Modderfontein: A Very Old Place That Needs Protection

A few weeks after I moved to South Africa five years ago, I walked into an antique shop and fell into a conversation with the owner about interesting places to visit in Joburg.

“You should really go to Modderfontein,” the guy said. “There’s an old dynamite factory there and loads of history.” He even offered to take me on a tour.

I kept this in the back of my mind for years but never got around to Modderfontein, which means “muddy spring” in Afrikaans. It sounded far away — somewhere on the East Rand. A couple of other people recommended historic Modderfontein to me over the years. But it wasn’t until last week, when I went to Modderfontein investigating tourist attractions for another project, that I finally realized what I was missing.

AECI weather station

An old weather station building in Modderfontein. I’m not sure what year it was built but according to the Modderfontein Conservation Society it was was the first weather station in the Transvaal.

I’m transfixed by the history of Modderfontein. It was founded in 1894 (eight years after Joburg) when ZAR President Paul Kruger decided the Republic needed a dynamite factory for the burgeoning mining industry. Kruger seconded a factory manager named Franz Hoenig from the Nobel company in Europe (Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite) and construction began immediately.

The factory opened in 1896 and small settlements of factory workers began to sprout up around it. Modderfontein became a village, with a school and several shops, and Franz Hoenig built a huge mansion for himself and his family.

Franz Hoenig House

Franz Hoenig House.

Eventually, after a couple of wars and new government regimes, the Modderfontein Factory came under the ownership of an explosives company now known as AECI. AECI owns the factory today (it’s still operating), and is responsible for preserving many of the buildings in historic Modderfontein. AECI also runs a small museum about the history of the dynamite industry in Modderfontein, called the AECI Dynamite Factory Museum.

AECI Museum

The AECI Dynamite Factory Museum at 2 Main Road, Modderfontein. It’s a very nice museum but only open on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 0800-1200, which is rather inconvenient. Call Martie at 011-608-2747 for more information.

I could ramble on for ages about Modderfontein’s history, but what I really want to convey is the way Modderfontein feels. When I first arrived there, I didn’t know any of the information relayed above. But I felt something. Modderfontein is quaint and quiet and green. There are huge trees everywhere. It’s surreal, really, because it feels so different — so far away — from the rest of Joburg.

Modderfontein bakery building

This building was originally the town’s bakery. Today it’s a nursery school.

Modderfontein houses

Quaint, mid-20th-century houses.

On my first Modderfontein visit, my goal was to check out the museum. But I didn’t realize it closed at 12 and I was too late, so I wandered around a bit and came back again a few days later. On that second visit I succeeded in going to the museum and spoke to Martie, the curator. Martie arranged to have Franz Hoenig House, which is right next to the museum and used only for private functions, unlocked for me.

I walked up to Franz Hoenig House and met Jones, the caretaker.

Jones at Hoenig House

Jones Segooa on the steps of Franz Hoenig House.

Jones has worked for AECI since 1972, and would like to be retired by now but apparently he is the only person anyone trusts to look after Franz Hoenig House. Jones took me on a tour through the house, which still feels 100 years old and is perfectly preserved, relating anecdotes about the rooms, the furniture, the books, the photographs.

I stopped short in the dining room, beside the massive wooden table polished to a gleaming shine.

I pointed to a picture on the wall, very unlike the rest of the wall decorations in the house. “Who’s THAT?” I asked.

“That is Mr. Dai,” Jones replied. “I guess you could say I work for him now.”

Hoenig House Dai portrait

A portrait of Mr. Dai.

Which brings me to the other part of this story. Franz Hoenig House and most of historic Modderfontein are owned by a Chinese company called Zendai Shanghai.

A couple of years ago AECI sold all the land around its factory to Zendai Shanghai. Zendai Shanghai plans to build a massive “smart city” in Modderfontein, which will include skyscrapers and house up to 100,000 people. Construction is already underway — you can see it from the driveway of Franz Hoenig House. AECI is currently leasing Franz Hoenig House, the museum, and many of Modderfontein’s other historic buildings back from Zendai Shanghai.

Mr. Dai is the founder and CEO of Zendai Shanghai. I suppose he requested that his photo be hung in the dining room of Franz Hoenig House, and as inappropriate and anachronistic as it looks, he got what he wanted. Gazing at that nearly life-size photo, I could tell that Mr. Dai is the kind of man who gets what he wants.

This all happened last Friday. While chatting to Martie I learned that there would be a walking tour of historic Modderfontein the next morning, sponsored by the Modderfontein Conservation Society. These tours only happen twice a year so my timing was very lucky.

I really enjoyed the tour, led by a passionate lifelong Modderfontein resident named Keith Martin. It was great to spend more time wandering the neighborhood and learn about the town’s history from people who have lived there.

AECI Laboratory

A former AECI laboratory building, now a security office on the AECI business campus.

Modderfontein fort

In addition to the dynamite factory, Modderfontein also housed a military barracks during the Anglo-Boer War. These are the remains of the military fort.

AECI recreation venue

This building is called “the Casino” and was originally built as a recreation center for factory management and their families. It now houses offices for Zendai staff.

While on the tour I had hoped to learn more about the Zendai development and what kind of threat it might pose to historic Modderfontein. But no one seems to know very much. Or at least no one wants to say very much. Zendai management isn’t easy to communicate with, according to Keith Martin. And although the buildings are legally protected, Keith says the preservation laws are difficult to enforce.

I’m not an investigative journalist and this post is already way too long. I don’t want to be inflammatory or alarmist, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what is really going on in Modderfontein. But I think it’s a beautiful place and the history there should be preserved. I hope historic Modderfontein gets protected. That is all.

AECI factory

One of the few glimpses I got of the actual factory, which is located on Nobel Avenue.

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14 Comments

  • Reply Gary de Beer May 20, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Lovely article Heather.

    I live just across the valley (in the shadow of Kelvin), and have visited on occasion, but have never been lucky enough to get access into the House. We (a group of Joburg Photowalkers) did once get locked in the yard because of the early closing time. Haha. We also do to the very scenic Park Runs that meander through the nature reserve there on Saturday mornings.

    My wife and daughter actually work at one of the non-governmental schools in the neighborhood, and my son is currently enrolled there too.

    The school premises used to be the old Modderfontein Hospital and the old operating theatre building is untouched complete with creepy old fixtures and implements. The kids say it is haunted, but that is another story 😉

    My point is that the school moved there not too long ago and signed longish leases with Hartland (the property management arm of AECI), but when Zendai took ownership they would only agree to single year lease agreements, negotiated annually.

    While we believe their intentions not to be nefarious in the short term, their stated aim is to develop much more facilities, including schools, and that may mean the current schools are just being ‘left’ until they are no longer part of ‘the plan’ anymore.

    A long bright future is not certain and it does affect affect morale to some degree. And I am sure the school in not the only aspect of the community that views the future with some trepidation.

    • Reply 2summers May 20, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Gary. It’s great to get more local perspective. I also almost got locked into the yard last Friday afternoon! But I tracked down a gardener to let me out.

  • Reply Derek Smith May 20, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Nice one Heather – I’ve never been to Modderfontein and I think the tiome has come

    • Reply 2summers May 21, 2015 at 6:37 am

      DEfinitely Derek, you’d find it really interesting. Pity the museum is so hard to visit because of its limited opening hours.

  • Reply Gosselin May 20, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I would love to have a tour of Mooderfontein too, with a tour from Rosebank if that does exist?

    • Reply 2summers May 21, 2015 at 6:38 am

      There are tours but they’re very limited and not from Rosebank. Contact the Modderfontein Conservation Society for more information.

  • Reply Sine May 20, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    Great post. On my way to Alexandra when I was helping the baseball team there, I’d always go past Modderfontein Road, and I’d always say the word back to me for the next few miles because it’s such a great word. Wonderful to finally learn what’s behind it!

    • Reply 2summers May 21, 2015 at 6:39 am

      I was surprised when I went there at how close it is to Alex. Only like 10 minutes away.

  • Reply all-TIM-ate May 20, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    Brilliant post – did not know that the area was steeped in so much history. who knows how long those buildings will stand once that “smart city” expands?

    • Reply 2summers May 21, 2015 at 6:40 am

      I know, it’s really hard to imagine how that area can be preserved with such a huge development around it. Crazy stuff.

  • Reply Heather Carrihill May 21, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    My husband and I grew up in Modderfontein and always said it was a wonderful place to live. We had our wedding reception in the “Casino” 52 years ago. Our parents spent most of their married lives there. We had wonderful sports facilities and enjoyed many a day at the lovely dams that used to be there. In 2004 we had a wonderful reunion at the Modderfontein Nature Reserve and were amazed at the number of people we saw from our childhood who had travelled from all over the world. It was arranged by Alan Bartram and friends of Modderfontein. What a wonderful day it was!

  • Reply Christie Collier-Mann May 29, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Modderfontein was instrumental in the Scouting Movement started by Lord Baden-Powell and as such should be preserved as is. http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol121kk.html

    I for one will keep at SAHRA until the whole area is protected as it should be, chinese or no chinese.

  • Reply chantelleburgin1 May 25, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Lovely article Heather … we are blessed to be able to run a Farmer’s Market on the grounds of Frans Hoenig Haus on the first and last Saturdays of the month. It is called the Fresh2U Farmer’s Market … check out our FB page for photographs.

    • Reply 2summers May 25, 2017 at 3:56 pm

      Oh cool, looks awesome. I’ll add it to my market list 🙂

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