Helen Martins Museum

Following Helen Martins’ death in 1976, the local municipality took ownership of the property through an arrangement with her family.

Victor Dercksen, a local lawyer and writer, tells the story of how the municipality approached him around 1980 to handle the transfer of the Owl House. Helen Martins had passed away in 1976 and the house was left to her nephew, Herman Martins. “A piece of paper that was thought to be the deed of purchase was handed to me. It turned out to be only the donation of the content of the house to the municipality. The only way to lay claim on the property was to seize it for non-payment of taxes, but it turned out that a Good Samaritan had been paying the monies due.”

After intervention by the MEC for Local Government in Cape Town, the taxes were returned to the Samaritan. This paved the way for the sale of the house and an auction was organised. Nobody arrived and the municipality bought the Owl House for the final sum of R10.

The Camdeboo Municipality still owns the property today and it is administered by the Owl House Foundation.

Anne Graaff (who wrote different books on the Owl House as Anne Emslie) was instrumental in the establishment of the Owl House as a tourist attraction. Shortly after Helen’s death, and for a number of years before the formation of the Friends of the Owl House, the running of the Owl House was overseen by the municipality. Visitors were shown around on request. No restoration or preservation was done in this time.

The first group consisted of Anne Emslie, Raymond van Niekerk, Melvyn Minnaar, Louis Jansen van Vuuren, Maciek Miszewski, and a few other enthusiasts, none of whom lived in Nieu Bethesda.

After the Friends took over the running of the Owl House along with a funding partnership that was established with PPC Cement, they started restoration.

Emslie also found Koos Malgas, the last of Helen’s right-hand men, in Worcester, where he was working at that stage, and asked him to return to Nieu Bethesda to help with the restoration and upkeep.

In 1996 the Owl House Foundation, a non-profit company in terms of the Companies Act, was founded to draw local residents in as volunteers. PPC was encouraged to revive their support and they provided legal and logistical help in establishing the Owl House Foundation. An agreement between the Foundation and the Camdeboo Municipality led to the non-profit organisation taking over the daily running of the Owl House, including administration, staff and conservation and renovation of the historical building.