The Road through the Grove: a unique project


I received a manuscript in the middle of last year, for assessment. I’d been told it was a history book (my very favourite kind of book to work on), and also that it centred on Orange Grove, a suburb in Joburg very close to where I grew up – so I was keen as a bean.

When it arrived in my inbox, the challenges became obvious. First, it had been researched and compiled by various people over two years, and had no unifying voice and little usable structure. It wasn’t just a history book – it was much, much more: a vast compendium of historical and personal anecdote, contributed by a huge variety of people, in a huge variety of styles and tones. And it was way too long: for what was intended to become a highly illustrated coffee-table book that could be shipped around the world to part of its target market of expats, 186 000 words was about three times the optimum length.

Most books that start with challenges of this magnitude don’t have a rosy future. The money, energy and time required to turn them into workable manuscripts would, for most people, seem like insurmountable obstacles. But John Burgess, the man behind this project, isn’t most people. And, as it turned out, The Road through the Grove wasn’t most books.

John is a man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. This in itself isn’t necessarily a commendable personality trait (it can make for obstinacy on an alienating scale), but John combines this with a rare ability to listen carefully and actually hear what people are saying, and trust those he employs to do what he employs them to do.

He also doesn’t scare easily. So when he got my initial email back, asking him to cut the text by at least 60 000 but preferably 80 000 words (to give this some context, that’s about the length of a standard novel), he wasn’t fazed. On the contrary, he was excited to have direction: what’s important now, he said, was that “we deliver something of great quality and that we’ll all be immensely proud of”. And after our first meeting shortly afterwards, his feedback was upbeat and optimistic: “We’ll cut/cull and deliver around 100 000 to maximum 120 000 for you to edit before the end of Sept. Enjoyed our dialogue and know we are in very capable hands.”

John was, characteristically, true to his word, and before the end of that month I’d received the amended manuscript: 117 000 words for me to get stuck into.

The months that followed were intense, as I completely restructured the book (so radically, in fact, that John admitted to me later that on receiving the first edit, in mid-November, he’d had to “sit with” the new arrangement for some days to come to terms with it), fact-checked, researched and wrote a huge quantity of material, line-edited, trimmed and cleaned up the manuscript. I completed the final edit, at a final wordcount of 75 000 words, at 5pm on Christmas Eve 2015.

In the meantime, John and his team, in consultation with Kevin Shenton, the designer, had also been sourcing, sorting and labelling photographs. That the book ended up containing over a thousand carefully selected (and, in some cases, heroically hunted-down) pictures says volumes about the amount of work this required.

I flew to Joburg to write the captions. Caption-writing (or sometimes caption-editing) is usually one of the final stages in the making of a book, and the supposition before the writing or editing starts is that the book’s design is, at this stage, finished and fixed. Not in this case, however. For four days, John, his brother Chris, Kevin, his assistant Danel, and I holed up for long hours in Kevin’s studio, identifying (and sometimes mis-identifying) people in photographs, writing captions, rewriting captions, deleting captions, moving captions…

“No more changes!” Kevin and I kept saying, as John – the man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer – found better pictures, removed pictures, replaced pictures, changed pictures…

One day four, I put my foot down. “No,” I said to John, when he asked for yet another picture to be moved. “No. I’m not moving any more pictures. We’re running out of time.” I continued working but watched John out of the corner of my eye as he quietly – almost unnoticeably – stood up, padded softly across the studio to Kevin’s corner, and bent down and had a word in his ear. “Okay,” I heard Kevin say.

“Oh my god!” I protested, outraged. “I said no, so you just went over my head and asked Kevin, and he said yes!” John smiled serenely. Kevin grinned and said, “Okay, but really now, no more changes from now on!” (For the record, they were still making changes to photos days later, when I was back at my office in Kasteel, and I was still writing, re-writing and editing captions via email.)

But finally, a few days later, “no more changes” really meant no more changes, because the book went to print.

Paging through the beautiful finished product, I believe that we met John’s challenge, to “deliver something of great quality and that we’ll all be immensely proud of”.

3 stages

Above, from left to right The original manuscript, the first-edited manuscript, and the final product, all showing the entry on the Doll House.

For more info about the book and/or to place an order, go here.


The real history of the Doll House roadhouse

In fact-checking and researching for the manuscript, I unearthed countless interesting bits and pieces, many of which couldn’t be included in the book because there just wasn’t space. But one particularly fascinating story deserves a spot here.

In the original manuscript, many theories were offered by various people as to the origins of the Doll House. “It was owned by a guy from Greece whose last name was Panos,” said one person. “The owners were the Laxens in Joburg and the St Georges in Cape Town,” said another.

I didn’t get much help online: “Tracing the history of Joburg’s oldest roadhouse, the Doll House, on Louis Botha Avenue, proved difficult, but it was built sometime during the Thirties,” opined one article.

Then, on Flickr, I found the following, posted some years ago by Helen St George in response to a 1972 photo of the Doll House in Cape Town: “My grandfather Daniel Wanberg was one of the 3 Americans who opened up the Doll House chain in 1932 – he brought the very first hamburger to South Africa… When he died my grandmother took it over. In 1954 my father, Kelvin St George, worked for the DH and took over the Cape Town branch in 1960 [until] 1982 when it was sold and then demolished. My mother [was the] daughter of Daniel and Teddie Wanberg… My mum’s sister, Billie Laxen, and her husband Peter ran the Doll House in Johannesburg.”

Using the name Daniel Wanberg as a starting point, I dug deeper, and eventually I unearthed a doctoral thesis called Transatlantic Latter-day Saints: Mormon Circulations between America and South Africa by one Booker T Alston, published by the University of Cape Town in February 2014. This little gem provided the most wonderful background to the Doll House story.

Three baseball-playing American missionaries had such a positive experience during their tenure in the country that they devised a strategy that would allow them to return to South Africa, continue to play baseball, and build a successful business. In 1936 Layton Alldredge, Clarence Randall and Evan Wright, all former Mormon missionaries and talented baseball players, journeyed across the Atlantic with a plan to make ice cream, but not just any ice cream, American ice cream that would be served at an American-styled drive-in parlour.

With no serious attachments in America, the three hurriedly made preparations to cross the Atlantic again, with Randall hastening his education of the commercial manufacturing of American ice cream at Paramount [an ice-cream company in Salt Lake City, where he was working at the time]. At the time of their departure the three businessmen, relying on Randall’s newly acquired knowledge, set out to “seek their fortunes” armed only with desire, a small amount of start-up capital – $6 000, $2000 each, according to Alldredge, [and] an undisclosed amount of which they received from a silent partner from Utah named Dan Wanberg – and a handful of Utah’s most famous ice-cream recipes…

By 1 May 1936 the partners were in Johannesburg; Alldredge got a job selling American Chevrolet cars at Dennis Motors “to put groceries on the table” while Randall and Wright went to work constructing the first Doll House. Neither knew very much about construction, but a local Mormon, Dave Banfield, gave them several pointers… That first Doll House, located in the Johannesburg … at today’s address of 377 Louis Botha Avenue, Highlands North, opened soon after the trio arrived back in the country and was operational before the end of May 1936.

The success of the drive-in ice-cream parlour was immediate and by 26 June another Doll House was ready for business in Durban. Within a year the standardised red buildings with their steep roofs and three prominent dormers, which resulted in the shop actually looking like a dollhouse, could be found in Cape Town and Pretoria as well.

In all, the three opened seven Doll Houses in South Africa during the 1930s, three in Johannesburg, two in Cape Town, and one in both Durban and Pretoria. By 1940, Alldredge reported that the business was making a net profit of approximately $60 000 per year, could produce up to 2 500 gallons of ice cream a day, including ice cream on sticks and popsicles, had opened up bakeries at several of the locations, and employed 133 individuals between their new mechanically operated factory and all the shops.

Randall was in charge of the production of the ice cream itself, Wright the sales … and Alldredge the finances. However, a crack eventually formed in the partnership due in part to the stresses caused by the Second World War as well as to a disagreement between Alldredge and Wright over the speed of expansion. The outbreak of war in Europe made it difficult for the three Americans to remain in business in South Africa because … they “were considered aliens” as well as the fact that food rations were restrictive and “it was hard to get the sugar for our ice cream”.

Dan Wanberg, the Doll Houses’ original silent partner, moved his family permanently to South Africa in 1946, when Randall and Wright sold the entire business, including the factory, the machinery, and all seven locations to him. The chain remained a fixture on the South African landscape until well into the 1970s.