By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
We are on a mission to track down the Dames of Smithfield, a group of go-getting women who keep this little southern Free State dorp ticking.
The story brief changes when we meet a bunch of Smithfield blokes who are equally innovative, just as charming and in full partnership with the Dames.
So here we are on a little meander through Smithfield, past a purple-painted house called The Purple House. Out comes the owner, Johan Greeff, with a little Yorkie in his arms. Stands at his gate and smiles for the camera. Wants to know what we’re up to.
“We’re looking for the Dames of Smithfield.”
“OK. Well, here’s one” he says, pointing at his perky Yorkie. We continue our walk.
We Love a Good UFO
The last time we were here, we did a story on the UFO Research Centre and its main man, Henk Swanepoel.
Someone told us that Henk left town a long time ago. We stop at the house which once housed the UFO Research Centre and the Pig-Out Restaurant.
We share wistful thoughts about Henk and his work. Aliens fall from the sky and come to land in the Karoo, from time to time. It was always nice to know someone was out there looking for them. Oh well.
The Smiffie Squad
Our first port of call is with the von Ahlefeldts, legendary media personalities and long-time friends. Barbara just keeps getting more glamorous with the years. John is, as ever, the perfect gentleman.
They have been part of The Smiffie for the past decade. This is a little monthly A5 news magazine that every South African dorpie should have. It’s full of local fun, social gatherings and rural ruminations, but it also kicks a bit of platteland butt when it needs to.
And the good news about The Smiffie is that, although no longer available in print form, it continues lustily within the pages of the excellent Smithfield website.
Barbara spent most of her seventh decade walking up and down the main street of Smithfield with her colleague Susan Jewell, on the hunt for advertising for The Smiffie.
“For three days each month, we were up and down the High Street, raising up to 30 advertisements for every issue. No one was really interested in talking to us on the phone – we had to do the face-to-face “Advertising Walk” every month,” she says.
We do like to kuier down here in the Karoo.
The next coffee stop is over at Trading Places Guest House, owned and run by well-known journalist Carmel Rickard. She is the founder of the Smithfield Platteland Preview, an innovative way to bring attention and energy to her town just before the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
The Platteland Preview gives festival shows a chance to stage a final rehearsal before arriving in Grahamstown. The visiting troupes are hosted by locals and performance venues are organised.
Smithfield, in turn, gets a world-class arts festival.
Carmel likes to show visitors hidden beauties of Smithfield, so we meet one morning on a hill overlooking the old settlement. She has her dogs, Siener and Batha, in tow.
From up here the simplicity and beauty of a small dorp is laid out like a tapestry, surrounded by protective hills on one side and the stretching Free State Karoo plains in the south.
Minutes later, we are with her in Smithfield’s historic cemetery at the graveside of one Lt William Michael Joseph White, who was killed on March 12, 1901.
Lt White, so the story goes, insulted a local Boer mother who then cursed him. He jumped on his horse and rode off – right into the gunsights of an approaching Boer commando.
We swerve into the town museum to visit Ou Grietjie, an artillery piece used during the early wars against the Basotho. This gun also bears something of a legend.
Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s son, visited Smithfield in 1860. The locals tried to fire a Royal salute but Ou Grietjie would not oblige. Two retired gunners both peered down the barrel at the same time to sort out the problem. Which was, obviously, just the moment that Ou Grietjie decided to discharge herself.
In the course of the second day, we meet a collection of The Dames of Smithfield at a local restaurant. My goodness, they’re a busy lot.
The Dames of Smithfield
Annette Vogel and Hanlie Smith took the NG churchyard and, operating on a shoestring budget, turned it into a lovely formal garden. They were completing the design work begun by the late Julian Carr, who is still sorely missed in Smithfield.
“One of the great personalities of the town, Julian was the man we all turned to for help,” a past issue of The Smiffie records.
“Whether a drain was blocked, a pipe burst, a wall collapsed, or a new toilet system needed to be installed, or a hundred and one other dramas of life in a small, it was Julian who came to the rescue – day or night.”
And when you’ve lived in the country for a while, you quickly realise that people like Julian Carr are more treasured than the fanciest potter, singer or painter around. Because he can do stuff.
Some of the locals spin wool yarn, another produces great sheep’s cheese. They run restaurants, guest houses and social clubs and publish a very successful map called Out and About in Smithfield, locating every tourism asset in town.
Then there’s Smithfield Books, right next to the Fresh Paint Gallery and the Laughing Likkewaan Guest House. This is where we meet Greg May, and arrange for a raucous dinner involving wine, a Middle Eastern feast, good company and yes, some more wine.
If you want to see art with a wicked sense of humour, pop in and visit Peter Retief.
Ask to view the painting of “Jan Jacobs from Doringberg who likes to dress up in his wife’s clothing when she goes out. He confuses the sheep and other animals”.
Along Came Boris…
One of our final stops on this particular visit is at Excentrix, a wonderfully whimsical second-hand shop owned by Karin and Chris Torode. And this is where we meet Boris the Big Pig and his self-effacing wife, Doris.
Boris was once a house pet. Now, because of his massive proportions, not so much. But, like Smithfield itself, Boris and Doris have a can-do attitude to life, the Universe and its attendant roadworks.
- Visit smithfield.co.za for more information on all the people and places mentioned above.