An Introduction to Ficksburg – Cherry Capital of the Free State.
Ficksburg sits at below the Impareni Mountain (1750m) on the Highlands Route of the Eastern Free State, and borders the Caledon River. Majestic views of Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains form an ever-changing backdrop throughout the seasons. The town was founded in 1883 and named after General Jan Fick, Commander-General of the old Orange Free State Republic. He was charged with the duty of keeping the border safe between what was then known as Basotholand and the Orange Free state.
The graves of Gen. Fick and his wife can be found at the foot of the memorial in front of the town hall.
Settlers to the area were offered land, horses and guns by the government in return for settling along the border of the new territory. This helped discourage the burning of farms and cattle rustling which was prevalent.
The first European settler was the Wesleyan missionary, the Rev James Allison and his wife Dorothy who undertook many good works amongst the Basotho people.
Sandstone plays an important part in the architecture of the whole of the Eastern Free State and many fine examples can be seen around Ficksburg. The town hall, the Methodist church and the courthouse were built of local sandstone prior to the Anglo Boer War. In 1907 the Dutch Reformed Church, the railway station, the old Post Office and the bridge across the Claledon River, were all built of the stone. Further afield, the local sandstone was transported to Pretora for the construction of the Union Buildings and many other public buildings.
Gumtree, a small settlement 20km from Ficksburg, has the tallest sandstone structure in the world.
The mill, which used to be the hub of this once thriving district, is no longer operative and only the shell of the magnificent building remains. The ruin is a photographer’s dream.
Today Ficksburg is known as both 'The Cherry Capital' and 'The Gateway to Lesotho' and has a thriving population of over 200,000. The economy is based mainly in agriculture with the main crops being asparagus, cherries and deciduous fruit.
Apples are an important harvest, with the local ‘Pink Lady’ variety being exported worldwide. A number of apple growing projects have been implemented by government and overseas funding, which has brought much needed jobs and an economic boost to the region.
The area has numerous sites of historical interest to visitors each containing a fascinating history.
Ficksburg Jail: A national monument containing the cell of CR Swart (Blackie Swart), the first president of the Republic of South Africa, who was imprisoned in 1914 and released the day before his scheduled execution. When CR Swart, who later became the first State President of the Republic of South Africa, was 19 years old he sided with the rebels against the Smuts Government which had joined with the British in World War 1.
Swart took a picture of the Town Guard, 48 mounted and armed Boers, and was promptly arrested. Mr Mitchell, the Provost Marshall, threatened to shoot Swart but after spending three nights in jail, sent him back home, under house arrest.
Ficksburg Museum (General Fick Museum): This museum largely details the life of Gen. Fick, and the history of the town’s cherry industry, amongst other exhibits.
The building was completed in 1893 is a National Monument and listed as a provincial Heritage Site.
Ficksburg Town Hall: The cornerstone of the building was laid on the 21st July 0897 by Mr M I Fourie, the then chairman of the municipality.
It was completed before the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War and is a National and Provincial Heritage Site.
NGK Kerk: Ds. JD Kestell was confirmed as the community’s new minister in 1903. He had served as chaplain to General C J de Wet during the Anglo-Boer War. It was decided to build this Roamanesque styled church to honour the Boers who had died in the conflict. The site had to be excavated to a depth of 4m to reach bedrock, but remarkably only took 3 years to complete the building. It was consecrated on 12th April 1907 and is an example of the community spirit of the time.
Every member of the congregation worked toward raising funds for project. The women undertook to supply the impressive organ and lights for the building, the young people collected for the bell and the clock which was made by J Smith & Sons of England. Remarkably, even after all this time, it only loses 2 minutes in a week. Even the children of the community were involved, and responsible for the pulpit. The total cost for the building and furnishing this National Monument was £17 526-3-3, and is now insured at over R5 million.
Historic Railway Sidings: Two railway sidings, Kommandnek and Generaalsnek, on the Ficksburg – Fouriesburg line are a reminder of the area’s turbulent history. Commadant Fick and Paul Kruger met at Generaalshoek when he came to the Free State’s assistance during the 1865 Basotho War.
SH Pellisier Art Gallery at the High School: The sandstone hall was built in 1921 for the Ficksburg School at the instigation of the then head of the Orange Free State Public Works Department, Reenen J van Reenen. He and a friend, Samuel Henri Pellissier, headmaster of the school at the time, often visited rock painting sites in caves in the Ficksburg district and the beauty and force of these images had such a profound and lasting effect on Van Reenen that in 1921 he told Mr Todd, who was then building the new sandstone school hall, to change his plans to incorporate recessed wall panels measuring an average 1,2 m by 2,9 m, as well as a continuous frieze, into the interior of the new hall.
The following year, Van Reenen arranged for J H Pierneef, then a promising artist and lecturer at the Pretoria and Heidelberg Teaching Colleges, to paint the murals in the panels and on the frieze with his interpretation of San rock paintings. The 36-year-old Pierneef began the Ficksburg commission on 16 February 1922 and, when the school hall was officially opened on 22 April, the artist gave a public lecture explaining his work.
Seven of the eight Pierneef panels were based on rock paintings from two rock art sites in Rouxville, one in Smithfield and three in Zastron in the Free State, and from a site in Barkley East in the Eastern Cape.
It also houses a collection of paintings by prominent South African artists which have been donated annually by the Ficksburg
High School’s outgoing matric class. Thanks to them, as well as Van Reenen, Pellissier and, of course, Pierneef, Ficksburg is today the custodian of a valuable and unique inheritance.
Ficksburg’s Old Cemetery: The cemetery holds two notorious graves. The first is that of GB Mousley. Mousley was a well known “smous” (trader) in the area who was accused by the Boers of spying for the British after the Boers were surprised at the farm Kirklington by the British regiment, the Black Watch. They ordered him to appear at the Boer headquarters in Senekal for trial. The Van Niekerk brothers, who were in charge of Mousley’s escort to Senekal, maintained that Mousley tried to escape en-route to Senekal and during the alleged escape, Mousley was shot in the back of the head and died instantly. Mousley had maintained his innocence throughout the period he was in captivity. Mousley’s Memorial can be seen in the cemetery.
The second grave is that of Arthur Pond, whose history remains a grey area in the history of Ficksburg. What is noticeable about his grave is that this tombstone faces the wrong way. Apparently Pond was accused of being a rebel before WW1. He was imprisoned towards the end of 1917 in the same prison as CR Swart . From Ficksburg he was transported towards Bloemfontein, but he never arrived with his escort to stand trial. In 1923 he was spotted in the Ladybrand district and rearrested. He was brought back to Ficksburg and died of consumption in prison. He maintained his innocence to the end, but the authorities remained convinced of his guilt, and he was buried in the old cemetery with his tombstone facing the wrong way. Fifteen years later he was found to be innocent, but his grave remains unchanged.
Methodist Church: In 1888 the Rev Charles Barker established the first Methodist Church in Ficksburg. Later the Rev Isaac Barker was the first minister appointed to serve the spiritual needs of both the Ficksburg and Ladybrand communities. Owing to the growth of the congregation it was decided towards the end of 1895 that a church should be built and on 13 January 1896 the foundation stone was laid. During the Anglo Boer War the church also served as a hospital.
Marschal Library: In 1892 Dr HS Taylor donated a small building in Voortrekker Steet to be used by the community as a library. By the early 1950 the building was so dilapidated that a new building became necessary. The house of Mr Franz Marschal stood on the site of the present library. He was a bachelor and a tailor by profession, fond of flowers and gardening, and took it upon himself to organise the town gardens. He died on 9 July 1952, leaving his estate to the Municipality of Ficksburg, R10 000.00 of which was allocated to the building of a library which eventually cost R11, 400.00. The library committee and representatives of the municipality agreed to call the library the “Marschal Public Library” in memory of the man who had made the building possible. The library was officially opened on 23 March 1955.
Pinedene Small Arms Museum is a privately funded museum located on the farm Kromdraai. Established in 1992, it is registered as an Institutional Member of the South African Museums Association. The focus of the museum is on military firearms and militaria, but also includes a large collection of sporting weapons. The militaria covers the eras of the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars, the Basotho Wars, the Zulu Wars, the Lesotho Gun War, the Anglo-Boer War, World War I and World War II, as well those used in the South African Liberation Forces’ struggle for democracy. In total the museum possesses some 500 firearms, which are securely displayed within purpose-built strong-rooms. Viewing is by appointment due to security reasons.
The Nkokomohi Heritage Site (Sangoma Caves): Led by a call from their ancestors, traditional healers come here to learn the accumulated knowledge of the Sangomas. A short walk leads you down a beautiful valley with numerous cliff overhangs (holkrans), which serve different uses.
There is a Sangoma hospital area where one comes for healing, and a Sangoma university where Sangomas pass on the knowledge of the ancestors to those who are called to serve.
There are several areas of prayer where you can respectfully light candles and leave gifts of food for the spirits to consume (normally mealie meal and sugar, as well as candles). The valley is a sacred site and a place to honour one’s ancestors and dwell on matters of the spirit.
Apart from fascinating buildings and sites, Ficksburg boasts numerous outdoor activities such as 4x4 and MTB trails, hiking routes and horse trails and even a Polo school. The main event on the local calendar in the annual Cherry Festival, held in November each year. This is a celebration of all things cherry related. With a history that dates back to 1968, it’s arguably the longest running crop festival in South Africa. This festival has a number of programs running concurrently throughout the festival such as children’s events, live music, workshops and a general main program. Activities across the age groups include wine and chocolate pairings, introduction to cooking with cherries, sporting activities like the fun run and road cycle race.
This is a great opportunity for the town's self promotion within the country’s tourism circles, provides employment for the locals, and allows visitors to not only sample cherries, but to taste life in this corner of the country.
Whatever your reason for visiting, the wealth activities, fascinating history and warm hospitality will have you coming back time and again.
Researched and written by Andrew Knapp for use in the upcoming Ficksburg & Beyond - the Ultimate Guide publication (2019). The information for each of the sites and places mentioned can be added to and edited into stand alone features for additional sites and publications.