Great Brak River is considered by many to be unique in South Africa.
The village was started in 1859 by Charles Searle, the first toll house keeper, and since then its destiny has been closely linked to that of the Searle family and their business enterprises.
Several generations of the Searles, one of South Africa’s pioneer families, have been engaged in shoe-manufacturing. Not only did their commercial ability bring a flourishing industry to the Great Brak River Valley – this was also complemented by a sense of social responsibility.
Probably the greatest achievement of the well-known Searle family was the establishment of a prosperous, stable community in the village of Great Brak River – the “factory in a garden”.
The first known reference to the Great Brak River was made in 1730 when its banks were reached by the pioneering trek farmers. In 1745 the river became the eastern boundary of the Cape Colony in an area known as “De Verre Afgeleegene Districten”.
As the Cape Colony expanded northwards and eastwards during the nineteenth century, Great Brak River became a well-used outspan on route to George and further east. In 1850 a causeway was built over the Great Brak River. This consisted of 13 stone piers with 12 openings of 20 feet (6.1 m each) and was spanned with timber. This crossing became a toll bridge in 1852.
The village of Great Brak River was started in 1859 when Charles Searle brought his family to the then virtually unknown rural settlement alongside the flood prone river. He was appointed to operate and collect the toll which provided not only for his wellbeing, but also for the cost of maintaining the crossing.
Travellers often needed their shoes (veldskoens) repaired. Charles Searle saw an opportunity and established a small shoe factory which eventually became a dynamic industry, allowing the village to grow extensively.
The full story in pictures and text of the Great Brak River village during its Heydays from 1859 to 1920. There is a room devoted to the Searle Industries and their Military participation, a reproduction of an early Drawing-room, Kitchen and Bedroom, an extensive history of the Khoe people and the story of Modern Man which started some 200 000 years ago. During 2013/14 the museum won the coveted Best New Museum Project beating both the Hout Bay and Iziko museums. Visits to the last remaining operable 1920s hydropower station in South Africa are also conducted from here – contact the museum for more information.
The HISTORIC VILLAGE ROUTE map is available at the museum. Take a walk through Great Brak River and view the many buildings constructed before 1930 and at the turn of the century. Sun baked bricks were used for all buildings before 1920. For a do-it-yourself tour, follow the route and use your smart phone to photograph the accessible display plaques in this way you will get detailed information regarding the various buildings. Groups can contact the Great Brak River museum to arrange a conducted tour. By appointment only, please contact them a few days in advance.
The Great Brak River Museum houses artefacts, photographs and important information about the indigenous Khoisan and Khoe people, and the village of the the Great Brak River, dating back to 1839.
The Museum operates from a school house that was built in 1902, and was begun in 1975 by Russel Searle, one of the directors of Searle’s Shoe Factory, which was one of the largest industries in the village.
The staff at the museum are friendly and take great pride in talking about the prized artefacts on display. There is a particularly fine example of a “Volkwyn” chair, originally made in the area… read up about it… so interesting! As to be expected, there are many fine leather shoes in the exhibition rooms., given the pivotal role that the shoe factory played in the life of the villagers. There are many other items which catch your attention, but don’t forget to leave a donation as there is no set admission fee, and the funds would be put to good use… a sure and certain way that our heritage will be preserved for future generations!