The Story Of Oudtshoorn Is The Story Of The Ostrich

Oudtshoorn is the largest town set in the Klein Karoo, the fertile valley bounded on the north by the Swartberg, and on the south by the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains. It is a large and modern town that relies mostly on tourism, farming and the ever-present ostrich industry for most of its economic activity. Today it is home to the world’s largest Ostrich population.

It is about 55 km from the coastal town of George and is half way between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The summers are warm and dry and the winter days are sunny.

Oudtshoorn has the most sunny days in South Africa – it has 365 sunshine days, four summers and sunny, dry winters.

Oudtshoorn - surrounded by mountains

The Beginning

The area in which Oudtshoorn is situated (the town regarded as the capital of the Little Karoo) was originally inhabited by the San people, as evidenced by the many rock paintings that are found in caves throughout the surrounding Swartberg mountains.

Ostriches have been used for hundreds of years by the San for their meat and eggs. The eggs were first used as a source of food then the empty shell was used for storing water, by burying water-filled eggs.

Oudtshoorn History - Bushmen Paintings

A Farming Settlement Is Established

The first European explorers to the area were a trading party led by Ensign Shrijver and guided by a Griqua via an ancient elephant trail in 1689. This group turned back at present day Aberdeen and it wasn’t for another 100 years that farmers settled the area.

The first permanent structure of the Klein Karoo was a Dutch Reformed Church erected in 1839 on the banks of the Grobbelaars River on CP Rademeyer’s farm, Hartebeesrivier. The town grew around this church and was named in honour of the wife of the then magistrate at George, Mrs Geesje Ernestina Johanna Bergh. She was a grand-daughter of Pieter, Baron van Reede Van Oudtshoorn who was appointed Governor of the Cape Colony in 1772 but unfortunately died on the voyage out.

A small one-room school was opened in 1858, followed by the formation of a municipality and the founding of an Agricultural Society in 1859. During the same year work was also started on a larger church to replace the original small one.

A crippling drought ensued for 10 years from 1859 and caused serious poverty in the area and across the nation. When the drought broke with the floods of 1869, Oudtshoorn transformed from a struggling rural country village (plattelandse dorp) into a town of great prosperity.

NG Moederkerk - Oudtshoorn

The Domestication Of The Ostrich

Ostriches were highly prized in many cultures including the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Welsh, the French and locally, the Zulus. As a result of the hunting by man, they retreated into the dry, harsh deserts and this, combined with natural predation meant that ostriches became harder to find and the price of feathers rose. In 1821 the Cape of Good Hope exported 1 230 kg of ostrich feathers valued at 115 590 rix-dollars (R17 338). (Rix-dollar is the English term for silver coinage used throughout the European continent. The same term was also used of currency in the Cape Colony and Ceylon.) By 1858 the value of exported feathers doubled. Seeing the potential, the entrepreneurial farmers of the Oudtshoorn district pioneered the domestication of ostriches in the 1850’s.

The ostriches were farmed in large fenced off areas and began breeding. By 1865 the size of the feather crop had increased to 8 600 kg with a value of R125 000, close to what it was in 1821 (R14/kg). A high mortality rate amongst the chicks because of predators, illness and injury made this new form of farming very hazardous. This all changed in 1869 with the invention of the ostrich egg incubator, by Arthur Douglass, which reduced many of the hazards and increased production.

Mr Scholtz, the magistrate at Oudtshoorn, first introduced lucerne to South Africa by importing the seed and planting a small plot to feed his ostriches. The birds thrived on this diet and all the farmers started planting lucerne. The number of breeding birds rose from only 80 in 1865 to well over 20 000 by 1875. A boom started in 1875.

To start an ostrich farm, one needed a minimum of R10 000 capital which would cover 10 hectares of irrigated land, three pairs of breeding birds, incubators, a few sheds, some equipment and a simple farmhouse. Most farmers gathered five plumages over about five years after which the quality of the feathers deteriorated significantly.

Ostrich feather boom

The Good Times And The Bad

With so many ostrich farmers, the supply of feathers grew and there was a drop in the price. The best quality feathers were still commanding high prices, over R200 per kg in 1884 when the general price was only R16 per kg. By this time, the ostrich feather industry had become a significant factor in the South African economy. It was the country’s fourth largest export, after gold, diamonds and wool.

The slight recession did not last long and the outlook improved, then accelerated into a full scale boom. The first of the famous “Feather” palaces of Oudtshoorn were constructed during this time and because there were now so many ostriches, the laws preventing their slaughter were repealed.

The industry continued to thrive through the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the decade that followed. The first indication of problems came in 1911 with signs of overproduction and increasing competition, especially from California. The South African ostrich breeders realised that the only way they could continue to dominate the world market was to produce the best feathers in the world. This led to the fascinating hunt for and expedition to North Africa for the Barbary Ostrich. The expedition returned with 141 birds which became the nucleus of South Africa’s feather industry and cross-breeding with the Barbary Ostrich produced the double-fluff quality feathers.

Oudtshoorn History

A Boom

1913 brought a bumper crop of high quality feathers with the price of the finest double-fluff feathers reaching R650 per kg earning the country about R6 million. The ostrich feather industry would never reach these heights again.

A rich Oudtshoorn History

The Jewish Community In Oudtshoorn

During the three decades leading up to World War I, many Jews emigrated from Lithuania (towns Kelm and Shavel) to Oudtshoorn catching the height of the ostrich-feather boom bringing with them hard work and entrepreneurship. They established good relations with the Afrikaans speaking farmers, and opened trading and farming businesses. Amongst the early emigrants was Max Rose, who arrived in 1890 and after ten years became the unrivalled feather baron in the whole of South Africa.

The community with its culture and orthodox traditions flourished and became known as the “little Jerusalem of Africa”. At its height, it was among the largest Jewish centers in South Africa, with an estimated 600 families. They had two synagogues for worship, one of which is still in regular use. In 1914, when the feather industry slumped many Jewish families left Oudtshoorn after losing their livelihood.

The community was an “example of civic-mindedness, proud and loyal citizens of South Africa”. An example of the respect won by this community was that in 1886, the decision was made to build a synagogue, sponsored in part by their Afrikaner neighbours. Another indication of the high regard the people of the town had for the Jewish community was the content of an exhibit in a local museum. “Nowhere else will you find a synagogue in a non-Jewish museum”.

World War 1 and The Birth of The Topless Motor Car

In 1914, the bottom dropped out of the feather market and farmers who had been millionaires one day found themselves poverty stricken the next. A popular reason given for the collapse is that ostrich feather hats were no longer practical due to the growing popularity of motor cars, but there were other factors involved – notably the outbreak of World War One (1914-1918). At the end of the war there were still 314 000 domesticated ostriches left in South Africa but by 1930 this number had declined to only 32 000.

More Than Just A Feather

In the Oudtshoorn district, there were only 2 000 ostriches left by 1940. Thousands of birds had been slaughtered for their skins which could now be successfully treated. In the short-term skins were providing the farmers with more income than feathers and good breeding stock was becoming scarce.

After World War Two (1939-1945), the ostrich trade slowly recovered and expanded from feathers to include skins and a brand new source of income – tourism.

In the last decade, previously cheap ostrich meat has steadily increased in price because of increasing consumption in the First World War as a result of its extremely low fat content and similarity to beef. Most of the meat exported is fillet but locally it comes in all sorts of forms, with wors (sausage) and biltong (dried and spiced meat) being among the favourites.

Almost every part of the ostrich is now utilised and ostrich leather is very popular in all sorts of fashion items including shoes, clothes, handbags and most recently ostrich leather jewellery.

It seems that the history of Oudtshoorn and the ostrich will be forever interwoven.

Oudtshoorn - Ostrich capital of the World
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