An old building, a collapsed ceiling and a young singer practicing for a concert led to the rediscovery of Willowmore’s history and its donation to the Cape Archives. It all began in August, 1984, when an old building in Knysna Street was being renovated to make room for Willowmore Bottle Store and a new Pep branch. Soon after work began a ceiling collapsed dumping a huge heap of dusty documents onto the ground. A few fluttered out into the street and were picked up by Pep Stores manager, P G Louw. One, a letter dated 1908, was an order for water piping from J J Loock of Vleitjies farm.
A few days later Louw’s ten-year old daughter, Verushka, and a few friends went to practice some songs for a school concert at the flat of their teacher, Mrs Susie Pitout. There Verushka saw an old photograph of Vleitjies farm hanging on the wall. She told told Mrs Pitout of her father’s find and Mrs Pitout explained she had been married to Hendrik Stephanus (James) Loock and had lived on Vleitjies for many years. When Verushka’s father heard this he gave the old letter to Mrs Pitout, a great aunt and historic researcher, Johan Loock. When next he came to town on a field trip she told him of the historic find. She said that Ludwig Joubert, manager of Willowmore Bottle Store, had realized the value of the documents and moved them to a safer place.
Johan was so excited by the find that he persuaded historian Andre Bezuidenhout, an expert on postal history to help him sort through this 227 kg of historic information covering 50 years of Willowmore’s history. “It was an immensely exciting discovery,” says Johan, “seldom are such items found. There was a great deal of general information not usually found among research material. Local shopkeeper Karl Herbst started storing the information in 1863. Sadly on his way home from a celebration in Steytlerville on January 3, 1909, he charged his cart and horses into a swollen river and was drowned. After that no more documents were collected.”
The Willowmore Collection contained valuable comments on business, the economy and sometimes the personal lives of local residents. According to Johan it also provided an invaluable study into the emerging Afrikaans language. “Over 10 000 ‘outgoing’ business letters in about 19 ‘letter books’ from 1863 to 1907, show how a new language was emerging and replacing the High Dutch traditionally used in formal correspondence,” said Johan. “The collection also contained interesting information on trade, market prices, droughts, purchases for ‘nagmal’ (communion) as well as snippets on happenings in town and interesting bits of gossip. “Among these were documents which broadly discussed the indiscrete romantic alliance of Rev Adriaan Jacobus Louw Hofmeyr and its repercussions in 1884,” wrote Johan in an article for Contree in 1987.
Johan divided the documents he discovered into two general sections. Andre Bezuidenhout took all items pertaining to the postal and rail history to sort and catalogue, while Johan packed the rest into 18 boxes and railed them to Bloemfontein where he had more time to study and classify them. Once this was completed they were donated to the Cape Archives. “The collection is valuable when studied against the general history of the area,” said Johan. ‘It adds colour and contains interesting information particularly for genealogical researchers of such family names as Craill, Diederichs, Dorfling, Hayward, Hitge, Laas, Marincowitz, Moore, Puth, Schutte and Seteman. To gain a complete picture, however, other sources will also have to be consulted.”