“This town was known as Groenekloof because it was so green and beautiful,” says Ben Lottring, a retired reverend. “But in 1854, they changed the name to Mamre, a biblical name from Genesis.”
Although Lottring promises he can tell us many more stories like this, he jokes his sermons used to be so lengthy people often fell asleep. And so, after our coffee and scones at Tori Oso Restaurant, in a shop dating back to 1880, the other fascinating tales come from town resident Stienie du Plessis, who takes us on a tour.
“This little building has a big story,” she says, outside Die Bakhuisie, that dates back to 1700. “They used it as a jail to lock up prisoners and also slaves. Later on, the first primary school was here.”
Indeed, the church plays a big role in the area. The Long House – with its six doors, six windows and classic Cape Dutch gable – is now the church office space, although it served as barracks for the garrison between 1701 and 1791.
“This is one of the buildings used in the Anglo-Boer War,” Du Plessis says. “At the back, you can still see the bullet holes The Parsonage, built in 1697, was also used as a barracks for the sergeant in charge but our head reverend stays here now. It’s the oldest building in Mamre and also a national monument.”
The other national monument is the church itself. It was completed in 1818, making it the fifth oldest church in South Africa.
Things have come a long way since the first sermons under the poplar trees in Louwskloof, at the base of the Dassenberg hills, in 1808. In 1835, the town got an organ. And in 1872, it got a bell.
“It weighs around 250kg,” Du Plessis says. “There are four angels and a leaf motif. And there are two inscriptions from the Bible: one from Luke 14:17 (‘Come, for everything is now ready’) and one from Psalms 100:4 (‘Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise’).”
As we take our seats, she reflects on what services were like when she was growing up, when men, women, girls and boys sat in separate quadrants, with a partition between them.
The reverend was also the school principal. “He knew every child!” she laughs. “If you weren’t in Sunday school, your name would be called out in the schoolyard on Monday.If you weren’t in school and your parents didn’t send a letter, he’d send someone to look for you.”
That discipline is why the older generation know so many of the hymns. And the youngsters? They don’t know them because they don’t get taught those values.
“When we went to school, you had to learn everything. And when you got confirmed, you had to know the whole thing out of your head. Now they get papers to read.”
But it’s hard to complain when their church is full every week.
“We have more than 45 church organisations: a brigade, choirs, bands, you name it,” Du Plessis says. “People come from all over to ask how we do it because people overseas don’t go to church any more. They pay their church dues through the bank and their credit cards. And if you have five people in church, that’s a lot.”
One of the benefits of having such a strong community is they get support for fundraising. It was the case when they had to spend R150 000 to fix the woodwork on the bell two years ago. Du Plessis hopes it will be the same when it’s time to fix the mill.
“They started off with a horse mill in 1830,” she says. “And for all the farmers in the surrounding areas, this was the only place they could bring their wheat to be processed into flour.”
In 1938, the town replaced the horse mill with a water mill, which they later replaced with steam and then diesel. But although it stopped working in 1973, they hope to reopen the water channels. Despite the appearance that everything in Mamre is old, there’s development if you look.
“Can you believe we had a gravel tennis court here first?” says Du Plessis as we stand outside Lobensaal. “I used to play tennis when I was young. But they moved the court and built this hall here.”
The town used to use the school, built in 1876, for events but it became too small. So, they built the hall and named it in honour of Lottring.
“This whole area is a heritage site,” Lottring says. “Nothing can be changed without permission.”
Then again, in a town untouched by time, this is one story that’s better left just the way it is.
The Mamre Heritage Walk, part of the new West Coast Way Culture Route, is free but all tips and donations go to upkeep.