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The Free State - Golden in many Ways

The Free State is golden in colour. The green grass carries golden yellow seeds and straws. The corn on the cobs in the vast maize fields is golden and the sunflowers are a vivid yellowish gold producing tiny oil seeds. The wheat turns quickly from green to gold and the mines of the Free State are gold too making this province one of the richest parts of South Africa.

On the frontier between the Cape and the Free State flows the ever prominent Orange River and in the centre lies the fountain of Bloemfontein, which still surfaces in the middle of the city which grew around it and is now the judicial capital of South Africa. In the extreme north flows the Vaal River, bordering Gauteng, in a valley lined with willow trees and teaming with water fowl and river fish.

The eastern Free State is blessed with a great scenic gift - a massive rock layer known as cave sandstone which has been shaped through the ages by wind and water to form a majestic landscape of isolated piles of rock which form flat topped mountains with steep cliffs and grassy summits.

The surrounding hills dominate the plains of the eastern Free State and visitors to the region have much to discover. Superb specimens of rock art among the Bushman caves and dramatic natural features such as the great hole at Aasvoëlberg near Zastron and the Witsieshoek pathways which seem to reach the stars. The Free State is rich with all these assets and many more. It is a province of scenic treasures and has a landscape of unique and colourful character.

Bethlehem - The sandstone foothills of the Maluti Mountains contain many inviting valleys and in one of these valleys the early settlers established the town Bethlehem (‘town of bread’). The river flowing through the valley was named the Jordaan River and has since been dammed to form Loch Athlone. Regattas are held regularly on Loch Athlone and it is one of the three dams that supplies Bethlehem with water. The other two dams are the Gerrands and the Saulspoort dams and they make the town a popular inland holiday resort.

They are stocked with large-mouth black bass, yellow-fish and blue-gill sunfish and are a fisherman’s paradise. The Pretorius Kloof Bird Sanctuary has been created where the Jordaan River passes through the Pretorius Kloof and there is a museum of local history in the former church of the Nazareth mission.

Bethulie - The ancient little town of Bethulie is sheltered beneath a ridge of hills that rest on the northern banks of, formerly, the Hendrik Verwoerd Dam, now the Gariep Dam, on the Orange River. The town was originally a London Missionary station of the Society which handed it over to the French Missionary Society who named it Bethulie (‘chosen by God’). In 1862 this small settlement became a village, Bethulie.

The original mission buildings still stand, including Pellissier House which is the oldest European built house in the Free State. A holiday resort and a nature reserve lie on the banks of the Gariep Dam. The nature reserve is the sanctuary for various antelope and a few exotics such as spotted deer and American mountain sheep.

Brandfort - A landscape of maize fields, sheep farms and gold mines surrounds Brandfort. The town was originally a church centre on a farm named Keerom. A small fort on the farm burned down during the war in the 1850s, hence the name Brandfort (‘burned fort’). It is also said that the town was named after President Brand and both he and the fort are depicted on the town crest. The house where the first aeroplane was built in Africa still stands in the town.

Clarens - President Paul Kruger died in exile in Clarens in Switzerland on 54 July 1904. The village of Clarens in the eastern Free State was founded in 1912 and was named in his memory. The Kruger Memorial Hall in the village also commemorates the president. Clarens lies in close proximity to the entrance of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Cornelia - Cornelia Reitz was the wife of President Francis William Reitz of the Free State. The little rural town of Cornelia was founded in 1918 and named in her honour and it is a centre for livestock and maize farming. Ten kilometres north of Cornelia lies one of the most significant fossil sites in the Free State. A horse-like creature was discovered and was named Euiygn at hohippus cornelianus. Large scale excavations were undertaken at the site and the National Museum secured the collection of Cornelia fossils.

Deneysville - On the southern banks of the Vaal Dam the Deneysville Estates Company laid out a recreational township in 1936, named in honour of Colonel Deneys Reitz, who was minister of lands and irrigation. Deneysville has camping and caravan grounds. Fishing and swimming are popular here, and there are boating clubs that cater for power boating and sailing enthusiasts.

Ficksburg - Ficksburg was founded in 1867 and is situated on the west bank of the Caledon River which is the border between Lesotho and the Free State. Ficksburg was named after Commandant General Johan Izak Fick. To the west the town is overlooked by the 1854 meter high Mpharane Mountain and is now a government forestry station. Ficksburg is a border gateway to Lesotho and a busy trading centre. The district produces grain, corn, livestock, dairy products, potatoes, cherries, yellow peaches, apricots and plums. It is the largest cherry producing area in South Africa and the town is noted for its beautiful cherry blossoms gardens.

Summer hail-storms are a problem for farmers in the district and Ficksburg is the home for the Farmers’ Hail Insurance Co-operative has a membership of more than 15 000 farmers and provides compensation for damage caused by these destructively violent hail storms.

There are many examples of Bushman rock art in the caves of the Maluti Mountains in which are often covered in snow. On Mpharane Mountain there is a 150 hectare nature reserve.

Fouriesburg - For a few months during the Anglo-Boer War, the seat of the Orange Free State government was this little town. It was founded in 1892 and named after Chistoffel Fourie, who owned the land. The town is surrounded by sandstone hills and has a spectacular view of the mountains of Lesotho. It is the centre for farming and trade with Lesotho because the Caledonspoort border post is 9 kiometers to the east.

Frankfort - The Wilge (‘willow’) River provides boating, swimming and fishing for much of its 250-kilometre length and the town of Frankfort was founded on the banks of the Wilge River and had its beginning in the late 1860s. It was apparently named after Frankfurt in Germany by Albert van Gordeon who was a council member. Frankfort was  maize and farming centre is in the heart of the so called ‘maize triangle’ and is surrounded by vast fields of maize also known as mielies or corn.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park - Water has shaped the sandstone of the Little Caledon River into spectacular formations and steep cliffs. There are great caves and rock shelters of many bizarre shapes and sizes and the sandstone has interacted with iron oxides thus producing a brilliant range of yellows, oranges and reds.

The national park was proclaimed in 1963 to conserve 4 792 hectares of this remarkable landscape. In the park is a vividly coloured vast cliff face called the Golden Gate and when it catches the rays of the setting sun it’s a sight not to be missed. Gladstone’s Nose is another unusual cliff formation and contains many large caves. Eland, red hartebeest and springbok live in the valley with many birds including the huge vultures known as lammergeyers, with wing-spans of nearly 3 meters.

Wild willow trees grow along the banks of the river and provide shady picnic sites. The national parks board has created two rest camps in the park, with chalets, rooms, huts, a caravan park and two restaurants.

Harrismith - Wool, maize and stunning scenery make the town of Harrismith the prosperous and attractive centre of the eastern Free State. The town was created in 1849 and named after the well-liked British governor named Sir Harry Smith. The town lies at the foot of the 2396 meter Platberg and has an outlook south towards the mountains of Lesotho and the Drakensberg.

Harrismith stands on the banks of the Wilge River and the crisp, bracing air of the district is well known. Sheep and horses flourish making polo a popular sport and the district a magnificent horse riding region. The Platberg is well forested with many picnic spots and a road leads to the summit where a blockhouse can be found. The blockhouse was built on the top by the British in 1900 and is a national monument. Next to the town hail is a petrified tree, 33 meters long and estimated to be 150 million years old.

Heilbron - A medicinal spring surfaces close to the town of Heilbron (‘fountain of blessing’) and was founded in 1890. The region produces milk, maize, sorghum, sunflower seeds and wheat. For one week in May 1900 Heilbron was the capital of the Free State when President Marthinus Steyn had his headquarters in the town (its claim to fame).

Hennenman - Cement and a railway station marked the beginning of the town named Hennenman. A railway whistle stop called Ventersburg Road was first built here to serve the town of Ventersburg, 12 kilometres away. Lime deposits were then discovered near the station and two cement factories were built. Hennenman became a place in its own right rather than just a road to somewhere else and in 1927 the name of the town was changed to Hennenman in honour of Petrus Hennenman who was a local farmer.

Hobhouse - Close to the Caledon River bordering of Lesotho is the small town of Hobhouse which a centre for the maize, wheat, cheese and livestock production in the region. It was founded in 1912 and was named after Emily Hobhouse who worked on behalf of the Boer women and children in British concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War.

Koffiefontein - The pleasant name of Koffiefontein (‘coffee fountain’) is applied to a diamond mining and farming centre on the Riet River. There is an irrigation dam at Kalkfontein feeds water to farm lands in the area, growing lucerne and potatoes. Dairy products are also produced.

Kroonstad - The railway junction and marshalling yard of Kroonstad was named after a horse named Kroon (‘Crown’). Kroon drowned in a pothole in a stream where the present town is situated. When the town was founded it was named after the horse. Kroonstad lies on the banks of the Vals (‘deceitful’) River. Despite the river’s name it is a beautiful river lined with willow trees and on its banks are recreational areas with camping facilities and a caravan park which is much used by keen anglers and water sports enthusiasts. Cattle, sheep, wheat, maize and fruit are farmed in the district and Kroonstad is the farming centre of the area.

Ladybrand – Ladybrand’s situation is spectacular. The Platberg (‘flat mountain’) ridge shelters a basin close to the valley of the Galedon River and the mountains of Lesotho. Man settled in this basin in ancient times and it is rich in Stone Age implements and fossils. The sandstone cliffs contain caves and rock shelters renowned for their Bushmen rock art especially the caves at Rose Cottage, Modderpoort and Tandjiesberg.

Ladybrand was named in honour of Lady Catharina Brand the mother of President Johannes Brand of the Free State. Today it is a trading and agricultural centre and a gateway to neighbouring Lesotho.

Marquard - After several abortive attempts to establish a town in a prosperous grain, sheep, cattle and fruit producing region the farmers living east of Winburg secured the support of the Reverend J. J. Marquard and his influence led to the establishment of Marquard 1905, bearing his name.

Memel - The north-eastern Free State is a richly grassed landscape of rolling slopes and scattered high koppies. Several passes lead down to KwaZulu-Natal from this part of the Free State. Botha’s Pass and Muller’s Pass were regularly used after the Anglo-Boer War and a small settlement grew around a blacksmith’s shop and a store in the grassy basin and in 1911 the Memel Township Promotion Society was formed by General Christiaan De Wet. A town was established and given the Prussian name of Memel (‘surrounded by water’).

Odendaalsrus - For many years Odendaalsrus was one of the most isolated towns in the Free State. It was founded in 1899 as a church centre and was named after Jesaja Odendaal who owned the farm on which it was established. By 1946 Odendaalsrus had grown into a town of 40 houses, 3 shops and a hotel.

Then that same year a diamond drill probed down the Geduld borehole and produced a core revealing huge amounts of gold. Within days a flood of fortune seekers descended on Odendaalsrus and its name featured in newspaper headlines all over the world. Today, Odendaalsrus is a modern town and a mining centre for the rich mines in the surrounding areas

Parys - On the southern bank of the Vaal River lies the attractive town of Parys. It is said that the surveyor of the town was a German who had fought in the siege of Paris in 1870 and the South African town reminded him of Paris and the town of Parys was established in 1876. The Vaal River is more than a kilometer wide near Parys and is studded with willow covered islands. Suspension bridges link some of the islands to the riverbanks and it makes for a great leisure spot.

Philippolis - This atmospheric little town was made a station of the London Missionary Society in 1823, and was named after Dr. John Philip. In 1826 a group of Griqua Hottentots settled there with their leader, Adam Kok. The town they created was the capital of their state and they had a council chamber, a trading store, residences, a gaol and a gallows. The Griquas eventually sold the town for £400 to the government of the Free State and then trekked over the Drakensberg to settle in Griqualand East.

Reitz - In the ‘maize triangle’ of the northern Free State the town of Reitz is the centre for one of the largest co-operative agricultural societies in South Africa. A maize elevator dominates the town and Reitz is a prosperous example of a ‘corn town’. The town was founded in 1889 and named after Frederick Reitz, who was then president of the Free State.

Rouxville - Wool, Afrikaner cattle and a stud of saddle horses, famous for their five different gaits, were the pride of the Rouxville district. The town was founded in 1863 and named after the Reverend Pieter Roux who used to ride around the eastern Free State towns conducting his religious services.

Sasolburg - The South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation, (SASOL), established its complex and unique chemical plant on a vast coal field south of the Vaal River. The plant produces a great variety of chemicals as well as Sasol petrol. It is the only plant in the world that produces such high commercial quantities of oil from coal. Several other manufacturers who are supplied with raw materials by Sasol have built their plants in the near vicinity where fertilizers, plastics, synthetics, detergents and many other materials are produced.

The town of Sasolburg houses the workers of these industries. The glow of the exhaust flames and the distinctive odour from the Sasol plant are familiar features of this part of the world.

Smithfield - The rural centre of Smithfield is the fourth oldest town in the Free State, after Winburg, Bloemfontein and Philippolis. It was founded in 1848 and named after Sir Harry Smith who was governor of the Cape. Sheep and cattle farming are prosperous in the Smithfield district.

An odd relic in the town is a former ship’s gun named Ou Grietjie (‘Old Margaret’). The gun has an unknown origin, but it was carried about the Free State for many years and used in various wars. In 1860 the weapon was brought to Smithfield. When Prince Albert, son of Queen Victoria, visited the town the gun was loaded by two gun veterans as an official welcome.

This was a huge event and when the time came the wick was lighten but the gun did not fire. The expectant crowd grew restless and irritated while the two embarrassed gun veterans peered down the barrel in search of a solution and then unfortunately got their heads blown off by the untimely firing of the gun.

Thaba Nchu - The landmark known to the Sotho as Thaba Ntsho (‘black mountain’) looms over the Free State plains some 64 kilometers east of Bloemfontein. Thaba Ntsho was the stronghold of the Rolong tribe whose chief Moroko was an ally of the Voortrekkers. His grave is a historical monument and the mountain was called Thaba Nchu by the Europeans and in 1873 the town Thaba Nchu was founded.

Theunissen - In the centre of the Free State, surrounded by rich agricultural land, lies the town of Theunissen. The Erfenis irrigation dam fed by the Vet River provides ample water for farming and good yellow fish and carp fishing. Two diamond mines in the district produce gem stones of fine quality. Theunissen was named after Colonel Helgard Theunissen who was the commandant of the Winburg Commando during the Anglo-Boer War. He founded the town and for many years served as its mayor.

Villiers - At the point where the main highway from Johannesburg to Durban crosses the Vaal River into the Free State lies the town of Villiers and it was established in 1891 and named after Lourens de Villiers, who owned the land. The district produces maize and cattle.

Virginia - Founded in 1954 as one of the centres of the new Free State gold fields. Virginia lies on the banks of the Sand River and is a modern day town her name comes from a former whistle stop on the railway line back in the old days. It is the centre for, among others, the Harmony Gold Mining Company. The area along the banks of the Sand River is a nature reserve.

Vredefort - In former years herds of blesbok, gnu, springbok and other game congregated in the area of Vredefort and were hunted in high volumes by the first settlers. The animals have long since vanished but the area is still a resting place for vast flocks of birds during the course of their seasonal flights.

A town was established in 1876 on a farm called Vredefort (‘peaceful fort’) by its owner back in 1857 because of the peaceful end to the year. The district produces maize, sunflowers, sorghum, groundnuts and cattle. In 1886 gold was found near the town and for some years the Vredefort gold fields attracted considerable attention but the gold did not prove payable.

A curious geological feature in the district is an exposure of ancient granite emerging through thick layers of Karoo sediments. Known to geologists as the Vredefort Dome, this dome of granite is surrounded by the quartzite’s of the Witwatersrand System.

Welkom - The principal centre of the Free State gold fields is Welkom and was created in 1947 on the open sandveld and has since developed into a miniature city with a population of more than 200 000 people. Welkom lies in a rectangle of mining claims 20 kilometers by 10 kilometers in area. Working these claims are some of the top gold mining companies in South Africa, if not the world. Welkom is a flourishing mining town and grows from strength to strength.

Wepener - Close to the border of Lesotho lies the town of Wepener, founded in 1867 and named in honour of Louw Wepener, who was killed in 1865 while trying to storm Thaba Bosiu. Wepener lies in the valley of the Jammersbergspruit and has a great atmosphere. Building sand, wool, grain, corn and livestock are produced in the district. On the farm Welbedacht, 32 kilometres south-west of the town, a dam has been built to store 110 million cubic meters of water from the Caledon River. This dam supplies drinking water to Bloemfontein and many other towns of the Free State.

Winburg - The first town to be established in the Free State by the Voortrekkers was Winburg. In 1835, Andries Hendrik Potgieter purchased the rights from the local tribal chief to the area in exchange for 42 head of cattle. Winburg Lies between the Vet and Vaal rivers.

A town was necessary as a centre for the area, and after some dispute a site was selected and named Winburg (‘victory town’) because the owner had won a battle in persuading others to accept the site he preferred. Winburg is a classic example of a South African town from that period. There is a large central square dominated by a Dutch Reformed Church and stores, hotels and office buildings make up the perimeter.

Zastron - Zastron was founded in 1876 and named after the maiden name of the wife of President Johannes Brand, Johanna Sibila Zastron. Cattle, maize and wheat make the district prosperous. The famous ‘Eye’ of Zastron is a hole 9 meters in diameterand is in a cliff on the slopes of Aasvoelberg.