Grey Herons flying very slowly, almost hovering over, and diving into, the large irrigation dam at Graaff-Reinet. They are working over deep water, dropping straight in from a considerable height, head, and claws first, and sometimes coming up with fish. After a period of hovering and diving, the birds return to the land to rest, later resuming their fishing activities.
It is a lazy Sunday morning. In the distance, the bells of the Ou Kerk resound: “kom kerk toe, bring pennie saam”, imploring the townsfolk to come to church and to bring their money. Downtown people are getting ready to attend church. The town is busy as most of the farmers congregate in town over the weekends to attend church services on a Sunday. It is already warm and some residents are closing the shutters on their windows to ward out the blazing mid-morning sunlight. Later, it will be too hot to venture out!
Almost unnoticed a car brakes to a halt outside a North Street house, the home of the local midwife. A lean sun-tanned man, smartly dressed with a suit and hat, assists a well-built handsome woman, heavily pregnant to alight. She is aided by the midwife’s assistant. They enter the little cottage. Three hours later a son is born to the Joseph couple. It is Sunday, 6 October 1935. They name him “Leon Gibbon”.
Leon is derived from “Leonard”, his mother’s father’s name, and “Gibbon” is a name used for the last three generations to name the eldest Joseph sons, derived from great-grandmother Annie Gibbon on Gibbon Joseph’s maternal side. Annie was the mother of Anna de la Harpe, who married Francois de la Harpe at Graaff-Reinet in 1840. But this is all academic, as from an early age he is simply known as “Chippie”!
Graaff-Reinet is the oldest town in the Eastern Cape (founded 1786) and is the sixth oldest town in South Africa. It is snuggly tucked into a loop in the Sundays River and is presided over by the majestic Spandau Kop. Adjoining Spandau is the world-renowned Valley of Desolation. Graaff-Reinet is undoubtedly a town with an enigmatic and troubled history. Dubbed also "the Gem of the Karoo", it was founded in 1786 by the governor Cornelius Jacob van de Graaff, whose wife's name was Cornelia Reinet. Her namesake - Reinet House - was originally built as a parsonage and is now a museum with one of the largest living grape vines in the world in its garden.
In its early days, Graaff-Reinet was regarded as a far-flung frontier settlement at the very limits of the old Cape Colony. The first European inhabitants of the area were the Trekboere, or nomadic farmers, who moved away from the restrictive rule of the Dutch East India Company at Cape Town in search of suitable grazing for their cattle and fat-tailed sheep.
Unfortunately, the sweeping plains and buttes were already inhabited and it would not be long before the pastoral farmers would come to blows with the hunter-gatherer San, who had hunted the territory for centuries. Deprived of their hunting grounds, the San turned to killing the livestock of the trekboers, unleashing a state of perpetual conflict that lasted for 30 years until the San moved to new hunting grounds to the north, or were assimilated into the Khoikhoi who had accompanied the new settlers.
These early years were marked by another source of conflict: between the new settlers and the prevailing colonial authorities. First, it was their Dutch masters and then the British. The Boers had moved to Graaff- Reinet to escape the rule of the Dutch East India
Company and resented having to submit to the Cape-based administrators. The Dutch, they felt did nothing to alleviate their plight, and when the British seized the Cape administration, they rose in rebellion, only leaving many of their leaders incarcerated and/or banished in 1799, overturning their newly established republic.
Under British rule, the town of Graaff-Reinet prospered and became the agricultural centre of the frontier, boasting a thriving fruit industry. However, when slavery was abolished in 1834, this proved too much for the recalcitrant Boers, who band together, sold or abandoned their farms, and commenced a mass migration to the northern territories in the Great Trek. (These Boers later became known as the Voortrekkers). The spaces they left were occupied by English settlers, including those who fled the eastern frontier to escape the endless wars with the Xhosa tribes. This began the thriving wool industry, driving up land prices and prosperity.
After a few decades of relative peace, the town again became the centre of conflict when the Second Anglo-Boer War started in 1899. Although not many Afrikaners from Graaff-Reinet joined the fray, they remained sympathetic to the Afrikaner cause and were known to harbour their vigilante cousins as they sort refuse and caused mayhem in the district. This served only to drive a wedge between the English and Afrikaners of the village, the undertones of which still prevail in certain quarters of Graaff-Reinet.
After the conclusion of the war, the town continued to flourish and saw the establishment of two schools, Union High (English) and Volkskool (Afrikaans) in 1920 and 1922, respectively. It was also at this time that the large Van Ryneveld’s Pass Dam to the north of the town was built, making the town less prone to the terrible droughts that prevailed on a regular basis.
Despite the underlying tensions, the town prospered in the 1850’s and was regarded by many as the fastest developing frontier town in the Colony. At the forefront of development was the wool trade, which brought with it a great variety of people from a wide range of nationalities and professions. These included German and Jewish traders, educators from Scotland, missionaries from the Dutch Reformed Church, and Dutch and English farmers. Labourers were drawn mainly from the local San and Khoi populations and remnants of the slaves that accompanied the Dutch farmers from the Cape.
It was at this second apex of the town’s development that Chippie was born, and as a young man was able to witness the prosperity.
Sadly, it marked also the start of the stagnation of development of the place and by the time Chippie turned 30 years of age, the decline was markedly noticeable. Mossievale, the farm he stood to inherit, was one of the first victims of the recessive years.
Graaff-Reinet has been the home of the Joseph family since Richard Frank Joseph started farming in the district in the early 1870s. However, other members of the family, such as the Crawford clan, had settled there as early as 1821 when James Crawford (1820 Settler) decided to make this his home.
Back to Chippie’s birth! In a few days, as soon as Leon Gibbon (Chippie) is strong enough and Mabel Violet (Mabel) has recovered, Gibbon Frank (Frank) will take his wife and eldest son back to Mossievale, their farm in Petersburg, 65 kilometres out of town on the road to Pearston.
The farm was the product of a venture undertaken by both of Chippie’s parents, Gibbon Frank and Mabel Violet, shortly before his birth. They purchased the farm from Donald Hartzenberg and named it Mossievale. The name is derived from Mabel’s nickname “Mossie”. Frank would take charge of the sheep and lands, while Mabel would tend to her goats and ensure an ongoing supply of chicken and turkey. She was also an avid gardener, and soon the homestead would be transferred into a glow of colours and scents.
Mossievale would be the home of Chippie for the next 27 years until 1962 when he would abandon any hope of inheriting the farm from his father, despite having been groomed since the age of 16 to do just that. Sad circumstances would mean that as unprepared as he was for any other occupation, he would move to town and become a production supervisor at the local power utility.
Several factors led to the decision to abandon farming in the mid-1960s. Foremost, amongst these, was the state of the local economy and the general deterioration of the wool industry. Frank knew instinctively that his son and their young family were unlikely to make a success of farming operations. Undoubtedly, he was proven right, as in the years following, all the neighbouring farmers also left farming. Their lands were sold and now comprise part of a large game farming business.
Nothing remains of the main Joseph homestead, having been flattened when the farm became part of the Samara Private Game Reserve. The cottage where Chippie lived briefly, Chippendale, still stands near the ruins of the main homestead.