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Maine on the Mediterranean

Restored homes commemorate a failed experiment from 150 years ago, when American Christians built a short-lived colony in Jaffa

Sara Toth Stub
August 03, 2016
Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub
Sophie Jungreis in the kitchen of her restored house in Jaffa's American Colony. Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub
Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub
Sophie Jungreis in the kitchen of her restored house in Jaffa's American Colony. Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub

On Sept. 22, 1866, a ship carrying 157 American Christians landed at the port of Jaffa. After more than a month at sea, this group had at last arrived from Maine, excited to help the European Jews who were immigrating here to settle and farm. They saw it as an opportunity to participate in the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the tribes of Israel returning to the Holy Land.

Their ship was packed with farming tools, gunny sacks of seed potatoes, and the wooden planks, window frames, and doors for 22 houses they would build in their American Colony in Jaffa.

But after less than two years, disease, homesickness, and a falling out with their leader forced most of the group to return to Maine.

In fact, the American writer Mark Twain, who visited the group during their brief stay in Jaffa, called the project “a complete fiasco” in his 1869 Innocents Abroad travelogue.

But now, 150 years after what was widely considered at the time to be a failure, Jaffa’s American Colony has come back to life, and there is a renewed interest in the story of these settlers from Maine, who started a neighborhood that played an important role in the eventual development of the state of Israel. There are ongoing efforts to honor their memory and to tell a more-complete history, one that reveals glimpses of success and the spirit of optimism behind what is generally viewed as a tragedy. Today, four of the original wooden houses have been restored, and developers continue to build residential projects in this rapidly gentrifying area to blend in with the style of the colony. One of the houses serves as a museum, and on a recent summer evening screened a film, open to the public, about the original settlers from Maine.

“These people that came here from Maine gave up so much, and they deserve to be remembered,” said Jean Holmes, who along with her husband, Reed—a historian and descendant of one of the original members of the colony—bought and restored the house that is also a museum. This Christian couple from Maine spends part of each year living in here in what they call the Maine Friendship House. “When you get to know more about the story, you can see how these Americans were a model to people in the area, and it can really inspire people to do great things.”

The story of this colony, outlined in the book The Forerunners by Reed Holmes, began on the East Coast of the newly formed United States in 1840. That was the year George Adams, a young Methodist preacher who also moonlighted as an actor in Shakespeare plays, heard an early follower of Joseph Smith’s newly formed Church of Latter-Day Saints preach in New York. The sermon about gathering up people from around the world to come to America, a promised land that would soon see the return of Jesus and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, greatly excited Adams, and he joined the new church.

“I was called by the spirit of prophecy,” Adams wrote to a friend at the time, according to one of his letters printed in The Forerunners.

This religious fervor was not unusual for its day; it came at a time in American history when many preachers made a connection between settling the new land of the American West and the imminent return of Jesus Christ, as promised in the New Testament. Adding to this excitement were reports of European Jews beginning to immigrate to Palestine, then under the control of the Ottoman empire, which many Christians in these circles saw as fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of the return to Zion.

Adams eventually left the Mormons and started his own Church of the Messiah, with the goal of helping Jews return to the land of Israel. He established several congregations around New England, as well as a newspaper heavily devoted to news about Palestine. He also emphasized that he did not want to convert Jews to Christianity—he wanted them to return to Israel as Jews.

Finally, after months of preparations and a scouting trip to the Holy Land, Adams, his wife, and their son, along with 154 of their followers, set off for Palestine from Jonesport, Maine, on August 11, 1866. The sea journey was smooth. But when they landed at Jaffa 42 days later, they were plagued with hardships. Local Ottoman government officials wouldn’t approve their occupancy of the land Adams thought he had acquired, so the group was forced to live in tents on the beach.

“For the two weeks after we arrived all went well,” Adams wrote in a letter. “But soon the hand of sickness and death reached us.” Within a month, three adults and nine children had died in an outbreak of dysentery.

After burying their dead, the colonists continued with their project, eventually moving onto the land Adams had selected and building houses. This gave hope to the early Zionist settlers in Jaffa, who pointed to the American Christians as an example of what Jewish immigrants should strive to do.

Sophie Jungreis’ house before renovation. (Photo courtesy of Sophie Jungreis)
Sophie Jungreis’ house before renovation. (Photo courtesy of Sophie Jungreis)

“How long should we regress, and stand aside, and not learn from the non-Jews?” Meyer Hamburger, Jaffa correspondent for the European Hebrew-language weekly Hamagid, wrote in 1867.

But setbacks came again for the colony when its harvest was smaller than expected and when Adams was arrested by the U.S. consul after many of his followers accused him of fraud and frequent drunkenness. Within two years, most of the Americans, including Adams, had boarded ships back to the United States.

One of the few who stayed was Rolla Floyd. He and his wife, Docia, had lost their only child, a baby, in the first few weeks after arriving at Jaffa. But Floyd was known to be a hard worker and wasn’t ready to give up; after most of his group left, he found himself with steady work driving horse-drawn carriages on the new road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. He eventually became the largest tour operator in Palestine, operating a network of hotels and carriage lines, and often accompanied the important visitors of the era, including U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Floyd was sensitive to the overriding view in the U.S. that the colony had failed and expressed this view in a letter to a relative back in Maine: “In your letter dated the 30th of June you spoke of meeting a man who said that all of our Colony returned to the States as beggars. I should like very much to know his name!”

Inside Maine Friendship House museum, in the Holmes’ house in the American Colony. (Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub)
Inside Maine Friendship House museum, in the Holmes’ house in the American Colony. (Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub)

Meanwhile, newly-arrived German Templers moved into the abandoned American houses around the Floyds’. Like the Americans, the Templers also were expecting an imminent return of Jesus, and they settled in several areas around Palestine, mainly working in agriculture and building factories and roads, laying the groundwork for the developing economy. By 1895, the Russian-German aristocrat Plato von Ustinov’s stone mansion in the colony was turned into the Park Hotel to host the growing number of Christian visitors. In another sign of the area’s emergence as a bustling hub of Christian expatriates, a group of Germans built a stone neo-Gothic style church with a steeple towering over the wooden homes.

The outbreak of WWII once again brought tumult to the colony, with the British Mandate expelling many German Templers, whom they suspected of sympathizing with the Nazis. The British military, then later the pre-state Jewish Haganah fighters and newly-formed Israel Defense Forces took over many of the buildings, which were on the front line during Israel’s war of independence.

The neighborhood then became home to a number of Jewish families who fled Jerusalem, half of which fell to Jordan in the 1948-49 war. These mainly poor residents divided the remaining American houses into apartments. Scattered among them were other fringe groups in Israeli society, such as messianic Jews, who often gathered in the neo-Gothic church.

Over the years, the area grew dilapidated, and most of the wooden houses either collapsed or were demolished due to safety hazards.

“It looked like a ghost town,” recalled Sophie Jungreis, an Israeli sculptor, who in the 1980s and ’90s often walked through the neighborhood on her way to her art studio in the nearby Florentine neighborhood. “They used to say that even the police were afraid to come here.”

But seeing the gentrification that was beginning in the area in the early 2000s, Jungreis sold an apartment she had inherited in a prestigious area of north Tel Aviv to buy the rundown wooden house built by the Floyds.

“It was full of fleas, and everything was rotten. Everything was black,” Jungreis said. “People thought I was crazy for buying it. But I just loved it. It felt like it had a lot of potential.”

Jungreis often sits in a wooden rocking chair in the restored house’s living room. Outside, grapevines and palm trees sway in the Mediterranean breeze, but inside, the wooden floors, large pine dining table, and other furnishings hark back to 1860s New England.

Accomplishing the right look for the house involved poring over Sears catalogs from that era in libraries in Montreal, where Jungreis often visits her grown children, and collecting original doors, hinges, and pieces of wood from the other houses falling into ruin in the colony, and which were eventually demolished.

“I did not throw away one piece of wood,” Jungreis said.

Today, hers is one of four remaining wooden houses, all now restored and under historical preservation orders by the municipality. One of the other restored houses belongs to Reed and Jean Holmes. Reed, 99, has spent much of his life researching and writing about the Jaffa colony after first hearing about it as a young man in Maine, when he met a then-elderly woman who had lived in the colony as a child. Along the way, Reed discovered that a distant cousin of his, Mark T. Wentworth, was aboard the ship to the settlement at Jaffa. But it was Jean, 72, who saw potential in the rotting wooden houses during her first visit to the colony area in the 1990s. After years of bureaucratic struggle, the Holmeses finally acquired one of the houses. While restoring it, they found the initials M.T.W. on one of the rafters, signaling that the original owner was Mark T. Wentworth—Reed’s relative.

“It is pretty amazing to find that we have roots in Jaffa,” Jean Holmes said. “When I look back now, I can hardly believe that we managed to get this house, and to save it.”

Sophie Jungreis’ house in the American Colony. (Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub)
Sophie Jungreis’ house in the American Colony. (Photo courtesy of Sara Toth Stub)

Scattered among the four wooden houses are some later stone buildings, some heaps of rubble, and an increasing number of new buildings. One new luxury development, called The Village, was built in the original American Colony style, with wooden shutters and porches.

It is all part of an ongoing trend to honor the past as Tel Aviv’s real estate booms. Another, more prominent example of this is the recently-restored Sarona market complex, which incorporates old Templer buildings that for years sat abandoned.

But for Jungreis and the Holmeses, it’s not just about real estate value and preservation orders, but about making sure the story of the American Colony is not forgotten. Jungreis often visits the Anglican cemetery in Jaffa, where Docia Floyd, the wife of Rolla Floyd and an original resident of the house, is buried. She weeds around the graves and makes sure the area is clean. A few years ago she helped repair the broken crosses on the tomb of Docia Floyd and others.

“These people have become part of my life, so I do what I can for their memory,” Jungreis said. “I have come to love this house and its story.”

Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.