An American colony in Jaffa

An American colony in Ja

jaffa colonists 248.88 (photo credit: )
jaffa colonists 248.88
(photo credit: )
Of the many luxury housing projects rising up in southern Tel Aviv, one - named "The Village" - takes its inspiration from a curious source. In 1866, a small band of American Christians established a tiny colony on the empty sands outside Jaffa's city walls. Led by a controversial and charismatic preacher, they believed they could hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by encouraging Jewish resettlement of Palestine. Today, all that remains of the tiny colony - located between Jaffa and the Florentin neighborhood - are four and a half wooden buildings, which predate the modern State of Israel, and the city of Tel Aviv itself. One of these structures was restored in 2002 by Maine residents Reed and Jean Holmes, and transformed into a museum. David Bolton, grandson of Reed Holmes, explained that the Jaffa Colony's story begins in 1866 in Jonesport, Maine. It was the brainchild of George Jones Adams, a Shakespearian actor and Methodist preacher turned Mormon missionary. When the Mormons excommunicated Adams, he decided to found his own church and establish a colony in the Holy Land. Adams was a charismatic man, and he had no difficulties in gathering around him a group of believers willing to leave their homes and build a new life in the Palestine. Interestingly, the growing Zionist movement in Turkish Mandate Palestine responded positively to Adams' plans. A correspondent for the Jaffa-based Zionist newspaper Hamagid reported the "important news" of the colonists, and praised their "noble purpose… to pave a way for the Children of Israel to make possible their return to the land of their fathers." Hamagid even printed a letter from Adams, who called on Jews to join in the effort. Mrs. Adams, "a large-sized lady with a decidedly military manner," was herself determined to transform Palestine into a "fit place for the residence of the Jews" using the very latest in US agricultural technology, and boasted of such wonders as "Johnson's patent shifting mold-board and gangplow." Adams was a colorful and controversial figure in Maine, attracting followers from mainstream churches to join his congregation, but some Americans reacted to the proposed colony with incredulity. American missionary Mr. H.H. Jessup poured scorn on the idea, dismissing it as a "down-east attempt to get further east," and predicting that the colonists would find the Holy Land "too hot for them in more senses than one." The US Consul in Jerusalem wrote a letter attempting to dissuade these "deluded people from such an insane undertaking." Yet Adams would not be dissuaded. Early one August morning in 1866, he and his group of 156 followers set sail from Jonesport, Maine aboard the three-masted clipper Nellie Chapin. Their destination was the ancient port city of Jaffa, then part of Turkish Mandate Palestine. Among their cargo was lumber for 22 modern prefabricated homes, and state of the art agricultural equipment. ON SEPTEMBER 22, 1866, after 42 days at sea, the Nellie Chapin arrived at Jaffa Port and the colonists set up a temporary camp on the beach. But almost immediately they were beset by problems. Within 6 months, 20 had tragically perished from disease, possibly due to contaminated water supplies. Despite the disease outbreak and harsh conditions, the colonists set to work building a little piece of Maine outside Jaffa's city walls. The traditional Maine-style wooden buildings, which optimistically included a hotel intended to house potential tourists, were described in reports as large and "very comfortable … some of them finished in a tasty manner." However, reports began to trickle back to Maine that things were not going as well as expected. There was no rain, and the crops failed. Disease was rife. Jaffa locals were apparently bemused by the colonists' ultra-modern plows, and refused to hire them as farm laborers. By October 1867, an appeal for financial aid was made via US newspapers, but received only a single dollar. Some colonists began to try to return home. In his travelogue Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain noted his encounter with 40 colonists who boarded his ship at Jaffa, in a bid to escape to Egypt. The colony, Twain wrote, was "a complete fiasco." A fellow passenger of Twain's, Moses Beach of the New York Sun, was so moved by his compatriots' story that he gave them $1,500 to finance their passage home to Maine. By the 1880s, most of the original colonists, including Adams, had abandoned Jaffa. However, some who stayed on became successful, even well-known. David Bolton explained that the Jaffa colonists even founded the Middle Eastern tourist industry. Herbert Clark became a representative of Thomas Cook tours and was named honorary US consul for the Holy Land. Rolla Floyd, whose house still stands, mastered Arabic and became a famous dragoman - an official tour guide, interpreter and translator, who led tours for dignitaries including US General Ulysses S. Grant and the Austrian Emperor. By the turn of the century, however, the Colony's wooden houses were sold - to German Templers - and eventually left to decay. It was one of these wooden houses that Reed and Jean Holmes purchased. "When they called about the purchase, they were told the house was scheduled for demolition the following week," David Bolton relates. Through sheer willpower, determination and skill, Reed and Jean halted the demolition and employed craftsmen - including an Amish carpenter - to restore the house. The museum has received Preservation Awards in both Israel and Maine. Today, the legacy of the short-lived Jaffa colony lives on not only via the museum, but also via the inspiration that it has given to a team of Israeli architects. Architect Michal Kimmel-Eshkolot designed the new residential complex, "The Village," which is built on the same land as the original colony. "The Village project took inspiration from the past," says Kimmel-Eshkolot. "We used a lot of details from the historical homes, and the piazza itself contains one original building." Yet times have changed: A four-room house in the original Jaffa Colony cost $16 a year in rent, while apartments in the new complex cost NIS 5.5 million. The Maine Friendship House Museum, Auerbach Street, Tel Aviv, is open to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. - 3 p.m. Telephone 03 681 9225.