The sorry saga of the American farmers of Jaffa
A short-lived American Colony in the mid-1800s later became the first HQ of the German Templers, preparing for the Second Coming, led by Peter Ustinov’s grandfather
On August 11 1866, 157 men, women, and children set sail from the port of Jonesboro, Maine on the three-masted Nellie Chapin. Members of a sect called the Christian Lovers of Zion, they were headed for the Land of Israel. And they had a mission: to develop the land and its resources in preparation for the return of the Jewish people. Armed with modern agricultural equipment, pre-fab wooden houses, and a fervent desire to succeed, they disembarked in Jaffa on September 22.
Unfortunately, their leader, George Adams, had not yet purchased the property on which they had been planning to settle. Even worse, perhaps, the site on which they pitched temporary tents on the beach was near a cemetery that held victims of the dreaded cholera. Within a couple of months, nine children were dead of infections and disease.
As soon as the land was theirs, the new settlers began assembling New England-style homes in what would be the first neighborhood outside the walled city of Jaffa. But their troubles had only begun. As many a European pioneer was to learn later on, farming in the land of Israel was nothing like farming in their native countries. Although they asked for reinforcements and other assistance from officials in Maine, nothing was forthcoming.
More problems were in store. They couldn’t harvest enough food to keep from starving, a frustrated George Adams began drinking, internal disputes were rampant, and mortality rates were unbearably high. Two years after their arrival in Jaffa, all but two dozen or so members of the American Colony in Jaffa had gone back to the New World.
In 1942, historian Reed Holmes met an elderly woman who had been 13 when the Nellie Chapin entered Jaffa Port. Waxing nostalgic, she told him about the Colony. Holmes’ imagination was fired and after decades of extensive research, he published The Forerunners in 1982.
Around the same time, Holmes organized a tour of Israel. Among the participants was one Jean Carter, a licensed construction supervisor from Massachusetts. Holmes took his group to the American Colony, where Carter was aghast to learn that the houses – which were in terrible shape – were slated for demolition. She immediately determined to do whatever she could to save these unusual remnants of early settlement in the Holy Land.
Carter was raised in a small Christian church, had a master’s degree in Jewish studies and studied Hebrew in Israel. Somehow she persuaded the government to declare the colony a site to be preserved, and received a promise that any house that could be saved would not be torn down. She even got the Tel Aviv Municipality to place a memorial plaque on the beach where the American Colony landed long ago.
Holmes and Carter eventually married. In 2002, they purchased one of the dilapidated American Colony homes that the city had planned to destroy. Today known as the Maine Friendship House, it holds a delightful museum about the American Colony that offers a fascinating look into the past – the American farming past. It begins with a movie about the American Colony, then a tour of the house, full of period items from sewing machine to pitchfork.
What’s left of the American Colony today can be found along two cross streets: Auerbach and Beer Hoffman. Besides the restored American Colony houses, there are other buildings to explore as well. For the Americans who left were replaced by 19th-century German Templers, Christians who were intent on preparing the country for the Second Coming. A fabulous villa constructed by Baron Plato Von Ustinov has become a far simpler guesthouse. And across the street stands a church that was completed long after almost every former American had left.
A major attraction is the Maine Friendship House at # 10 Auerbach Street – today a museum. The original wooden and clapboard house was so covered over with German additions that it was almost impossible to find the American dwelling underneath. And a stone addition 24 years after its construction doubled its size. As a result, after purchasing the structure, it took the Holmeses two years to recreate with the help of specialists in 19th century building restoration and preservation techniques from Maine. The result, says Jean Holmes, is a perfect restoration of the house constructed here 147 years ago.
A large American Colony dwelling across the street was sold to the German Templers in 1871 and became their national headquarters. Two wings were added to the building, which contained, besides Templer offices, a school and community hall. After they moved their headquarters to Jerusalem, the building was sold to a colorful young Russian named Baron Plato von Ustinov. He arrived with his young wife Maria, daughter of Peter Metzler, a German who had bought a number of the American Colony buildings.
Ustinov (grandfather to actor Peter Ustinov) added one story and made all kinds of architectural changes that transformed the building into something of a palace. One of the early alumni’s from the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School, Nissim Elhadif, was hired to develop a botanical garden for the hotel. That’s why the garden, now far smaller than it was originally, contains a ficus Bengali – it was brought here from Mikve, where the first was planted (see my article in the Times of Israel last week). The former American Colony structure opened as the luxurious Hotel du Park.
Among the famous people to lodge at the Hotel du Park were German Emperor Wilhelm II and his wife Auguste Victoria, who stayed in Jaffa overnight on 27 October 1898. Clients of the famous Thomas Cook travel agency, they were settled here because it was the only hotel in Jaffa that was considered suitable (his entourage stayed in the Jerusalem Hotel next door). Backers of the new German church that was to be built down the street had hoped that Wilhelm would be around for the dedication, but that was delayed because of a property dispute with the ruling Turks.
Sometime after Ustinov’s death, the hotel was sold to the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (today known as the CMJ, or Christian Mission to the Jews), which opened a girls’ high school. Eventually, in the 1970’s, Beit Immanuel became a meeting place for Hebrew speaking Messianic Jews. Today it functions mainly as a guesthouse.
Built by two Drisco brothers from the American Colony, a splendid structure next door was called the Grand Hotel. After most of the Americans left, it was bought by Ernest Hardegg, whose father was one of two leaders of the Templer group that settled Haifa’s German Colony in 1868.
Hardegg remodeled the building, turning it into a splendid guesthouse called the Jerusalem Hotel. So well-respected was Hardegg that despite his nationality he was appointed United States consular agent in Haifa and served in that position from 1871-1909.
Young people in the American Colony had plenty of fun, especially during festivities held at the home of Ackley Norton. Norton, a ships’ captain, had five children and as his status as a captain required, he owned a large and comfortable home. One wall opened like an accordion and it was here that Norton hosted festivities. One young man wrote in his diary that they partied “until the fiddle’s strings broke!”
Several children, whose parents had remained here, married within the colony. Mary Jane Clark was seven when she landed in Jaffa. She married a childhood sweetheart from the colony, and after he died, wed Rolla Floyd.
Floyd’s family had lost a child almost immediately after their arrival. A born entrepreneur, he brought a carriage from Maine. When a road was built from Jaffa to Jerusalem in 1869, he and wife Mary inaugurated the road with the first carriage to travel the distance. Floyd established a carriage service between the two cities, and founded one of the most successful travel agencies in the Middle East.
Towering above the other buildings, the Immanuel Church down the street was never a part of the American Colony and its cornerstone was only laid in 1898. When completed six years later, it was called the German Evangelical Church, and served both German Templers and the Evangelical Christians who lived in the neighborhood.
Since 1955 it has belonged to the Norwegian Lutheran Church and was renamed Immanuel. Beautifully renovated, with an organ from Gottingen Germany, the church today serves a variety of Christian denominations.
Like the German Colony in Haifa, and that in Jerusalem, here, too, the neighborhood thrived. And again, like their counterparts all over the country – many of whom had become Nazi sympathizers – the Germans in Jaffa were expelled by the British during the Second World War. The houses deteriorated and began to deteriorate. Fortunately, several were saved and restored – definitely a sight to see. And the story, known to very few, is worth hearing.
Maine House is open Friday and Saturday from noon to 14:00. No fee, donations welcome. Immanuel Church is open to visitors Tuesday-Friday 10:00-14:00.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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