Few people today can claim to have lived a life as intricately intertwined with Knysna as Margaret Parkes. The 90-year-old matriarch is not only part of two of the town’s first families, she has also written and co-written 17 books on its history and helped establish the local library and museum.

WORDS Heidi Sonnekus PHOTOGRAPH Melanie Maré

“Knysna has inevitably changed a lot over the years, but it’s still a kind place with a good heart. To me, it remains ‘home,’” says Margaret Parkes of the lagoon town, where she’s lived her whole life.

Margaret’s parents were Scots who met on a boat while her mother, Ellen Porteous, was on her way to vacation in South Africa and her father, Donald Fraser, was returning to Port Elizabeth after a visit to Britain. They were married a year later and moved to Knysna after buying the Royal Hotel.

Margaret Elizabeth Fraser was born in 1925. The little blonde girl was often dressed in a kilt and remembers “a lovely unspoilt childhood” in a town filled with “friendly and caring people”. Her excursions as a Brownie with Girl Guides leader Miss Daisy Eberhard is a particularly fond memory. “She instilled in us a deep love for nature. Together we took the Coffee Pot timber train to pick maidenhair ferns in the forest, or bluebells at Belvedere Siding,” Margaret recalls.

After matriculating at age 16, she spent two years at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape before completing a teaching qualification in Cape Town. “I had just returned from a holiday abroad in 1947 and my ever practical father greeted me with the question ‘do you have a job yet?’ Well, I did not. Politics in South Africa at the time dictated that everything had to be tweetalig (bilingual) and I did not have my Afrikaans Certificate, which complicated matters.” True to character, Margaret found a way around the problem and took up a position at the School for the Deaf in Cape Town for a year before moving on to teach at the teacher’s training college in Healdtown near Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape.

She met her husband, Bernard, heir to the Parkes timber dynasty, at the Royal Hotel while home on vacation. “He invited me to sail on his boat Dolphin that Sunday. Since there was a 10-year age difference, I was the youngest guest by far and a bit in awe.” The couple married in 1952.

“Bernard’s grandfather, George Parkes, chairman of edge toolmakers AF Parkes & Co. Ltd of Birmingham, arrived in South Africa from England in October 1891 and bought a sawmill and forest in Knysna,” Margaret recalls. In the 124 years since, the business adapted as needed to survive the time and tides of prosperity and war, natural disasters and global financial crises. The over 5000ha swathe of Knysna Forest in the care of GEO Parkes and Sons remains the only privately owned commercially harvested indigenous forest in the country.

George was an early specialist in turned wooden furniture legs, wagon parts and tool handles, and pioneered the local timber export industry. His sons, George Junior, Stephen and then Howard, who eventually became Margaret’s father-in-law, later took over the Knysna branch.

“I did not involve myself in the business much, but when abroad I kept my eyes open for ideas for novelties.” She fetches a wooden spoon from her kitchen: “We must have churned out thousands of these to sell at the Parkes Showroom. I love mine. I’ve just cooked marmalade with it. It has no hollow, so nothing sticks to it.”

Margaret’s clear blue eyes sparkle at another memory. “It was all the rage in Europe at one time to arrange little wooden mice on your cheeseboard. The mice had pins for eyes and leather tails.

“Despite Bernard’s take on the fad – ‘What damn fool things!’ – thousands of Parkes mice found their way to toy boxes, display cabinets and dining room tables around the world.”

The couple’s sons, George and Jim, were raised beside the Knysna and Swartvlei lagoons, and learnt to drive on Parkes forest roads. Pioneering heart surgeon Dr Chris Barnard owned the adjoining property near Swartvlei. One day in 1982 he popped by for permission to cross Parkes boundaries, and found Bernard feeling poorly. “Heart problems,” he concluded after a quick look, “but not to worry, I will get the best specialist in South Africa to look at you.”

Bernard’s heart, at age 58, could only sustain him for about another six months and the couple had to rethink everything they had ever valued. “Bernard wanted to see two beloved English cousins one last time. Jim – in Standard 8 (Grade 10) – and I went along. George was doing his national service at the time,” Margaret recalls.

During their stay, Bernard died in his sleep. “We brought him back and buried him in the old Knysna cemetery on the edge of town. It is sad that one cannot visit there alone these days,” she says.

By this time Margaret had started the Knysna Museum with Ros Thesen, Dorothy Burger, Allan Telford and Jean Gould. This project and her historical research helped her cope with her husband’s death. The intrepid team bagged amazing finds, like a run of the long defunct Knysna Advertiser.

Margaret is respected for her thorough research of Knysna’s history and her involvement both in the local museum (she was on the founding committee) and the town library (she spearheaded collecting historical material and all books with reference to the town). She has written and co-written 17 books on and about hidden and forgotten facets of Knysna. Her lineage and personal experience of much of the town’s history make her perfect for telling these stories, and her passion makes her an excellent public speaker.

I suggest we visit the cemetery together and her eyes light up. It is gorgeous – a peaceful and quiet place despite showing signs of neglect. “This is the Thesen-plot. Templeman… Horn… oh, here is Colonel Callcott Stevens, he used to be a magistrate,” she says as she negotiates her way briskly and purposefully through swampy grass and litter.

The Parkes-plot is neat and clear, even if surrounding headstones are overgrown. Margaret expresses sadness that such a historical site full of tourist potential seems to be of no value to the powers that be.

Despite only having five graves in the plot, the Parkes’ reach was global, with a thread of community service woven thoroughly into the fabric of their being: They were town councillors, mayors, fundraisers and development workers. Team Parkes spearheaded industry, but also manufactured wooden mice, served tea, cooked and sold marmalade and personally dusted and polished hundreds of antique books when the need arose. Margaret’s true value will only be appreciated in time, when future historians delight over the layers of her legacy – little things, many of which went unnoticed in the greater tide of the town’s history.

As for what the future holds, Margaret will be cooking marmalade, doing research and working in her gardens until she draws her last breath – that is simply how she is put together.