Our move to the Cathcart district of the Eastern Cape was a significant one in that our stay there embedded the life-long friendship of at least three families. My stock-lick saleman travels had introduced me to many of the backroads of the province and one such was the valley of the Modderlaagte, (Mud-vale) a stream that headed northwards from its headwaters in the hills that swept away westwards from the towering mountain called the Windvogelberg. The little town of Cathcart lay at its foot to the east.
A recently laid tarred road cut across these hills to join the two main arteries from East London to the interior and from the old Settler city of Grahamstown to Queenstown where they met, some fifty kilometres to the north. This new road was a substantial shortcut, to the south of which nestled the village of Hogsback, a mountainous holiday retreat, and to the north, via a little dirt road that followed the Modderlaagte from its beginning to a crossroads at Hilton.
Hilton was hardly even a village; just a couple of old Methodist churches (now both Heritage sites) that served the local farming community with an attendant vicarage, the church school and a few cottages. It stemmed from the days of horse and cart travel, so to make the trip worthwhile, a pair of tennis courts were installed, which still served as a tennis club. Sheila and I frequently went of a Sunday, despite my ineptitude at the game.
Our home in the Modderlaagte was called Lower Craik Cross, the third house in the valley. Our landlord lived in the second one. John Amos Brown with his wife Lu and two sons, Jonathan and Simon. What absolutely warm, delightful people! The area was liberally scattered with Browns descended from 1820-Settler folk that were still the majority of farmers there.
John Amos came home from the war (WWII) with one leg missing after a close encounter with a mine, but he could and did still dance most people off their feet. His farming was mixed; wool sheep, beef cattle, crops like cabbages and pumpkins, pastures, and Percheron horses. His farming knowledge was extensive, and I reckon that any farmer worth his salt has the equivalent of a doctorate from the University of Life.
When you can shear sheep, sort wool, castrate lambs, horses, calves and piglets, deal with all their veterinary problems, butcher all your household meat requirements, you know a thing or two.
When you know about seed, ploughing, planting, fertilisers and pesticides, when you can strip and repair your tractor, combine harvester, ploughs, mowers, rakes and balers, pumps and lighting plants, you are the way to being a successful farmer.
Balancing your own books and marketing your produce helps, too.
Lu and John were community stalwarts, as well; always involved in the social life of the district. John was a member of the MOTH (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) organisation, as was his son, Jonathan, who had seen active service in Angola.
If I could have chosen a father, besides my own, I would have chosen John Amos Brown.
On their farm nearest the tar road lived Denton Brown and his wife, Ollie. Both were also special folk, kind, with a huge sense of humour. Denton was a distant cousin of John’s. I have to tell you some of the hilarious tales about these folk, and shall do so soon.