, Kokstad, Staples, Picasso and Dikkop.
Among the more puzzling agricultural relics in the museum are two magnetic cylindrical objects with uneven, rusted metal centres. “These were used to collect any bits of wire or metal swallowed by cows,” says Willem laconically. “Once they swallowed the magnet, it would just sit there in one of the cow’s four stomachs, attracting metal that might have perforated the gut.”
“How do you get it back?” I ask, transfixed. “Cut the cow open when it dies,” answers Willem, with a touch of agricultural nonchalance.
Pictures: Chris Marais
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