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Pioneering farmers settled the more remote areas of the Highlands of the Eastern Cape in the 1880s. Prior to this, the only inhabitants of this inhospitable region were seasonally migratory members of the San tribe. They, at least, were sensible enough to follow the exodus of most game species out of the mountains during the harsh winter months!

A land surveyor, Joseph Orpen and his brother Richard laid out farms in the Barkly East district and parts of the Herschel area. They immigrated to South Africa in 1864 and although originally from Dublin, the farms were given Scottish names – on account of the surveyor being of Irish origin? Their descendants still conduct farming activities on a property given to Orpen in lieu of cash for the job. Farms thus demarcated became available for purchase from the government on a “huurkoop” basis. 

The origins of Rhodes lie in the establishment of agricultural activities and the concurrent development of the Dutch Reformed Church in the region. It was founded on the farm Tintern that belonged to a Mr Jim Vorster. Vorster agreed to the establishment of the village on condition that 100 plots be sold and that it be named after the then Prime minister of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902). A Mr Shaw of Sauer & Osmond duly sold the plots and Rhodes was founded on 16 September 1891. The rest of the farm was given to the village as commonage. Rural legend has it that the village was first named Rossville. Despite careful archival research of extant documentation by the School of Architecture of the University of Natal, including a publication by P Raper entitled the “Dictionary of South African Place Names”, no evidence of a name change from Rossville to Rhodes was found. However, a possibility exists that as Ross was the Dutch Reformed minister at the time, this misconception is probably based on confusion between the name of the local church ward named Rossville in his honour and that of the village. Another possibility is that it was the figment of somebody’s imagination seeking to romance the origins of it’s name. 

Ross was based in Lady Grey and ministered from there to the far-flung outposts in the region, travelling from farm to farm on horseback. Ross was of Scottish origin and alternated between English and Afrikaans each Sunday whilst conducting his ministry. The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War interrupted his activities. He was perceived to be too closely aligned with the opposition by the British and was summarily arrested. He spent the duration of hostilities in the concentration camp in Aliwal North. On cessation of the war, he was released with the clothes on his back and no shoes. Ross walked from Aliwal North to Lady Grey barefoot. Thoroughly disenchanted with the British he vowed to never conduct another church service in English ever again. Credit must be given where it is due. He religiously stuck to his word.

On the 15th June 1892, the cornerstone of the Dutch Reformed Church was laid. The population at this time was estimated at between 250 and 300 people. The construction of the church was soon followed by that of the Post Office, Court Room and Gaol complex that was completed in 1898 at a cost of the princely sum of 558 pounds 14 shillings and 10 pence. Construction of the Naudesnek Pass was started in 1895 on the advice of Stephanus Naude of the farm Dunley who was the first person to cross the mountain range with an oxwagon. Heavy snowfalls during the Anglo-Boer War stopped construction and the pass was completed in 1905 under the direction of engineer Alfred Bain. The old wagon route can still be seen in places.

Early records show that schooling started in 1894 with 45 pupils. By 1895, Rhodes boasted the largest school in the Barkly East district with 67 pupils. By 1912, this had increased to 90. In February 1916, a process to acquire land for a school was started. By the 6th of March 1918, the “Rhodes Education Site” was given to the village for the construction of a school. Sir Herbert Baker allegedly designed the school building, completed in 1924. Baker left the Cape Colony in 1902 and South Africa for New Delhi in 1913 which was some three years before the good citizens of Rhodes started agitating for a formal school premises and facility. His partners Kendall and Morris or possibly Kendall on his own may well have designed it. Baker, Kendall and Morris had a partnership until 1920 when Baker resigned. Kendall & Morris continued to practise until 1925 when Morris left. A boarding school was started in about 1915 in the old Ginsberg Hotel run by Mr H Venter in 1905. It burnt down during its use as a hotel and was rebuilt to become the school hostel. Its hostel function ceased with the closure of the school. It became a family home with it’s heyday in the so-called “Hippie era” of the late 70s and early 80s. It was then used as a base station for the Tiffindell Ski Resort construction team and is the site on which Walkerbouts Inn was established in 1996. Major renovations were completed by June 1999 and it has continued in its current state since then. By 1928 there were 112 pupils and teachers with classes being given up to standard 8. By the 1940s the number of pupils declined to 70 and by 1947 there only 30 to 40 pupils with 3 teachers. By 1948, Std 6 was the highest pupils could aspire to and by 1967, there were only 20 pupils in attendance. The school finally closed in 1974. 

Another rural legend has it that Rhodes acknowledged the village being named after him by way of a donation of a wagonload of pine trees. Early photographs of the village as well as the life span of the species concerned debunk this charming anecdote. However, records show that 1 pound 17 shillings and 3 pence was paid to the Barkly East Municipality for pine trees (Pinus insegnus). Botanically speaking these trees have a lifespan of approximately 70 years. Some can still be seen in the village which adds weight to the non-C J Rhodes origin of the trees.

The village is 1840m above sea level and 16km due south of the Kingdom of Lesotho. The towns of Maclear, Ugie and Elliot that lie below the nearby escarpment surround it. Barkly East lies above the escarpment to its west, about 60km or at least 60 minutes drive from the village on a narrow and winding gravel road that must be driven with care. Rhodes is a remote village, almost frozen in time, a relic from the past and a living record of the trials and tribulations of the surrounding farming community. The unique nature of the architecture finds its origins in the Victorian era and is a compromise between fashion, availability of materials and practicality. Houses range from grand traders’ residences to flat-roofed ‘kerk-huisies’ used as town houses in days gone by when travelling to the village, mostly on horseback, from the surrounding farms was a major outing. These buildings are sprinkled amongst tree-lined streets and all contribute to the quaint charm of the atmosphere. With a view to maintaining the character and ambience, the village was proclaimed as a Conservation Area in Government Gazette no. 18152 on 25 July 1997. 

The village endured several phases starting off as a direct result of the agricultural activities in the area including 29 invasions during the Anglo-Boer War. In the course of the previous century, agricultural fortunes gradually declined until the village became almost derelict by the late 70s. It was “discovered” at this time by a group of people seeking an alternative lifestyle, “Living off the land, man”. This period was referred to as the Hippie era and a multitude of legends surround it, suffice it to say that amongst the last proponents of this way of life was literally burned out of the village. His house burnt down and in more recent years, the owner was compensated for the damage in the course of the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The advent of the hippie-era signalled the beginning of the current tourism phase. The village gradually became better known as a tourist destination and with the advent of the ruralised yuppies, property prices have soared making it impossible for the average person who may have wanted to settle in the village to do so. In 1970, houses were “sold” for the arrears in rates and taxes or even given away.  By 1987 good-sized houses sold for up to R30 000. By the mid-90s this had doubled. The same properties would now command prices in the region of R400 000. Unfortunately, as is the case elsewhere, the nett result of this popularity is that there are now fewer permanent white residents than there were three years ago. 

The terrain in these parts is rugged and the climate can be harsh. Historically, snow has been recorded in every month of the year although the seasonal falls occur from May to August. A snowfall was recorded in Rhodes on the 1st of January 2001!

A brief history of the village of Rhodes – D. Walker, 2006

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