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Calitzdorp history

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Calitzdorp - very early days

Calitzdorp – very early days

The history of the town began with a farm named Buffelsvlei. The area grew into a small village sometimes known as Gamkastad (Gamka Town) which developed into the town of Calitzdorp.

1689    First explorers reach the Little Karoo
The earliest recording of crossings of the formidable Outeniqua mountains from the coast to the Little Karoo hinterland by European explorers, was in 1689. Under the leadership of the Dutch ensign Isaac Schrijver, a small group ventured for seven days over the imposing Cape Fold mountains, along ancient elephant tracks through the Attaquas kloof, founding the first wagon trail into the interior. Many noteworthy explorers followed this route, including Van Plettenberg and Van Reenen. For the next180 years thousands of oxen trundled wagons along this dangerous route until the opening of the easier Robinsons Pass in 1869, six kilometers to the East.

   Quitrent System
In an attempt to enforce payment of rent for farms, and to contain the movement of the Trekboers (migrant farmers) who were moving ever further from government control, the Dutch East India Company under Governor van der Stel, revised the land tenure system and introduced the quitrent system. This system allowed farmers land tenure for a period of fifteen years.

Should tenure expire and land be returned to the government after this period, farmers were to be paid out for all fixed improvements on the property.

1757  The earliest known settler
Jacobus Pretorius was the earliest known settler in the Calitzdorp area. He settled on a farm in 1757 which he named Buffelsvlei. This name reflected the large number of buffalo in the valley and the wetlands and rivers which made the Gamka river valley such a rich agricultural area. Buffel being the Afrikaans word for buffalo and Vlei meaning wetland. It was here that the town of Calitzdorp evolved many years later.

1760  Louis Nel  was granted land in Groenfontein.

1800  Other settlers moved into the area during the intervening years and in 1800 Frederich Calitz acquired a tract of land in Buffelsvlei. Frederich Calitz was born in 1774 in George, Western Cape and was the son of Matthias and Pieternella Calitz.

Caledonkloof circa 1880s

Caledonkloof before the 1885 flood

1807    Route through mountains to Ladismith discovered
In 1807 a way through the mountains to Ladismith was found through the Rooielsboskloof and called Welgevonden (well found) because of the difficulty of its discovery.  It was Gerrit Pretorius, the son of earliest settler Jacobus Pretorius, who found his way through.

This was said to be “Nothing but the roughest track following the bed of a stream through the mountains.” Despite its dangerous terrain along a stream in a cleft between unstable, sheer towering rock walls, the new route was used extensively. Soon it became the graveyard of broken wagon wheels and scattered bones of oxen which just couldn’t make it through with their loaded wagons.

Welgevonden Pass renamed
In 1810 the pass was given a new name in honour of the then Governor Caledon – Caledon Kloof – probably with the forlorn hope that this might entice the Governor to grant funding for improvements.

1821    Calitz sons acquire land
On September 11, 1821 two of Frederich Calitz’s sons Jacobus Johannes Calitz, born in 1781 in Cape Town and Matthys Christiaan Calitz, born in 1783 in George, acquired quitrent farms in Buffelsvlei.

1826    First ostrich feathers were being harvested
It is said that as early as 1826 ostrich feathers were being harvested in the Little Karoo, but organised farming of the birds did not start until many years later.

Buffelsvlei first subdivision map 1834

Buffelsvlei first subdivision map 1834

















1834 Buffelsvlei farm first subdivision
(Note the name Kangorivier)



Buffelsvlei farm - map

Buffelsvlei farm – map










1847 map of Buffelsvlei


1853    Land acquired for a church and school

The devoutly religious farmers of the area made long, gruelling trips to attend monthly  ‘nagmaal’ (communion) services at the nearest church in Oudtshoorn, more than forty kilometers (26 miles) away. To ease this situation, the community collected sufficient funds to start building their own church and much wanted school – around which a village would grow.

1855    Church building starts – the start of the town
Work on the church started in 1855 and as with so many little villages at the time, building a church was inevitably the start of the development of a village.

   Although long thought that the Calitz family had donated the land on which the church was erected, official records show a transfer document dated 16 July 1856, wherein 3 morgen 132.5 square roods (later erf 547 on which the church was built) was sold by the three owners of Buffelsvlei – Frederik Calitz, J J S Geyser and M C Calitz, to the Church Committee for £22.10 shillings. This information is recorded on page 18 of the book– ‘Ned. Geref. Kerk Calitzdorp 1873-1973’  compiled by HC Hopkins to celebrate the church’s centenary.

1857    Town’s greatest development starts – new church and school
The completion of the Dutch Reformed church building and establishment of the church school in 1857 brought about rapid development of the town. WJ Hansen was the school’s first teacher and the house ‘Die Langhuis’ in Queen Street was built as his residence.

   Further land made available
In 1857, a year after the opening of the church a further 2.4 hectares (5.9 acres) of adjoining land on Andries Pretorius Street was made available to the church. This land was proclaimed in 1857, divided onto plots and made available to members of the church congregation. This extended area covered mostly what became Church, Potgieter. Lourens and Fourie streets, and probably – on the opposite side of, and below the church – Queen Street.


Matthys Christiaan Calitz Death Notice

Matthys Christiaan Calitz Death Notice

1858    The first erven were sold in 1858 and ‘Nagmaalhuisies’ were built opposite the church above Andries Pretorius street to house farmers and their families during the time of Nachmaal. These cottages were typically very small with minimal space.

Queen Street was the town’s first ‘main road’ where the small permanent population settled in their larger, more gracious homes. Queen Street with its appealing, diverse architecture became the most desirable part of town.

1860  November   Christiaan Matthys Calitz dies

Click document to enlarge


1860s  Lucerne
Lucerne was first grown as ostrich fodder in the Calitzdorp area in the mid 1860s.  Having been brought to this country from South America in 1861, it was first planted in the Worcester district and quickly spread to the Little Karoo. Farmers were now able to farm ostriches intensively, sharing in the first feather boom of 1865-1870.

1869    Arthur Douglass’s ostrich incubator
caused a stir in the Little Karoo and farmers started fencing their lands to farm ostriches more intensively.

looking down Queen street towards town

Looking down Queen street towards town

    Mr Burdett opened Calitzdorp’s first shop

1873    Church became independent
The congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had become independent of the mother church in Oudtshoorn in 1873, continued to grow. This necessitated the enlargement of the original church building.

    Richard van Reenen Barry, born in 1849 in Swellendam, became the first preacher of the now independent Dutch Reformed Church. He served the community for 40 years from 1874 to 1915 and this was his only parish. He died in 1920 aged 71 years.

1880    Inauguration of enlarged church building
, and opening of ‘second’ school

1882    Investigative Survey for path though mountains
Movement of the larger population and produce between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn was not too difficult, but access to Ladismith to the west was nearly impossible. The only exit through the precipitous mountains to Ladismith was via the truly frightening Caledon pass.

An investigative survey to try and find a suitable route was done in 1882.

1882    Feather farming peaks and dips
In 1882 ostrich feather farming reached its peak. but although the industry flourished almost until the first World War in 1914, there was during this time a damaging low dip..

1882    Periodical court established
A periodical court was established in 1882. This dealt mainly with disputes between farmers over farm boundaries and water rights, and petty theft.

1883-1886   A dip in demand for feathers

Andries Pretorius street

Andries Pretorius street

A dip in demand for feathers between 1883 – 1886 bankrupted some of the Buffelsvlei farmers.

Despite problems in the feather industry, the settlement’s agriculture and commerce seemed  to be fairly sound with – among others – five retail shop owners, a butcher and an auctioneer.

1885    Floods ruin pass initiative
Floods in May 1885 destroyed the track and eliminated any chance of turning the Caledon Kloof into a suitable permanent pass.  It was probably at this time that the Caledon Kloof was given its next name of Verkeerdekloof!  (Wrong kloof)

1893    Planning starts on Nel’s river (
formerly known as the Kangorivier) irrigation dam
Irrigation had been practiced in Calitzdorp for almost 100 years before the first steps were taken towards the planning of the Nel’s river dam in 1893. The Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 brought progress to a halt

Huisrivier Pass built
In 1896-1897 The Divisional Councils of Calitzdorp and Ladismith combined to build the Huisrivier Pass which replaced the treacherous Caledon Kloof route. Remnants of this early road can still be seen today.

second school

Second school

1898  A second,
much larger school built next to the church to replace the original.

1899    Village Management Board
In April 1899 a three man Village Management Board was elected. This Board managed the town until Calitzdorp was officially proclaimed a town in 1909.

Anglo-Boer War
The 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer war disrupted South African life. Young Boer hero, Commandant Gideon Scheepers and his men, who wreaked havoc on the British with their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, were in the area during this time, once evading capture by the British by escaping along the gorge of the river at Matjiesvlei.

1909    Calitzdorp proclaimed a town
In 1909, more than 150 years after the first Europeans started farming in the area, Calitzdorp was officially proclaimed a town

Standard Bank building c 1929

Standard Bank building c 1929

1910    Standard Bank
In 1910 work started on the Standard Bank building and house on the corner of Geyser and Van Riebeeck Streets. This building today houses the Calitzdorp Museum. In 1923 the Standard Bank manger was a Mr Frost.

1910  New Dutch Reformed Church building starts
With the population having grown to more than 4000 by 1910, the congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church had grown to such an extent that the building of a new school and a much bigger church was planned. The old church building was demolished in 1910. The foundation of the new church was laid on the 17th December 1910

1910  The town hall was built

1912  Church and school buildings completed
Both projects – the completely new church and school buildings, were completed in 1912.

  Inauguration of the new church
26 April 1912. With great excitement in a festive atmosphere the beautiful new stone church with its lovely organ, acetylene gas lighting, tall bell tower housing the clock from Holland and five enormous donated bells cast in Germany, was inaugurated. At the time of the church’s inauguration, newspaper reports still referred to Calitzdorp as ‘Gamka Stad’.

wall under construction

Dam wall under construction

1913  Construction starts on Calitdorp Nel’s river irrigation dam
In 1913 construction finally started on the Calitzdorp dam on the Nel’s river. This dam was the first mass concrete wall dam built for agricultural irrigation purposes in South Africa – a meritorious achievement!

1913 Municipal status
Calitzdorp was granted Municipal Status in 1913.

   Saturday 28 March 1914 the first Afdelingsraad Calitzdorp was held.

1914  World War 1 – Feather industry collapses
The euphoria was short lived. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the frivolity of high fashion feathers was no longer relevant in England and Europe and with markets suddenly non existent, the ostrich feather industry collapsed, ruining many local farmers.

1915  Great drought
In 1915, not even a year after the collapse of the feather industry, the Little Karoo suffered the worst drought recorded.

1917  Church gives alms
Due to the feather crash and drought, conditions were so bad that in February 1917 the Dutch Reformed Church Council granted amounts of between 5 and 10 shillings to 43 extremely impoverished families.

Dam + wmDSCF1684

1918  Completion of dam
The dam was completed in 1918. The inclusive cost of the concrete work was thirty-six shillings per cubic yard and the all inclusive, total cost of the dam was £168,053.18.07. At the early 2015 exchange rate that would make total cost just under R3 million! A vast sum in those days.

1918  Great flu epidemic
As if all this was not bad enough, in 1918 the great Spanish flu epidemic hit. More people around the world died of this flu than all those killed in the 1914-1918 war. South Africa was the fifth worst affected country in the world, and almost as many South Africans as Americans died.  Calitzdorp was not spared, and the beautiful double storey building at number 1 Queen Street was converted into a hospital for the duration of the epidemic. It is also rumoured that many workers on the dam site contracted this deadly ‘flu and were treated in a hastily erected little field hospital on a koppie opposite the dam wall. Fearing the spread of the disease, those who died were buried right there. If this historical episode did happen, it seems to have been completely forgotten and the graves are no longer visible.

1922  Dam overflows!
The Calitzdorp Nel’s river dam overflows for the first time on 19 March 1922.

20 November 1924 - the first train , rail line opening day

20 November 1924 – the first train , rail line opening day

1924 Railway line reaches Calitzdorp
The South African Railways branch railway line built to transport produce between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn was opened in November 1924 by the Hon. C. W. Malan. Malan was the first Minister of Railways of General Hertzog’s Nationalist Party, (which won the election of 1924). The line is a narrow gauge track, sometimes known as “Cape Gauge’ and is 3ft 6” / 1,067mm wide.

Rooiberg Pass

In 1928 the Rooiberg Pass, south of Calitzdorp and halfway to Van Wyksdorp was built. This was part of a Government funded, relief works program; creating jobs to help alleviate Great Depression poverty.

1930   Tornado and Storm
A violent tornado hit Calitzdorp on the afternoon of Saturday 25 January 1930. Hail, cloudburst rain and screaming winds completely destroyed the crops, blew roofs off buildings, flung a shed into the air over other houses, derailed and pushed the steam engine over the buffer berm at the station and destroyed the beautiful poplar trees which had lined Queen Street. One person – a long standing Calitzdorp resident and attorney, Mr ‘Jurie’ Nel was washed away and drowned.

old magistrate's office

Old magistrate’s office

Calitzdorp became a Magisterial district. The original Magistrate’s office was built on the krans, date of the building is not known.

1937  Electification
A great sensation was the switching on of electricity in Calitzdorp on 24 May 1937. Street lights and the church bell tower also had lights! The official inauguration of both the electricification and irrigation schemes – two of the towns greatest events – were celebrated on 14 July 1937. The ceremony started with Mrs Conradie, the administrator’s wife, switching on coloured lights outside the town hall – being encouraged to do so by being asked to “dinges aan te dinges” !  (Thingy on the thingy!)

Just as an aside – this was the same year that the electricity supplier Eskom moved to its new head office building in Johannesburg. At twenty-one storeys high Eskom House was, at that time, the highest building in the country.


1943  Queen Street tarred
At the instigation of Dr Jannie Nel, Queen Street was tarred in 1943 by one Mr Broodryk. Queen Street was Calitzdorp’s first main road which joined up with the Old Oudtshoorn road. This Old Oudtshoorn Road  was called  “the Road to Little Jerusalem” by the locals because of the many Jews who lived in Oudtshoorn at the time.

1945  Ostrich industry
Starting in 1945 every effort was made to reinvented and revitalise the ostrich industry.

1943   1946  Concrete road – section from Oudtshoorn
The District Councils of Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp combined to construct the concrete
road between the two towns. Oudtshoorn DC undertook the construction of the first 15.5 miles (29.95 kilometers) from Oudtshoorn to the Calitzdorp district boundary between 1943 and 1946.

cement road general view

Cement road general view

1947   1954 Concrete road – section to Calitzdorp
Calitzdorp District Council undertook the construction of the concrete road between the Oudtshoorn district boundary and the crossing of the Gamka river at the foot of the Huisrivier Pass some eight kilometers west of Calitzdorp town. This 19 mile (30.58 kilometre) long section was constructed between 1947 and 1954.

Although this was not the first concrete road in South Africa as has often been claimed, it would appear to have been the longest concrete road in the country – by far – at that time.  See more

1950  Ostrich industry
Earlier efforts were paying off and by the1950s the ostrich industry had started to improve.

1951  Survey for permanent pass though mountains
In 1951 surveys to find a good permanent route through the mountains to Ladismith were started.

1954  Bergsig
Although the municipality had erected two houses for some of their workers, accommodation was desperately needed.

In 1954 the first twenty houses were completed in the Municipal housing Scheme of Bergsig Township (Mountain View). Developed under the Group Areas Act of 1950 for the coloured community of Calitzdorp, the township is sited on the north western portion of the original farm Buffelsvlei and looks out to the Swartberg mountains.


1960s  School  
In the late 1960s a completely new school building and boarding hostel were built behind the 1912 school.  When the new buildings were completed, the old school was demolished.


Plaque 1966DSCF01361966  Huisrivier Pass 
After a number of years of difficult work the newly reconstructed and resurfaced Huisrivier Pass was officially opened on the sixth of May 1966. The contract length was 16 kilometers in total, of which seven kilometers were the pass proper. The consulting engineers were Kantey & Templer, the contractor A. G. Burton and geologist Bruce King.

1967 Bergsig
A further seventy houses were completed in Bergsig in 1967

1970  First ostrich leather tanned in
South Africa
With assistance from overseas experts, the first ostrich leather was processed at Klein Karoo Oudtshoorn in August 1970. This greatly expanded opportunities for the Calitzdorp ostrich farmers.   


1971 School
On the 24 September 1971 the spacious new school was opened by Mr S Theron, the Director of Education.


1972  Bergsig
In 1972 another twelve houses were built in Bergsig


1974  Bergsig
In 1974 forty more houses were built in Bergsig. The community hall was built in the mid seventies.

1977  Bergsig
In 1977 a further seventy five houses were completed in Bergsig.

1977  Bergsig total houses
By the end of 1977 Bergsig consisted of 217 sub-economic homes built to standard specifications, and an economic home ownership section. This section of larger, modest to ample privately erected dwellings was sited to the north east of the suburb, overlooking the Nel’s river.  There was also a school, sports ground, community centre and church.

1978  Route 62
Work on the new Route 62 road was started in 1978. A narrow strip of land down Voortrekker road was expropriated and a number of original houses demolished to widen the road. Route 62, as it passes through Calitzdorp, is Voortrekker Road, but in earlier years it had been known as Bloekomlaan (bluegum avenue) for the trees along its verge. This new road was to become Calitzdorp’s third successive main road, the first being Queen Street and the second Andries Pretorius Street due to its connection with the the conrete road built in 1950-54.

1991 Dutch Reformed Church declared National Monument
On 22 February 1991 the imposing sandstone Dutch Reformed Church was declared a National monument – now known as a Provincial Heritage Site.

1993 Closure of Calitzdorp branch line
In 1993 the branch railway line between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp was officially closed.

Last ever steam train on the Calitzdorp line

Last ever steam train on the Calitzdorp line

   The last-ever steam train did the Oudtshoorn – Calitzdorp run as a unique Union Line day trip for a group of steam-train enthusiasts on 13 August 1997.The engine that day was a class 19D No 2753. This run took place just over four years after the official closing of the line.

2009   2011 drought
A serious drought saw the level of the Calitzdorp Nel’s River dam drop to a worrying low, but good water provision management ensured continued irrigation in the area.

2009   New supermarket building completed in August 2009.
A long awaited new supermarket was erected on the main road, but remained unopened for four years due to the municipality’s inability to provide electricity.

2012    Huisrivier Pass – leopard sighting!
Between 2012 and 2013 the Huisrivier Pass underwent major upgrading. Much to the excitement of locals and delight of conservationists, there was proof that leopards are still resident in the gorges and kloofs of these mountains.  To the astonishment of the workers managing a stop/go point on the construction site, a leopard crossed the road right in front of them.

2013    Supermartket opens
The new supermarket finally opened its doors in July 2013.


Bergsig extension 2013

Bergsig extension 2013

2013 Bergsig extension
250 sub-economic houses were completed in a newly developed extension to the northern end of Bergsig.


2016 Bergsig extension
At the beginning of the year work was started by contractor ASLA on the construction of a further 100 houses in Bergsig, at an estimated cost of eleven million rand.


If one can look beyond the litter and crumbling town infrastructure, it might be possible to repeat the description of Calitzdorp by a visitor in 1857 :

– “this romantic and beautiful spot“.