The long and storied history of the Montefiore windmill

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The Montefiore windmill was built as a statement. It represented more than just grain, it represented a future. As the first major permanent building erected in the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the old city, it sent a message "we are here to stay.” 

For nearly 140 years the Montefiore windmill has been a landmark to the locals of Yemin Moshe. Over that time the mill has served as a symbolic foundation, an outpost, target practice, and a tourist attraction -- it even occasionally made flour.

History of the mill

Moses Montefiore was an English Banker and philanthropist. Montefiore led an interesting life. He was a self-made man who, despite a lack of education, managed to earn a trader’s licence and enter the world of finance, only to be swindled by one of the major fraudsters of the 1800s. Undaunted, he returned to the world of business, rebuilt, and eventually teamed up with Nathan Rothschild to build a financial empire. Montefiore became active politically as an abolitionist (a fund Moses and Nathan helped put together was instrumental in leading to the abolition of slavery in Britain) and authority figure. He served as Sheriff of London for a time and then later as the Sheriff of Kent, was appointed president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews for 39 years and was knighted by Queen Victoria herself. 

But one of Montefiore’s most enduring and personal interests was in the Holy Land. A trip to Jerusalem in 1827 changed the course of Montefiore’s life providing him with a purpose and a drive that would guide him until he passed. Seeing Jerusalem firsthand have a profound effect on Moses and he described the trip to his ancestral homeland as a "spiritual awakening” and he dedicated himself to building safe, healthy Jewish communities in the area.

Using both his personal fortune and a grant left to him by a colleague by the name of Judah Touro, Montefiore launched a campaign of community building. Seeing the conditions inside the Old City as unhygienic and unsustainable, Montefiore purchased a large block of land that would become the community of Yemin Moshe. To provide a stable foundation for a town to grow, he commissioned the construction of a number of major amenities including a textile factory, a printing press, and a mill.

The mill was built in fine European style. Designed by the Messrs Holman Brothers of Canterbury, no expense was spared in the creation of the mill. While the stone to build the tower was mined locally, all of the parts and mechanical engineering for the mill had to be shipped from England all the way to a port in Jaffa (the nearest city with the facilities to handle heavy unloading) and taken by camel to Yemin Moshe. It was a Herculean undertaking, but one Montefiore saw as justified if it gave the Jewish settlers in the area a source of dependable, cheap flour.

Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Despite its fine engineering and design, use of the mill was troubled. Some reports state that the area simply never received enough wind to make it a dependable source of production. Others state that wind wasn’t the issue, but upkeep. Those expensive British parts were nearly irreplaceable, and a few breakdowns were all it took to render the mill functionally inoperable. There were also unforeseen problems with the grain supply. As the mill was designed in England, it was also designed for English wheat, a comparatively lighter grain to the dense, tough grain taken from Israeli soil. According to some reports, local grain never processed quite right in the mill. All in all, despite the expense and symbolic importance of the mill, it only operated for 18 years before being officially abandoned.

So, what became of the mill? Despite its disappointing performance, it was still too much of a local landmark to tear down, so it remained a fixture of the community. It wasn’t until the 1948 War of Independence that the mill found practical use again.  

During the blockade of Jerusalem, the Jewish fighters needed an observation post to survey enemy troop movements and the tower fit the bill nicely. They fortified the top of the tower and conducted surveillance from it, directing fighters to counter the aggressors. 

The tower became something of a sticky point and the British authorities in the area ordered it destroyed. "Operation: Don Quixote” was supposed to result in the destruction of the tower, but in a bizarre twist of fate, the British soldiers sent to do the deed recognized the name on the mill’s plaque. The commutation mentioned both Montefiore and the town of Ramsgate. The soldiers, hailing from Ramsgate themselves didn’t want to destroy a piece of their home and heritage in a far-off land, so instead they compromised. The soldiers blew up the top of the mill where the observation post was and left the rest standing. Tough but fair!

Reconstruction

In the late 2000’s, it was decided that enough was enough. The mill was an important piece of local history and it had sat disused for far too long. A restoration effort was started, but few realized exactly how much it would take to bring the mill back to its glory days. 

For one thing, the knowledge of how a mill like that was built is in scarce supply in this day of age. Expert from the (yes, still-existing) Holman company had to be brought in. They managed to track down the original over a century old design documents and recreate the damaged and missing part of the mill exactly as it would have looked when it was built.

Now the mill stands tall with white cupola topping the tower, four gorgeous sails, and a working grind stone. Of course, it also received some modern improvements such as an electric motor to power the mill when the wind is not being cooperative. 

The mill is now open to the public as a living museum. Visitors are taught both the history of mill, why it is significant to the community, and can view the milling process. After all of these years and strange twists, the mill has once again become the lynchpin in the community.  Montefiore would be proud.


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