Every year, 1000’s of tourists flock to the Eastern Free State to appreciate and admire the beautiful mountains with its shades of autumn coloured sandstone cliffs. Clarens is home to the well known Titanic Sandstone cliff resembling the bow of the iconic Titanic steamship. Sandstone was and is still a very popular building material in the Eastern Free State and in almost every small town you will find examples of the sandstone architecture. These sandstone houses and magnificent churches all have a rich history. An interesting fact is that the Union Buildings in Pretoria were built from sandstone blocks originating from the Ficksburg area.
The Gumtree Mill and station is situated halfway between Ficskburg and Cloclan and about 6km from Imla’s main homestead. Few people know that this majestic building is the highest sandstone building in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the tallest sandstone buildings in the world.
Guests are welcome to visit this spectacular one of a kind attraction when visiting Imla. One of the local farmer’s wives did research on this famous landmark and wrote the following article:
THE GUMTREE MILL AND STATION compiled by June Berend
How many people, I wonder, know that in the Ficksburg district is the highest sandstone building in the country? This 5-storeyed building is in the little community of Gumtree and was once a very productive grain mill of the S.A. Milling Company. How did it all start?
In 1875, a young Englishman arrived off a ship in Port Elizabeth. He was Charles Stevens and he was hoping to make his fortune in the then, Basutoland (Lesotho). He had 50 pounds in his pocket. Twenty-five years later he did indeed have several trading stores in Lesotho but had also acquired eight farms across the border in the Orange Free State. These farms started with Schuttesdraai on the Caledon River at the Peka border post and ended at the farm Braamhoek; a distance of about 13.5 km
In 1907, the railway-line from Bloemfontein reached Ficksburg and the Railways bought a piece of land from Charles Stevens for a station. It is rumored that the Railways offered to name this station, Stevenage, but that Charles refused the honour, and it became Gumtree, one assumes for the Eucalyptus trees already growing around the proposed station. On a piece of land adjoining the station, Charles built a very large, 5-storeyed, sandstone grain mill which traded as the Schuttesdraai Milling Co. The mill was very well situated alongside the railway lines with its own loading platforms useful not only for the transport of products from the mill but also for the off-loading of coal for the steam-powered machinery. The Eastern Free State was becoming a big grain-producing area and milling at this time was necessary and profitable.
With the development of the station and the mill, the people working there needed a school. In January 1908 a government school at the farm, de Hoop, moved to Gumtree where it opened with 31 pupils. By March, however, there were 77 children. Housing for mill staff was built and the charming sandstone house for the mill-manager is still in use today. A small shop also supplied the needs of the growing community.
In 1916, Schuttesdraai milling Co. amalgamated with the Bloemfontein Mill of the S.A Milling Co. to form the Orange Free State Milling Co. When Charles Stevens died in June 1919, the S.A. Milling Co. bought out his share in this company and remained the owners over the next 40 years. The mill which ran night and day, was literally, the heartbeat of Gumtree. A sandstone post office with an attached house for the postmaster was built; a second shop started a business, a blacksmith set up his forge; a transport company established a forwarding agency for the transporting of goods from the trains to trading stores in Lesotho. The mill built two tennis-courts for social tennis on Saturday afternoons. The earlier school was replaced with a new sandstone building of 2 classrooms and house, also in sandstone for the school principal.
The station also had its share of the “action”. it was here that the two passenger trains which traveled between Cape Town and Durban, crossed each day at 2 pm. This created quite a social bustle as people waited for the post, with the precious daily newspapers from Bloemfontein, to be sorted, they caught up with local chat. My father firmly maintained that he saw two waiting farmers, nip into the dining-car of the waiting train for a quick “dop”. Their wives did not approve of alcohol – or so my father said! There were always some passengers getting on or off; particularly at school holidays when children came from or went off to their various boarding schools. With what nostalgia do I now recall my ‘; hellos’ and ‘good-byes’ at the small Gumtree Station as I traveled during the 1950’s, to high school in Bloemfontein and then to university in Pietermaritzburg. Then, in the 1960’s I frequently traveled by train to Johannesburg where I was teaching. On a more momentous occasion, I even waved my family and friends good-buy at Gumtree, on my way to Durban to board a Lloyd Triestino liner for Europe!
And so for 50 years, this little community led it’s little, contented life, until 1st December 1958 when the machinery at the mill was switched off. According to Mrs. De Villiers, wife of the last mill manager, it was a tearful staff who bid farewell to a “Grand Old Lady” on that day. S.A. Milling had built a large, modern mill at Isando, near Kempton Park. The mill property was sold to 3 local businessmen, Messrs. George Casalis, Lesley Hyland and Douglas Dare (of Kolonyama, Lesotho) Machinery from the mill was sold, ending up in a mill in Salisbury (Harare) and the property was bought by the Ficksburg Farmers Co-operative who ran it as a country branch. It is now the private property of Mr. T.D. Smith of Clocolan who does not mind passers-by popping in to look at the mill.. Very sadly, but inevitably, the building has become derelict and home only to a colony of rock pigeons and to barn owls. It is, however, worth the while to turn off the R26 between Ficksburg and Clocolan on to the S306 gravel road for only 4 km. Here you will find Gumtree and the mill where in spite of its sorrowful state it still dominates the skyline. Go inside, and perhaps you will hear the throb of machinery once more and in your imagination be transported back for almost 100 years.
‘S.African Who’s Who – social and Business”
“Seanamarena” by A.E. Stevens.
Nouveau Magazine. Spring 2005