A fresh look at the historic mills of Potchefstroom

by | Jun 14, 2021 | People, Places, Street names, Technology, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Almost all that is left of the thriving mill industry on the Bult during the latter part of the 19th century are mill streams, repurposed as storm water drainage and three street names, Molen Street, Meul Street and Hoffman Street. The first two are self-explanatory and the third was named after a mill owner and a member of the Volksraad, Kootjie Hofmann.

Between 1847 and 1890 about nine water mills were in operation near the Mooi River between the north bridge and where the Wasgoedspruit flows into the Mooi River.

Potchefstroom was founded in 1838 on a site now known as Oudedorp about 10 km upstream from where the city is today. After a few very wet rainy seasons causing the ground to become waterlogged, which made it impossible to plant grain, it was decided to relocate the town. This happened in 1842 when the new town was established at its current site.

Magistrate JHN Grobler was given the task to oversee the laying out of the new town. As remuneration he received 29 ha of land in the area where the suburb Oewersig and the Fanie du Toit Sport Grounds of the NWU are today. In 1847 Grobler joined Andries Hendrik Potgieter when he moved to Ohrigstad and a family member, Niclaas Grobler, became the owner of this property.

This land was then adjacent to the main road to Pretoria, at the time known as the “Wagenweg” or “Wagon Road”. This road led to the safest place to cross the Mooi River – before there were bridges – which was just west of the current north bridge. Along the rest of the river near the town there were extensive swamps which could not be crossed by the lumbering ox-wagons and other traffic.

The Wagenweg was an extension of Church Street to the north. Later as the Bult developed, this road was known as North Bridge Road. In 1932 the town council was requested to rename the road in honour of Rev Dirk van der Hoff, first permanent minister in Potchefstroom. Permission to change the name of the road only came in 1954 from the Provincial Administration. Since 2007 the road is known as Thabo Mbeki Street.

First Mill

Niclaas Grobler built the first mill approximately in 1847. It stood where the Piet Malan Clubhouse stands today on the Fanie du Toit Sport Grounds.

The Piet Malan Clubhouse on the Fanie du Toit Sport Grounds was built on the site where the first mill stood, built by Niclaas Grobler, approximately in 1847. The willow tree in the picture probably stood next to the mill stream.  A row of willow trees bordering on the northern side of the athletic field initially stood on the banks of the run-off stream of this mill. This rugby club house of the university was named after the first director of sport and a former Springbok rugby player, Piet Malan. Photo: NWU Archives and Museum

In 1855 a certain Henwood had mill equipment brought from Natal by ox-wagon. This was so heavy that the transport riders charged him £15 more and had to rent a second wagon to transport all of the equipment. Ernest Jenkins wrote in 1938 that a journey from Pietermaritzburg to Potchefstroom by ox-wagon during the 1850s and 1860s took about 12 to 15 days if the roads were dry, but could take up to a month.

Between 1863 and 1866 numerous individuals made representations to the local authorities to acquire mill properties, most probably after observing the success of the first mill.

The reason why the Bult area was chosen for the mills was due to the fact that the area between Van der Hoff Street (Thabo Mbeki) and the river had a sufficient drop to create a furrow or mill race flowing towards the mill.

H Hendriks wrote on 25 February 1863 to the magistrate of Potchefstroom that a large water mill was urgently needed near the town. If his application was successful, he would not only mill wheat, but also refine it and supply flour of different qualities. He was also planning to grind mealies.

The discovery of diamonds in the area that was later known as Kimberley in 1867 created a large demand for mealie meal and bread flour. The government decided to grant licences to millers, since the sale of mill properties could create a source of income for the government.

The availability of water power meant that mill power could also be used for the washing of wool, sawing of wood, generation of electricity and cutting of tobacco.

This sketch, made by H Hendriks in 1865 does not only show his own proposed mill (middle), but also those of N Grobler (top right), the first to be erected on the built. The sketch, however, does not seem to be accurate since the “Wagenweg” did not cross the town furrow, but the Mooi River. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Mill furrows

None of the mills north of Potchefstroom was right next to the river and millers had to dig out mill furrows or mill races to bring water to their mills. These furrows were from 720 to 2 400 m in length. Most of these were dug from between the area where the wall of the Potchefstroom Dam is today (the Dam was built in 1908 – long after the mills) and where Postma Street is today. A small weir was made to direct the water into the furrow. Most of these furrows were on the town common and were damaged by crabs, erosion, drifting branches, cattle and even hippopotami! Where the mill furrow crossed the Wagenweg a bridge had to be built by the miller.

“Oude Molen”

By 1858 W Cameron was the owner of the mill built by Grobler. This mill was upgraded in the 1870s when Cameron built a second larger mill next to the first one.

In 1888 Iver Hjul bought the mill from Cameron and named it Utopia, probably after the gold field where he made his money. Boetie-Jan Coetzee, first curator of the Potchefstroom Museum, described Hjul as “an extremely romantic Dane” in an article published in the Herald in February 1975.

This painting by “RF” in 1965 shows a bird’s eye view of the Bult as it looked at the time. On the foreground is the Conservatory, which was built in the late 1950s and the Johannes van der Walt building to its right. The two rows of trees (middle bottom) indicate where the run-off streams of the mills used to be.

According to Boetie-Jan Coetzee in an article in the Herald in 1975, Hjul became rich after prospecting for gold in Australia. He arrived in Potchefstroom with 40 000 gold pounds in a leather bag and pitched his tent here. He was known for his kindness to the destitute. His charitable nature and the wrong friends over the years consumed most of his money, but he was always known as one of the town’s friendliest immigrants. One of the mill streams on the Bult was called the Yule stream.

Hjul later found a diamond at Jagersfontein which he sold for £46 000.

This mill was acquired by OWA Forssman in 1892 and a Mr Lewis was the manager. By 1903 the mill was no longer in operation due to a lack of water, according to a report by the Mooi River Commission.

This mill was known to be a turbine mill. Coetzee explained that this mill did not have a mill wheel, but water from the mill race was dropped from a height onto a turbine, which then drove the mill. This also powered a tobacco cutter, threshing machine and circular saw. The Hjul mill was sold between 1910 and 1913 to Isaac Nathanson and B Shapiro. In 1918 Nathanson passed away as a result of the Spanish Flu. His obituary in the Herald in October 1918 states that he was 46 years old at the time of his death. Nathanson was of Jewish descent.

Rachel Rebecca, néé Buch, was the wife Isaac Nathanson. After he passed away in 1918 she married a Mr Gowan. Before this marriage, in 1920, she laid the corner stone of the Synagogue in Lombard Street (James Moroka) in honour of her late husband, Isaac Nathanson. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Mrs Dorothy Hurndall wrote in her memoirs the mill was still working at the time she was in high school in the first part of the 1920s.

Shapiro sold the property to the Potchefstroom University College in 1947. It was then 17 morgen in extent and was sold for £16 000. The mill was demolished to build the Conservatory. The area was later called Oude Molen and the tennis club for the staff of the university was known as the Oude Molen Tennis Club.

The university in 1963 decided to develop the area as sport grounds and some adjacent properties were acquired. The Fanie du Toit Sport Grounds were officially opened in 1974.

This mill was built by Cameron in the 1870s next to the first mill built by Hendriks. It was demolished in the latter part of the 1950s to build the Conservatory of the University. Photo NWU Archives and Museum

Mill in Meul Street

A mill was also stood next to where the entrance to the Groenwilgers Retirement Centre is now. The well-known Piet Malan, who lived in Tom Street worked at this mill near the end of the 19th century. (This is not the Piet Malan after which the club house, referred to above, was named.) It was owned by the Rocher family and the manager was a Mr Kroezer, a brother-in-law of Rocher. Malan’s wife was Julica of Julieta Kroezer before her marriage.

Three mills

After Hendriks made a representations to obtain a mill property he received what was later known as “Klipbultjie” This is today the property at 82 Thabo Mbeki Street. Two more mill properties were given out to the north of his property. Today this is the properties at 78, 80 and 82 Thabo Mbeki Street. The middle of the three properties were later known as “Molenerf”.

These three erven were situated between the road to Johannesburg and an extensive swamp to the east. The properties were only 40 X 45 m in size and were so small that the owners complained that apart from the mill they could not even build a house or make a vegetable garden.

The result was that they, without anyone noticing, started to make vegetable gardens at the side of the road. This illegal “enlarging” of their properties only came to light in 1875 when JP Loxton surveyed the area and found that the properties extended as much as nine metres in the direction of the road. The only alternative was to relocate the road further west. This explains the sharp turn in Thabo Mbeki Street between these properties and the Theological School of the NWU. (See photo of the 1965 painting above.)

Hendriks was thus the owner of the most southerly of the three mills. When he made his representation to obtain a mill property, he said that he also plan to start a wool washing operation, to sift flour, to pound mealies and to saw wood. He later acquired the mill on the middle property of the three.

In 1869 a terrible accident happened at Hendriks’s mill. A boy of about ten years old, the only son of a widow from Schoonspruit (Venterdorp), came to town with an ox-wagon to have wheat milled. He somehow was crushed by the machinery and died of his wounds. He was buried in the old Voortrekker Cemetery, just west of the mill.

The property on which the wool washing operation took place was known as “Molenerf”.

Hendriks appeared to have passed away in the latter part of the 19th century. Both Klipbultjie and Molenerf were bought from his estate by Schikkerling and sold to Hjul. Milling was stopped in the 1890s and the mills were dismantled during the Anglo-Boer war.

Meriba mill

The most northerly mill of the three was owned by JJ (Kootjie) Hoffman, a member of the Volksraad. His mill stood at 78 Thabo Mbeki Street. This was one of the three mills erected between 1863 and 1866. Coetzee wrote that Kootjie Hoffman was not a man who was to be shunted around.

Hoffman made use of the run-off water of Cameron’s mill which stood just north of his to drive his mill. It, however, never produced sufficient water to drive the mill. Subsequently endless debates about this dominated town council meetings.

One night, while everybody was asleep, Hoffman took his large plough spanned a team of oxen in front of it and made himself a mill furrow flowing out of the main town furrow. It started about where the train bridge in Meyer Street is now and flowed to his property opposite the current Theological School.

When the rest of the town woke up the next morning, Hoffman’s mill was fully operational!

The town was up in arms since this caused the town furrow to practically dry up. The townspeople, in turn, used their oxen to drag large boulders into Hoffman’s mill furrow.

Subsequently he named his mill “Meriba”, meaning bitter water. The meaning is derived from an incident in the Bible when Moses had a large difference of opinion with the Israelites over water (See Numbers 20). The townsfolk named the mill “Twistwater” or “Quarrel Water”.

This mill was involved in numerous court cases which took place between 1877 and 1893 about the water rights.

School in mill

After the allocation of the northern burgher rights plots in 1891, the population in this part of the town started to grow. Subsequently a need for a school developed. On 27 May 1891 a meeting was held at the Meriba mill.

It was decided to open a school right there in the mill since a suitable room was available at the back of the house, then belonging to Hoffman’s widow.

The school opened on 13 July 1891 with 20 pupils and was known as the Meriba School. The school moved to 28 Maree Street on 28 June 1894. This school later became the President Pretorius Primary School.

Hoffman’s mill was bought by Rocher in 1893 and was later transferred to the government.

Mill east of the North Bridge

Willem Lombaard was known to operate a mill from 1863 to 1866 directly south of the North Bridge to the east of the road (where On Golden Pond Guest House currently is). A certain Lombaard also had a canteen in the area in the 1880, which is probably the same person or a relation.

Ricketts’s Mill

In 1863 P Ricketts applied to the government to operate a mill. A mill property was allocated to him. It was at the eastern end of the Maree Street right against the Mooi River.

The right to operate the mill was granted to him on condition that he had to maintain the extension of Maree Street to the mill himself.

Ricketts also built a bridge across the river for easier access to his mill. He built a double storey mill building and house at the site.

This mill was the only one that stayed in private ownership. After his death, his wife married P Peters, after whom the mill was then named. In 1906 the Mooi River Commission reported that production came to a standstill in 1890 due to a lack of water.

According to legend the mill buildings were swept away in a flood.

This screen shot from Google Maps shows the Mooi River directly north of Ben Pienaar Street (the street at the bottom right of the picture). The street, just visible bottom left is Maree Street, which led to Ricketts’s Mill. A row of trees in the form of the letter “M” lying on its side can be seen to the right of the picture. These trees grow along a shallow ditch which probably is the remnants of Ricketts’s mill furrow.

At the end of the ditch as shown above, is this breached dam, which could have been Ricketts’s mill pond.

Stamp’s Mill

Directly north-west of the north bridge, thus outside the townlands, but still on the highway, W Stamp built a mill in 1866. Although it was not regarded as a good site, Stamp built another two mills there.

This photo shows the drift of the Mooi River, which was directly west of the north bridge. Although unidentified, the building in the picture stood where Stamp’s mill was reported to be. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

In 1885 and 1886 Stamp owned other mill properties to the north of Oewersig. Stamp was able to generate electricity for household use. He also built a bridge over the Mooi River for easier access to his mill.

Coetzee wrote in the Herald in 1975 that Mr Stoffel Klopper told him that his mother’s brother, Boet Croeser’s father built the first mill where Frikkie Deale later lived. That was next to Van der Hoff Street (Thabo Mbeki) where huge oak trees still stand across from Potchefstroom Gimnasium, boys’ hostel, Brandwag. This was also known as the “Croeser Mill”.

The Deale family owned a substantial part of the properties in Oewersig bordering on Thabo Mbeki Street and resided in the house at 36 Thabo Mbeki Street.

Willow Banks Mill

The last mill property that was granted by the local authority was directly south-west of the north bridge.

J Hamilton and partners opened the Willow Banks Mill in 1872. It was a double-storey building and according to the Ward book of 1880, it was owned by Hamilton, but operated by J Sewell.

According to Coetzee it was an overshot mill, which means that a trough delivered water to the upper side of the mill wheel. Extant photos shows that the mill race met the wheel in the middle. This is clarified by the Mooi River Commission, which described the wheel as a “breast wheel”.

This photo clarifies why the Willow Banks Mill was described as having a “breast wheel”. Photo: Gawie van der Walt Postcard Collection

According to Coetzee the wheel still existed about 1912 to 1915. The steel axel of the mill, in possession of the museum, indicated that it turned large machinery. The mill stones found there, also in the museum, are between 30 to 37,5 cm thick and one metre in diameter.

C Rocher acquired the mill in 1886. The Mooi River Commission reported that a threshing machine was part of the facilities. It was able to process four bags of wheat flour per hour. It was in production until 1906. The ruins of the mill was only demolished in the 1950s.

The old Willow Banks Mill must be one of the most photographed buildings in Potchefstroom from the beginning of the 20th century. Numerous postcards of the mill from that time, still exist. According to Mrs Hurndall the area near this mill was a popular picnic spot.

This coloured postcard from the early 1900s is of the Willow Banks Mill. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

The Willow Banks Mill stood south west of the north bridge. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Court cases (1877-1893)

In his unpublished manuscript about the history of Potchefstroom, Prof Gert van den Bergh wrote that numerous quarrels revolved around the water rights of the mills. The reason was mostly because the amount of water that a mill owner could draw out of the river was nowhere defined in legislation or in the mill licences. Another source of these disputes was the fact that the mill furrows which ran through the townlands was not properly maintained which led to wasteful loss of water.

Chief Justice of the Transvaal from 1877 to 1898, Sir John Kotze, referred to the mills as “a fertile source of litigation”.

Kootjie Hoffman featured quite often in these court cases. He lodged complaints at the town council after they neglected to show him where he had to dig out his mill furrow. Hence, the debacle described above where he dug his own mill race.

The Dane, Iver Hjul, who bought the Cameron mill in 1888, laid a charge against the widow of JDE Grimbeek, who was a former owner of the mill property after she siphoned off so much water from the mill furrow for her garden that his mill could not operate.

A third court case was instituted by three farmers, D Greyling of Witrand, J Grimbeek of Elandsheuwel and Hugh Baillie (after whom Baillie Park was named) who owned the largest part of the farm Vyfhoek. They complained that the mills used so much water that almost nothing was left for them to use.

The end of the mills

During the 1890s one after the other of the mills was starting to decline and production was stopped. The main reason was that the water needs of the ever growing town of Potchefstroom meant that more water was turned off into the town furrow.

The large police and military base, which came into being after the Anglo-Boer War, aggravated the problem.

On the other hand steam-driven mills in the town on the main thoroughfare of the road from Kimberley to Johannesburg were more easily available for farmers. The steam-driven mills also did not have the expense to keep mill furrows in good working order or had to contend with the erratic availability of water out of the river.

One of the steam-driven mills was owned by CLT Olën and was situated in the area where Olën Lane is today. Another mill was owned by a well-known businessman, John Perrin. This was situated in Church Street (Walter Sisulu) where Daly Ford is today.

The advertisement for the Olen concern in Beautiful Potchefstroom, a publicity brochure published in 1912.

This photo was taken on 7 November 1950 with the funeral of Prof Ferdinand Postma. Perrin’s Mill was situated in the double-storeyed building between the former Union Bakery and the Queens Hotel (now Impala). Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

In 1923 William Hinchcliff Horsfall applied to the town council to erect a mill next to the electric power station in Kock Street. After many objections, the licence was granted and the mill was operational in 1921. In 1939, after Horsfall passed away, the South African Milling Company acquired the mill. It was then mostly used as a depot for their operation in Klerksdorp.

One of their products was Snowflake Flour, which was advertised on the building, giving the name that the building is now famous for. Today it is a major art venue in Potchefstroom.

The water mills in the Bult area was a major stimulus to develop this area. Both Croeser and Mrs Hoffman opened general dealers. Apart from Lombaard’s canteen, a blacksmith, W Cowell, and a carpenter, J Hunter was active in the area.

The water mills were the first industry across the Vaal River. It also helped to established Potchefstroom as a major centre.

In 2013 I included an article on the mills of Potchefstroom for a supplement for the Potchefstroom Herald to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Potchefstroom. In 2016 I wrote an article for The Heritage Portal about the mills of Potchefstroom. After I was asked by the Potchefstroom Service Centre for the Aged to conduct a tour to the former mill sites of Potchefstroom, I did more research, which I compiled in a brochure for some of the Service Centre members who joined the tour. In my series about the origin of the street names I came to the letter “M” where the origin of both Molen Street and Meul Street are to be included. The mill history is so rich that I decided to rather do a separate article about the mills than include them in the article about the origins of street names starting with an “M”.

Selected sources:

B-J Coetzee, Watermeulens het ekonomie se wiele help draai, Potchefstroom Herald, 28 Februarie 1975.
G van den Bergh, Die geskiedenis van Potchefstroom (Potchefstroom, 1988), 4.9 Watermeulens.
Potchefstroom Museum and Archives, I664.7 Meule.
P van der Schyff, En wat van Oude Molen?, Potchefstroom Herald, 17 September 1985.

Read this article about the history of the Bult. 



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