Towards the end of the 19th Century, Willem Jacobus Volschenk built a beautiful little watermill on his farm Witpoort. This mill was to play a small but vital role in the Anglo-Boer War. Martial rumblings erupted in 1899 and. As war fever gripped the country Jan Smuts was moved to write in a memorandum to the Transvaal Executive: "South Africa stands on the eve of a dreadful bloodbath." Sadly he was right.
General Ben Viljoen, member for Johannesburg on the Transvaal Volksraad not only led the Johannesburg Commando, but led the Boers in skirmish after skirmish around Lydenburg. As fighting raged in the area, the Witpoort Watermill proved a vital asset for the Boers. With its three sieves, ranging in texture from very fine for human consumption to less fine for chickens and courser for cattle, the mill kept the Boers fed.
Colonel Bindin Blood, leader of the attacking British forces which finally located the mill, ordered the mill dynamited but fortunately, only the coarse grinder was destroyed. Another was promptly sourced from a mill nearby and the mill continued to produce meal for the Boers and surrounding population until the war was over.
Having survived the war relatively intact, Witpoort Mill received new machinery from Ipswich, England. The mill prospered and as many as 70 donkey carts at a time could be seen waiting their turn to get their owners' maize ground. The process was slow, as with water power, it took 15 minutes to grind a 70 kg bag of meal and it took three people to operate the mill. A drought in 1963 changed this as tractor power had to be used, which reduced milling time to eight minutes a bag.
In 1986 the mill was electrified which speeded up the process even more. In 1980, it cost R3.10 to grind one bag of meal. When the mill ceased operating in 1994, this cost had shot up to R10. Koos Sonakhosa Mahlangu is a living link to the mills' martial days. His father was the original miller during the Anglo-Boer War. Koos, from the age of four, followed in his father's footsteps. Permanently dusted with the fine meal kicked up by the heavy millstones, he continued to work the Witpoort Watermill until it ceased operation. Today, the attractive red-roofed mill house with its steel overshot wheel is a fascinating historic addition to what is now a privately owned estate and nature reserve know as Valley of the Rainbow.
Note: Willem Jacobus Volschenk, the man who built the mill more than 100 years ago, died in 1924. His son, also Willem Jacobus Volschenk, was born in 1887 and survived the war, only to die in 1946 as a result of being hit on the head with a shovel during a dispute over water rights with a neighbour. His grave is in the grave yard on the property.
Mills of Southern Africa Chester O. Staples
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