Still tilling the soil after six generations

Much of South African agriculture is founded on the blood, sweat and tears of generations of farming families and their workers. The Scheuers are one such family, arriving on Natal soil in 1859 and remaining there today, six generations later.

Still tilling the soil after six generations
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The sounds of cloven hooves on rocky earth, the cracking of a whip, the laboured breathing of a span of oxen and the creaking of a wooden wagon heralded the arrival of the five Scheuer siblings on 3 May 1859, on what was to become Mooiplaats farm. A few months before, the three brothers and two sisters had bade their parents – Johan Christof and Johanna Hendrika – goodbye, and boarded the Hermanus Isaak, which would transport them from Holland to Port Natal in what is now Durban Harbour in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Records and photographs accrued over six generations tell the story of how the Scheuers, a family of respected organ makers and piano tuners in Zwolle, Holland, came to South Africa and established themselves as a multi-generational farming family in KZN’s New Hanover area.

Family members still living and working on Mooiplaats are particularly grateful to the late Christof Alexander, a fourth-generation South African Scheuer, who fastidiously consolidated the family’s local history into neatly handwritten tomes.
Carol Scheuer, the current keeper of these records, is not a direct descendant of the family, but an English South African who married a fifth-generation Scheuer.

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The three generations of Scheuers currently living and working on South Mooiplaats are (from left): Alexander Nicolas, Aletta Maria, Carol, Riem, and Jolene Dale.

Carol has taken a keen interest in her husband’s forebears, and produced two children who form part of the sixth generation of South African Scheuers.

In search of land
“The first generation of Scheuers who arrived in South Africa and established Mooiplaats were brothers Jan Eek, Georg Albrecht and Ernst August, and their sisters Clara Suzanna and Johanna Theodora. None were married and had left Holland to seek new opportunities in South Africa,” Carol explains.

A few weeks after arriving, Georg Albrecht walked into the interior in search of farmland to purchase and settle. He followed the main transport route that ran between Port Natal and Johannesburg. A few days after his departure he reached the flood-swollen Baynes Drift section of the Umgeni River near Pietermaritzburg – a distance of about 70km.

Unable to cross the river until the waters had sufficiently subsided, Georg Albrecht found accommodation with a man called Mr Baynes. Although Baynes spoke English and Georg Albrecht Dutch, both spoke French and so were able to communicate.

According to Christof Alexander’s notes, when Georg Albrecht left Baynes to continue on his journey, he came across the German-founded farming town of New Hanover, about 31km north-east of Pietermaritzburg. However, it was between New Hanover and nearby Dalton that he found his prize. A local landowner, Cornelius Laas, had 3 000ac (1 214ha) of almost totally undeveloped and unused natural veld, and sold this to Georg Albrecht and his siblings for £400.

Carol’s mother-in-law, Aletta Maria (81), explains: “Georg Albrecht collected his siblings from Port Natal and they brought their belongings on a transport wagon to their new farm. They even had an organ with them that they had built in Holland and had brought onto the ship and played during on-board church services. Ernst August intended using this organ to help tune any new organs that he built and sold in South Africa.”

The only building that the Scheuer siblings found on their new land was a small opstal that previous transport wagons had used as a station to rest and refresh themselves. The siblings, together with hired labour, immediately set about building expanded accommodation for themselves and sheds for the farming business they planned to establish.

Putting down roots
The five Scheuer siblings wanted to begin to forge relationships with the farming communities of nearby New Hanover, Dalton and Wartburg. According to Christof Alexander’s records, legend has it that they decided that the best way to do this was for one of the brothers to marry a daughter of one of the local, well-established farmers of German origin.

“Apparently, the brothers drew straws to decide who would have to find themselves a wife,” laughs Carol. “Georg Albrecht drew the short straw and went on the hunt for a wife. He eventually met a young German lady, Catharina Margaretha Bosse, the daughter of a tea plantation owner in Wartburg. They were married in 1861 and began the South African Scheuer bloodline that exists today.”

By this time, the siblings had settled into their lives on what they named Mooiplaats, which translates as ‘beautiful place’. Georg Albrecht and Jan Eek established and ran a commercial beef farming business, and Ernst August built himself a secluded home on the highest point of the farm where he could build organs for sale and tune pianos for residents in the area. Clara Suzanna and Johanna Theodora, together with Catharina Margaretha, saw to the various households on Mooiplaats.

According to Riem, Carol’s husband and one of Aletta Maria’s three sons, Jan Eek, was regarded as a true gentleman.
“It is said that Jan Eek never spoke an ill word of anyone, white or black,” he says.

In contrast, Ernst August was reportedly a rather ill-natured individual. His piano-tuning skills were in great demand in the area. However, instead of travelling to clients with the small bag of instruments he needed for the job, Ernst August demanded that the clients bring their heavy pianos by ox-wagon to him.

Georg Albrecht was the only sibling to marry. He and Catharina Margaretha produced nine children – six girls and three boys. Tragically, three-year-old Georg Albrecht Jnr drowned at the young age of three.

“Three of Georg Albrecht and Catharina Margaretha’s daughters married, while the remaining three stayed unmarried,” explains Aletta Maria. “Their two remaining sons, Johan Christof and Jan Eek, grew up helping on the farm. Jan Eek married Elizabeth Cadle and they produced two sons. Johan Christof married Aletta Albers and produced a son and two daughters. Their son was named Georg Ernst Alexander.”

When Georg Albrecht and Jan Eek retired from farming, Mooiplaats was divided in two. To ensure equality, in 1910 Georg Albrecht set up stone cairns indicating the boundary between what became North and South Mooiplaats. Johan Christof was given the south property and Jan Eek the north.

“On 7 May 1927, my late husband, Christof Alexander, was born to Georg Ernst Alexander and his wife Heather Hopkins on South Mooiplaats,” says Aletta Maria. “He had one brother and one sister, and was taken out of school at 16 to help his father on the farm.”

Christof Alexander’s records reveal that the Scheuer family and their farming activities generally went from strength to strength over subsequent decades and generations. Under the respective ownership of Jan Eek and Elizabeth Cadle’s sons, and of Johan Christof and Aletta Albers’s son, by 1969 each farm had commercial beef and wattle enterprises. At this time, commercial sugar cane enterprises were gradually also introduced onto both properties.

1948 tornado
On 23 April 1948, an uncommonly strong tornado tore through the New Hanover area, striking South Mooiplaats. Christof Alexander, who was 21 at the time, wrote that the tornado was so powerful that it ripped the steeple off of the local Lutheran church. He and his father were watching the tornado’s progress from the stoep of their homestead when it suddenly veered towards them and demolished the building.

Georg Ernst Alexander was able to find and rescue his bruised son by spotting his hands as he tried to claw his way out of the rubble. Most of the family escaped unscathed, but Christof Alexander’s grandmother, Aletta Albers, who was 83 at the time, had been inside the building when the tornado struck. The home’s interior chimney collapsed onto her legs, breaking both.

“She was placed on an ox-wagon and transported to the nearest hospital at the time, which was probably in Pietermaritzburg. The roads were rough and the wagon had no suspension, so the long trip must have been absolute agony for her,” Carol says. “She never fully recovered from the injuries to her frail body and a few months later she passed away.”

The tornado also resulted in the death and injury of numerous cattle and other livestock.

Christof Alexander recorded that it was a soul-destroying task to search for critically injured and distressed animals and destroy them. Riem, says that, according to his father, the local German community was quick to rally support for the Scheuer family on South Mooiplaats after the tornado. Community members not only assisted in cleaning up the farm, but collected more than £900, which was used to pay for almost all of the materials needed to rebuild the demolished homestead.

Present day
“I grew up on a farm in the Free State and was first introduced to my late husband, Christof Alexander, at a social function in Harrismith,” Aletta Maria recalls.

“I was absolutely not interested in him at the time because I wanted to be able to make my own choice of which man I wanted to marry. But he was very persistent. To try and shake him off I took him horse riding but gave him my father, Daan’s, very difficult horse, Prince, to ride. Prince was known for only allowing my father on his back. Even though Prince tried everything to get rid of Christof Alexander, the man stayed firmly on. This won him my respect and we started courting.”

The couple was married on 8 January 1955 and had seven children, all of whom are alive today. Christof Alexander stopped farming in 1988, a year before his death on 6 May 1989. With her husband confined to bed due to ill-health and Riem completing his agricultural studies at Cedara College of Agriculture, Aletta Maria was forced to manage the family farm and its workers until Riem could take over a year later.

“I had very little experience of managing sugar cane. I found the process of burning the sugar cane before harvesting
to be the most intimidating aspect. I was so worried about the risk of runaway fires,” she recalls. “But I knew that I just had to hold on until Riem came back to the farm. If I gave up, the family could have lost the farm, and I was not going to let that happen.”

While North Mooiplaats has largely been sold out of the Scheuer family, Riem and Carol, their son, Alexander Nicolas, their daughter, Jolene Dale, and Riem’s mother, Aletta Maria, still live on and work on South Mooiplaats. When Riem retires, Alexander will take over the reins of the family business full-time, keeping six generations of Scheuers on the land, and hopefully producing a seventh.

Phone Mooiplaats farm on 033 503 1517 or email [email protected].