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From left to right - Steve van Vuuren , Prof. Willem Ahlers, Harry Dickinson

History comes full circle at The Old Mill


At Machadodorp’s Old Mill Hotel, history is important. The owners, Harry and Jenny Dickinson, both have a strong sense of ‘roots’ and ‘tradition’ and firmly believe that history and the lessons of the past still have great value – as well as a place in our modern society. A quotation from the works of the famous satirist W.C. Sellar (1898-1951) would perhaps be the most applicable - “History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember!” Any visitor to The Old Mill (which, in itself, actually was a mill, back around the turn of the century) can tell you that Harry has a long memory for all things historical and is a wealth of information on Machado’s past. He can also attest to the fact that history often has a curious way of coming full circle.


So it was that, recently, the Old Mill welcomed guests in the form of two retired gentlemen from Johannesburg who had come down Machadodorp for a few days. The two friends – Professor. Willem Ahlers and Mr. Steve van Vuuren - are neighbours in the same retirement village and recently discovered that they shared similar roots in Machadodorp and the surrounding areas. As they both have an enviable surfeit of leisure time, one thing quickly led to another and a trip “down memory lane” to Mpumalanga was organised to re-visit childhood haunts. As fate would have it, the two had the good fortune to book in with Harry & Jenny at The Old Mill.

The photograph


No sooner had the two arrived when Prof. Ahlers’ own family history surfaced to greet him in the form of an old portrait photograph that, among many others, which had been framed and was displayed (right outside the door to his suite) in the corridor outside the Old Mill’s guest suites. Instantly, Prof. Ahlers recognised the subjects in the photograph as being his own mother, aunt and uncle! The caption on the print read “Die Drie Janson Kinders” and confirmed beyond doubt the identities of the subjects. (Janson was Prof. Ahlers’ mothers’ maiden name. It is thought that the photograph was taken in the very early 1900’s and Professor Ahlers was both amazed and extremely pleased to come across this completely co-incidental example of the very same family history that he and his companion had come to Machado to explore – without even having to leave his hotel!


In a subsequent interview with THG, Professor Ahlers revealed that he had, in fact, been born in Middelburg in 1929 but had spent the early part of his childhood in Dullstroom before moving with his family to Machadodorp. The Prof. related with a smile that his father, Danie Ahlers, was a well known resident in Dullstroom and had opened the very first garage in the village – even before the first motor car had arrived in Dullstroom! “He did not actually have any cars to put in the showroom when he first opened the garage,” he said. “so he put a piano there to fill up the space until he got his first vehicle. He subsequently sold the piano to a lady who was the local music teacher. That lady was to become my mother!”


Prof. Ahlers was schooled in both Machadodorp and Belfast before studying chemistry at the University of Pretoria. He went on to study at Cambridge as well as in Paris before lecturing for many years at Wits until his retirement in 1989. In all those years, he had, in many ways, lost touch with his early family history and had not returned to the town of his youth until January 2014 – little knowing that a poignant reminder of his own history had been patiently waiting for him for all those years. A historical full circle indeed.

Joachim Machado

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