Varsfontein’s Blue Hen

by | Sep 4, 2013

Robyn Louw chats to Varsfontein Stud’s Emily Fredericks


I was one of those lucky children who grew up under the kitchen table, marvelling as the old Aga was filled with coal, listening to the chatter and learning the family folklore (and a few other things!) as bread was kneaded, meals were prepared and chores were done. Children were dressed and made presentable for the grown-ups and visitors and dispatched back to the kitchen when they got too trying or fractious.

But it was there that most of our life skills were learnt. Kids were taught slowly and with infinite patience. We hatched eggs, raised chicks of various descriptions and prepared bottles for the legions of ‘hanslammetjies’, orphan puppies, kittens and all manner of farm animals that needed an extra bit of help in starting life.

We entertained ourselves with swims in the river and games of hopscotch, etched in the

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dust with sticks. We ate what grew in the garden – no pre-packed Woolies salads and sandwich meats.

We drank water from the tap (frequently straight from the hose!) or homemade lemonade and Coke was strictly a treat. It felt like terrible deprivation back then of course, but the rhythms of the farm, both in and out of the kitchen, cultivated an appreciation for the small things in life – a cold drink on a hot day, mosbeskuit fresh from the oven, kindness, warmth and laughter.

I was lucky to meet a fellow member of this fast disappearing era at Varsfontein recently, a lady by the name of Emily. While you won’t see

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her nominated for any ‘Champion Broodmare’ awards, if there has ever been a blue hen in our industry, I think Emily might be just about the best example around.

About Emily

Emily Fredericks was born on Dagbreek farm in the Western Cape late in around 1940. Both her parents worked on the farm and Emily started lending a hand early, foregoing her education in favour of earning a living. She married Gert in the early 1960’s and they both lived and worked at Vrede en Lust, where Emily did domestic work and husband Gert helped work the land.

Their first son, Hendrik, arrived shortly afterwards. He was followed in fairly short succession by Karel, Pieter, Simon, Gert jnr and Frikkie. Emily’s husband gradually lost his ability to work and she became the sole breadwinner. The couple relocated to the farm Vreugens and as a house full of children is hard to manage, the eldest, Hendrik, spent a lot of time with his uncle and grandparents, who then worked for the De Jagers on nearby Varsfontein farm.

With encouragement from her family, Emily came knocking on Carl and Amanda de Vos’s door one evening asking for work. Carl says it was a bitterly

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cold and rainy Cape winter’s night. Emily had a disabled husband and 6 young children. As potential employees go, it was a lot to take on. But their son Pierre had just been born and they needed some help around the house and well, something about her just appealed somehow.

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And so Emily joined the de Vos and Varsfontein family.


Emily slotted in seamlessly, picking up the housework and taking care of Pierre and Ben when he arrived a few years later. When the family went away on holiday or had to travel to away sales, without being asked, Emily’s bags would appear neatly


She speaks slowly and shyly and with a wonderful vernacular that includes words like ‘kooi’ and ‘klong’. She and explains matter of factly that when she joined Varsfontein it was still during the time of ‘baas’ and ‘nooi’ – before ‘meneer en mevrou’. But she loved working there and tells of the trips away and wonderful Christmas parties where Carl would braai for all the staff.

She loved the de Vos children and her own family flourished on the farm. The younger boys followed Hendrik’s lead and were soon helping with the horses in the afternoons and school holidays.

It’s in the Genes

Eldest son Hendrik (who has the wonderful nickname of ‘Langbek’) has worked at Varsfontein on and off for most of his life. Karel also learnt the ropes at Varsfontein and then left to join Wilgerbosdrift about 10 years ago, where he worked his way from the ground up and is now a manager and one of their most respected members of staff.

Karel and Gert at Wilgerbosdrift

He is the tall, softly spoken man who is usually seen organising the Wilgerbos string at local sales. The third son Pieter (also known as ‘Plastic’) started out at and Arc en Ciel and now works at Hemel ‘n Aarde. The next son, Simon, was the only one to complete school and go to college.

He chose a life away from the farm and joined the police force in Wellington. It’s a very different life, muses Emily, and reflects that Simon’s children have grown up as town kids, rather than farm children.

Gert jnr started his working life at Arc en Ciel before joining brother Karel at Wilgerbosdrift and is now the head driver, taking the mares to all their stud appointments and driving the farm’s consignments to the various sales around the country. Both Karel and Gert are part of the Wilgerbos grooms consortium responsible for last year’s Summer Cup winner, Wagner. Youngest son Frikkie is also a long-standing part of the Varsfontein team.

As if 5 of your 6 ‘progeny’ working as senior members of staff on some of the most prominent stud farms in the Western Cape isn’t enough, it seems that horses run in the blood as the third and fourth generations are also showing an aptitude for working with horses. We all know that bloodlines matter and it seems that if you’re looking for a good stud man, you don’t have to look much further than the “E” line !


Emily finally retired at the age of 66. Her husband Gert passed away in 2010 and she still lives at Varsfontein. Although she takes life slightly easier these days, she still keeps a handle on the goings on on the farm. She is a staunch church-goer and keeps busy with her church group and helping out with charitable initiatives such as preparing food for the local children a few times a

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week. And of course she likes to keep up to speed with what the family are up to.

She is very proud of her sons and what they’ve achieved and also enormously grateful for the opportunities that the racing and breeding industry have offered them. I comment that it really is remarkable for one family to have such an affinity for horses.

I ask her about Wagner and whether she’d watched his win in the Summer Cup. It sounds vaguely familiar, but she’s not really sure. When I ask whether she follows the horses she shakes her head. It’s not really her thing. “Maar ooo, die kenners is erg oor

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die perde!”