Driefontein for rent, to a caring tenant

FANCY renting a 100-year-old farmhouse house in the northern suburbs of Joburg?

The only remaining original farmhouse in Parkmore, Driefontein recently had its exterior renovated and now waits quietly on the corner of 15th Street and Coleraine Avenue for a caring tenant to fill its rooms.

The modest house, built in 1906 as a typical highveld farmhouse and now a heritage site, has five large rooms, several fireplaces, a small pantry, attractive sash windows and wooden floors. Ceilings are tongue and groove and painted black, and there is a small cellar.

The house belongs to the City's Johannesburg Property Company (JPC). The exterior was restored last year, and the interior will be restored according to the needs of a tenant. The floors in particular will need restoration, which the City hopes will be done by the tenant, with an adjustment to the rental to compensate for the cost. Because of its age and status, the house may not be altered in any way.

The property still retains two four-metre tall water tanks, left as reminders of early farming life.

The City hopes to attract tenants who are concerned about the heritage of the house, like community or cultural societies or associations.

Lungile Xhakaza, portfolio manager for the JPC, says a call for tenders was advertised on 7 July. Several tender proposals have already been received, and the closing date is midday on Friday, 28 July.

The house has a solid stone base and white-washed walls and an iron roof. It has a well-maintained garden, with toilets situated in the small outbuildings.

The house belonged to Leo Weber, son of Max, a Swiss archaeologist who was the first curator of the Johannesburg geological museum. Leo died in 1980, leaving the house to his son Ralph, who lives in Germany.

In the early 1980s the house was placed under threat after the proposal of a road-widening scheme in the area. But in 1983 the scheme was dropped and the house was saved. In August 1983 the house was sold by auction and bought by Dr Bruno Foli, who gave the house to the Sandton council in 1989, to be used as a "cultural centre and the headquarters of the Sandton Historical Foundation", according to the Sandton Chronicle of 21 July.

In 1990 the house was renovated and the ablution block was built. In the process, the original kitchen and bathroom, both considerably dilapidated, were demolished. Family gravestones from a nearby woodland were moved to the garden of Driefontein.

Replacing the busy farming settlement which once supplied the town's fresh fruit and vegetable needs, the house is today surrounded by upmarket houses and townhouse complexes.

History of Driefontein

According to Dr Jane Carruthers, who has written a short history of the farm Driefontein, the first owner of the property was LP van Vuuren. He sold it to JJC Erasmus who sold the property to Johannes Lodewikus Pretorius, who came into possession of 3422 morgen, stretching from Witkoppen to Craighall. The three springs suggested by the title have not been located but it is known the Braamfontein Spruit ran through the original property.
In 1877 Pretorius sold a third of the farm, around 894 morgen (the south-eastern part of Bryanston), to Jan Antonie Smit, and continued to farm the remainder of Driefontein, says Carruthers.

When Pretorius died in 1888, the farm was divided among his nine sons, each of them paying £60 for a 280-morgen share. The value of the land had risen considerably since 1886 when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand.

In 1890 one of the sons, Gerhardus Jacobus, bought his brothers' portions and consolidated the farm again. But as the town spread northwards, he began to sell off portions, one of which went to Herbert Gladstone Nolan, who sold it to adventure-seekers Adolf and Elsa Wilhelmi, who arrived in Johannesburg from Germany in 1891. In 1893 they bought 51 morgen and planted fruit trees - some of which still exist - and supplied the growing town with produce.

Elsa sub-divided the land and sold 9,56 morgen to the Salvation Army, and 42 morgen to Ralph Sandilands Arderne. At the beginning of the South African War of 1899-1902 she returned to Germany, where her husband joined her, avoiding imprisonment for fighting for the Boers.

They returned to South Africa at the end of the war, and, having no land, became tenants on their previous farm, courtesy of Arderne. In 1906, says Carruthers, Arderne generously gave them back almost half of the land – some 20 morgen - he had bought from them in 1899.

Elsa farmed this land and in 1937 sold it to Philip Arnold, who built a large house, now the property of the Sandston Field and Study Centre, acquired in 1977.

Elsa's daughter, Freya, was given a two-morgen piece of land by Arderne, and the Driefontein farmhouse was built at the top of the hill, with the Braamfontein Spruit half a kilometre to the north of the house.

In the meantime, another immigrant, Max Weber, bought land adjoining Freya's piece, and subsequently married her, extending her farm with the addition of his two pieces – 5,5 morgen and 10,2 morgen.

Max Weber

Max Weber was born in 1874 and trained as a manufacturer of scientific instruments. In his early 20s, says researcher Avril Reid, he decided to go to America but on the dockside of Marseilles harbour he impulsively changed his mind and jumped aboard a ship for Cape Town.
He is next found fighting for the Boers in Natal, where he was wounded and sent to Joburg to recover. But the town had just been taken by the British and, fearing arrest as an "uitlander", he took refuge north of the town, possibly on Driefontein, where he met the Wilhelmi family, says Reid. In 1900 he moved north, possibly meeting up with Adolf Wilhelmi, who was fighting with Boer commander General de la Rey.

After the war he developed a "passionate interest" in geology and became an "accomplished geologist", building a laboratory near the farmhouse. He later became curator of the Johannesburg geological museum.

He was appointed as consultant geologist to the Messina copper mine, and was the friend and partner of geologist Dr Hans Merensky.

"Over the years Max Weber developed a special reputation for recognising different minerals and he was a scientist of distinction," says Reid.

He is described by author Juliet Marais Louw, who lived on nearby Benmore Farm, as a "modest and self-effacing man". She describes his laboratory as having the "air of an alchemist's den".

The laboratory was later altered by Leo, Max and Freya's son, and became known as Railway Cottage because of the number of railway sleepers used in the alteration. It was demolished in 1990.

Weber died in 1948 and Freya continued to run the farm before she died in 1982, leaving the farm to be divided between their sons, Normi and Leo.

Freya Weber

Louw recounts with much affection her relationship with Freya, whom she first met with two small sons, Normi and Leo.
Louw describes her as "working on the farm like a man: ploughing, planting crops and flowers, pruning fruit trees taking her produce to Newtown market".

"To me she always seemed to enjoy wholeheartedly everything she did," adds Louw.

Freya had married 34-year-old Max when she was 17. As a child, she was taught by her mother, and was sent to the German School at the age of 12. But she was so homesick that her father brought her home and she never went to school again. She continued to be taught by her mother and Max gave her violin lessons.

"She was an extremely intelligent woman, good and kind and true as steel," says Louw.

In her mother's day there was a little shop and post office on the farm, called Post Office Freya. Her mother worked hard on the farm, schooled her children at home, while fighting to get a school built in the area. She was a great reader, and, says Carruthers, "she had a great sense of humour and a bubbling personality which endeared her to everyone who met her".

After Freya's father, Adolf, had dammed a section of the Braamfontein Spruit, it became a favourite picnic place for the German community in the town.

Max's income from the Messina Copper Mines meant that the family didn't need to rely on farming to earn a living, but Freya loved farm work and "continued to the end of her life more or less as she had done in the lean years of her girlhood".

During the depression, says Louw, she helped out many families, giving them money or accommodation.

She used to make trips to the Johannesburg library in town and bring back books for the family and her mother, who read in German, Afrikaans, English, Hollands and bit of French.

Louw recalls her visits to the Driefontein house, where "everybody was always busy and yet there was such a feeling of peace". In the face of family tragedies, it was "big, strong capable Freya, the gentle one; warm-hearted, patient, understanding, humorous, compassionate", who Louw remembers best.

Article by: Lucille Davie - www.joburg.org.za