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To preserve and to educate – Minkov orchard

  • 03.07.2018
  • |

To preserve and to educate – The history of the Minkov orchard

By: Carmit Rappaport – Manager of the Minkov orchard site in Rehovot
Keren Reish – Education coordinator

There are many different roles and substantial options for development for cultural constructed heritage. One of the main roles is to equip knowledge and to give visitors to the site the skills to learn about an era, a way of life and technologies far gone from this world. These objectives are conditioned on the way the site is preserved, its activity, and the experience and curiosity it arises in the visitors.

In cases where the site is located at the heart of an area under developmental strains, it receives another role – to act as a ‘different view to the environment in which it lies. In such cases, the site’s façade, its visual uniqueness and its physical difference from the texture where it is located affect its importance and the way it is treated by visitors and people passing by. This situation often creates interest with different organizations, which are willing to cooperate to preserve the site, to highlight its uniqueness and encourage its development.  This process is shared by local authorities, state authorities and private organizations, which all request to enjoy the site financially, educationally and culturally, but also to enjoy its perpetuation – the recognition of its role to immortalize an era and its related characters, and its ability to convey messages.

The Minkov orchard in Rehovot shares all these attributes. The site is different in its colorful façade than the modern buildings of the science and industry park located next to it, and it is managed by two municipalities – Rehovot and Ness-Zionna. It is located next to the Rehovot bypass road and the promenade which is frequented by both pedestrians and cyclists, and therefore represents a Jewish Biara (Well-house): orchard buildings bound within a wall, which include water and irrigation facilities that characterized Arab orchard owners in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries. Perpetuation has an important role in the site’s conservation and development.

Purchasing the land and founding of the Minkov Biara

In 1904, Zalman Minkov, a resident of Rehovot and a man of the first Aliyah, bought 100 dunams (10 hectares) of lands from the Kadima company. The land was next to a road that led from Yavne to Ramle and Lod by the old marine road – ‘Via Maris’. Minkov decided not to plant vines, like the other farmers in Rehovot. This decision stemmed from the poor state of the vineyards and their low profitability, and so he planted citrus trees instead. It was the first citrus orchard in Rehovot.

By the road Minkov built a compound for the orchard buildings: a yard surrounded by a high stone wall with two gates: an impressive main gate to the yard and a gate leading from the yard to the orchard. In the niche to the left of the entrance gate a there was a water tap for passer-by, which the Arabs called “Sabil Biarat Minkov”. The wall, which gave the impression of a closed, fortified site, was built with kurkar (sandstone), and included several polished stones, taken from ‘Hirbat el-bad’, a nearby archeological site. A packing facility, pool, storage houses, stable, dining room, workers’ bathrooms and an apartment for the guard were built around the inner wall.

The second floor housed the office of the orchard manager (the “Biarji”) and on its roof a bell (the workers ‘clock’). A well was dug inside the yard and next to it was the engine room. The engine’s pump raised water from the well to a small reservoir that was built over the western part of the wall. A waterway went from this reservoir, leading the water from the well along the northern wall, and into a larger reservoir east of the closed yard. Water was raised from the well, filling the reservoir during the night. In the daytime, the reservoir’s hose was opened, and the water flowed through man made canals to irrigate the orchard. Inside the yard and around the reservoir, which was also used as a swimming pool, Minkov planted trees for shade and as ornaments. 

Steady employment

The time was the first days of the second Aliyah, and dozens of young immigrants came to the town of Rehovot which accepted them with warmth and love. Minkov decided that all the workers in his orchard will be Hebrew workers. By this decision he gave a steady place of employment to the people of the second Aliyah, and substantially aided their establishment in the town. Famous people of that Aliyah worked in the orchard, including Yossef Aharonovich (editor of “Hapoel HaTza’ir” newspaper), Ben-Tzion Israeli and Meir Rotberg (founders of the Kineret group), and Rachel the poet, who decided to “play the shovel and paint the land”, and had her first encounter with agriculture work at the Minkov orchard. Noah Naftulsky (the plant man, also a founder of the Kineret group) was in charge of the irrigation systems and lived in the orchard. This is where the writer Yossef Haim Brenner visited him, and the two had long talks about the “religion of work”.

The orchard was a cultural center for the workers and farmers of Rehovot. While the ground was readied, the trees planted, the buildings constructed, the well dug and the irrigation systems installed, many of the towns people visited the orchard, especially school-children and their teachers. Even after the work was completed the town’s people and their guests came to visit the orchard on weekends and holidays and followed its development. 

In 1909 the journalist and writer Binyamin Gordon visited Israel in order to estimate the land financial option and its ability to in more immigrants. His host, Efraim Zax, one of the wealthiest men in Rehovot, took him to the Minkov orchard, which seemed like a piece of heaven to the gust. He was impressed by the irrigation system, the impressive reservoir, the size of the orchard and the variety of different trees that were planted in perfect order. Minkov gave him information about the sum invested in “making the desolate sand hills into the most beautiful orchard in the land of Israel” and also an income projection. Gordon put his impression of the visit into writing in his book “The New Judea”, and the orchard became an attraction not only for the people of Israel but also for Jewish tourists from abroad.

Zalman Minkov did not enjoy the fruit of his labor for long. He died in 1911, at the young age of 34. The author Moshe Semilansky, one of the farmers of Rehovot, eulogized him so: “A man of a great soul, great knowledge and a lover of music”. But the tragedy didn’t end here. On the day Zalman Minkov died his daughter was born, and was named Zalma after him. The entire town was in mourning, especially by the orchard workers who loved and cherished him. After Zalman’s death, the Minkov family’s financial status took a turn for the worse. The wife Rivka had to sell the orchard and move out of the country. She took her two small children, baby Zalma and her son Yuval, and went to Genève in Switzerland.

The orchard and its accompanied structures were bought by three Zionist Jews from Belgium: Moshe tolkovsky and the brothers Yehosuha (Oscar) and Yonna (Jean) Phisher, who later founded Kfar Yonna. After the death of Moshe Tolkovsky the property was managed by the son Shmuel, who came to Israel in 1911, lived in Rehovot and was known among the orchard farmers as an expert agronomist regarding citrus farming. Soon the orchard became known as the “Tolkovsky orchard”.
Moshe Semilansky, an author and journalist and a resident of Rehovot, described Tolkovsky by saying that “A new public force joined out town, an alert man of public initiative.” Tzvi Socholovsky, a writer and worker in Rehovot, added by saying “Tolkovsky continues his predecessor’s traditional ways of Hebrew work, and improved on it by making certain that the workers in his orchard were always organized. He gave many rights to the workers and donated to the life insurance of the permanent workers. 

In 1924 Tolkovsky sold his share of the orchard to Shmuel Gothilf of Ness-Zionna and Morris Levin who lived in Belgium. Gothilf continued his predecessors’ tradition and kept the principal of Hebrew work. The orchard was popular among the town’s people, mostly thanks to the large reservoir which also served as a swimming pool, and where many of the children of Rehovot learned to swim. One of those children was Yizhar Semilansky, who grew up to be the writer S. Yizhar. The orchard’s reservoir is where his story “Bathing in the Pool” took place. In 1970 the orchard was bought by a lawyer from Rehovot, Ben-Tzion Tzanani, who founded a company called ‘Rehovot gardens’ and tended to the garden until 1980.

The Biara changes its face

The importance of the orchard and its wall-surrounded structures was soon realized, both because of the assets themselves, and because of the events and characters related to them. That is why the local branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), headed by the industrious and motivated Israela Compton and Ezra Eyal, attempted to turn the first Israeli citrus orchard and its buildings to a heritage site of citrus farming in the land of Israel.

The orchard was marked for conservation already in the 70’s, as part of a national outline plan (TAMA 9) which was meant to create a list of sites in Israel worthy of conservation. In 1984, after the Council for Conservation of Structures and Monuments was established (today the Society for Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel), it also joined the Rehovot branch of the SPNI in its efforts to conserve the site. Indeed, the efforts were successful, and in 1992 public committee was created and a thorough program was drawn for the site and its surroundings.

The land’s agricultural designation and its private ownership encouraged a fertile cooperation between three factors: the city of Rehovot the Society for Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel, and the land’s owner. The city established a city planning program (plan number RH/2005/F,1) under which 1 hectare was expropriated for the creation of the site, with the agreement of Ben-Tzion Tzanani. Thanks to these actions the statutory status of the land was determined, and the area was designated for the founding of the museum for the history of citrus farming in Israel.  There was only one obstacle – funding for restoration of the buildings and the creation of the museum. Things turned in 1994 when a donor emerged – Francis Minkov, the nephew of Zalman Minkov, the first buyer of the land and the orchard’s original planter. 

Francis Minkov, a wealthy Jewish man from Genève, is a significant contributor to the state of Israel, and invests many resources to matters of education and development of the Negev. On one of his visits to Israel, Mr. Shlomo Hillel, the president of the Society for the Preservation of Heritage Sites, invited him to visit the Minkov orchard, which turned out to be his uncle’s old orchard. Francis was touched by the idea of founding a museum to the history of the field of citrus farming which would also tell the story of the Minkov family, and so decided to donate from his own funds to the restoration of the site. From that moment the project started to roll, and the city of Rehovot gave the site to the Society for the Preservation of Heritage sites in order to fulfill the vision of preserving the heritage of citrus farming in the land of Israel. 

In one of the first issues of “Atarim”, the Society for the Preservation of Heritage Sites’ newsletter, the editor of the program for the development of the Minkov site, Ilan Ben-Yossef, together with the site’s team wrote: “A site designed to be a place of fun, with a light, humoristic view of the early days of citrus farming, at an authentic level and with historical accuracy. The idea is for the educational message not to be coerced, but to be learned through experience and movement. According to the proposal’s writers, on weekdays the site will be intended mostly for group visits (tourists and Israelis) and on weekends and holidays – for families. In the evening it is suggested to host cultural events, music, dancing, meetings with writers, artist, inventors, planners and thinkers”. Today, 15 years after the publication of that article, the citrus farming site is making that vision a reality.

The place and its implications of preservation and development

The citrus farming site is located at the north eastern part of the city of Rehovot. The land around it is designated agriculture land, but these days the local council of Rehovot is working on a new city planning program, under which a change of designation will take place, and the area next to the site will be used for continuation of the existing industry park – TAMAR park. 

The location of the site and the foresight of the local authority, which made sure to build a thorough plan for all the area between the railroad and the eastern road that bypasses the city of Rehovot while creating a green park next to the Ayalon institute, will make the Minkov site a place of country side view within a constructed urban texture. The local planners acknowledged the advantages of the sites location already while preparing the site’s initial program:

A.    The first citrus orchard is located next to the historical train station that for years functioned as an important central station in the shipment of citrus fruit to the ports. 
B.    The site is close to the Faculty of Agriculture and the Weizmann Institute. 
C.    The site is very close to the Ayalon Institute, a historical site that during the years was preserved by the society for the preservation of heritage sites in Israel and became a visitor center.

These factors promote a plan which would include several centers of development for tourists and through them – travel paths for pedestrians, bicycles and cars. Additionally, the city promoted a plan based on a path for electrical carts which would simulate the trazinas, those carts which were used to transfer oranges in the orchard from where they were picked to the packaging area.  The cart path connects the Minkov site and the trazina project with the northern park.

The contents of the citrus farming site

For years the field of citrus farming was one of the main financial branched of Israel, and even the most important one in some periods.  Since it was the main product of export, it made a lasting impression on the Israeli landscape, (the sea of orchards) and a rich and colorful atmosphere was formed around it, and was extensively expressed in Israeli literature and art. The field of citrus farming made a significant contribution to the expansion of the Jewish settlement in the land – “The orchard colonies” and the settlements that grew around them.

During the years the field went through many changes, in the types and species of citrus fruits, in the processing methods, in ways of treatment of the trees and fruit, packaging methods and marketing through a gradual transition from animal and manual labor to almost completely mechanized work. The increased urbanization, uprooting of orchards and the rise of other fields all significantly reduced the area of citrus orchards in the area. In the last years citrus orchards are gradually transferred from the Shfela and Sharon areas to the northern Negev and the Lachish area.

Historians, educators and people dealing in preservation saw before them the need to preserve the story of the field of citrus farming by founding a site for the heritage of the citrus farming field. The choosing of Rehovot for the realization has a number of reasons:

1.    Through years Rehovot was known for its citrus orchards and its excellent oranges.
2.    Some of the citrus farmers of Rehovot later became public leaders and made their mark on the development of the citrus field and its cultivation.
3.    The existence of the first orchard yard, Biarat Minkov, a site recognized for its uniqueness and preservation potential.
4.    Near the first citrus orchard is the railway station, which for years was the most important and biggest station in the country for shipping of citrus fruits to the ports, and around which the biggest concentration of mechanized packaging facilities existed for years. 
5.    The first citrus orchard and the railway station are located on the marine road which led from Yavne to Lod and Ramle. Until 1948, this road bound together the Arab villages of Yavne, Kobiba, Zarnuga, and the Bedouins of the Arab-Staria tribe with the city of Ramle. The inhabitants of these villages were a major part of the work force in the orchards.

Riddles and their answers

The decision to restore the Minkov Biara, and to preserve and operate it as an educational and touristic center required dealing with several issues.  The most prominent one was the need to find balance between the site’s restoration and recreation as a visitor center and its authentic preservation. Therefore, the restoration of several structures in the yard began with preparation of a documentation file: the asset’s history, its physical details and condition, restoration according to certificates and photos, making the asset compatible for activity and minimizing the damage. 

The entrance gate to the Minkov yard is an example of this process. The gate was destroyed with the years, and an electrical gate was installed in its place. After it was decided to restore the old gate, the preparation of a documentation file began. First the efforts focused on searching for historical photos, interviewing senior citizens of Rehovot and looking for written sources which would enable to restore the gate as close as possible to the original.

The search for sources of information led the research team to an exhibition by the photographer Abraham Soskin, who photographed many sites in the colony of Rehovot in 1913. A picture was in the exhibition which showed a broken gate with many people gathered around it. The gate in the picture reminded the researchers of the destroyed gate in the orchard, and decided to go deeper into the matter. The exhibition curator, Guy Raz, sent them to the Levon institution, where they found a long search they found another photograph in which the gate is seen with a horse rider next to it. This photograph shows the entire gate, including a pediment at the top and a Star of David set in the center. The photograph also clearly showed the water tap set into the gate, which was used by people on the marine road to quench their thirst.

The research team was not yet satisfied and examined a film shot on 1913 for the 11th Zionist congress, in which a group of people is filmed descending the train at the Ramle station and going by carriage to Rehovot. Close examination revealed that the people filmed at the train station were the same people in Soskin’s photo of the gate. The conclusion was evident – the film and the photograph were taken on the same day. And so, based on the photographs, restoration and conservation work began on the gate. While working, the research team came upon a painting by Jewish painter Mark Chagall from 1917, which describes the entrance to a cemetery in Russia. The painting shows to pointed poles with a triangle pediment between them. This painting explained the unusual and foreign look of the entrance gate built by Zalman Minkov, who apparently brought with him to Israel his memories of Russia, his place of birth. 

Another example of the restoration work done in the site is the discovery and conservation of the water system. Like in any other structure of the orchard, it was clear in Biarat Minkov that there is a water system dug well, an engine and a pump which draws the water and moves it to a waterway. From the waterway the water flows to a reservoir and from there to a network of canals throughout the orchard. But there were no traces of a well found at the Minkov orchard. Knowing well that there was an active well at the site, searches for the well began where it was thought to be located. Digging made in several locations found nothing. The conservation team met with Yossi Mushlin, a citrus farmer from Rehovot, and asked for his help. Using a Bobcat tractor given to them by the agricultural committee, the conservation team once again dug the site, under Mushlin’s guidance. And indeed, after several hours, the well’s outline was found. It turned out that the difficulty in finding the well rose from its unusual diameter, 6.40 meters, and from the fact that a tree grew in the center of the well.

Under the surveillance of Ran Hedvaty, “the man with the golden hands” of the Society for the Preservation of Heritage Sites, the clearing of the well which was full of construction waste began. The reason the well was filled with waste and garbage in the past was the fear that someone might fall inside. Many tons of construction waste was cleared using special mechanical tools. Later conservation workers rappelled down the wall to examine its state and found the well was exceptionally preserved, excluding a few injuries in its upper part. The well was cleared to a depth of 23 meters (same as a seven story building). This was probably the depth of groundwater at those times. Today the groundwater level is much lower. The option of drilling deeper to reach the water was considered after consulting with a hydrologist from the water authority, but because of a cave in of the well it was decided to reject this idea. 

In a random meeting between Professor Irit Amit-Cohen, a lecturer of conservation at Bar-Ilan University, and Tamar Tochler, the district coordinator at the Society for the Preservation of Heritage sites, Amit-Cohen revealed that the family of one of her students owns an engine and a pump. Following this meeting, Tamar Tochler, Ran Hedvaty and Carmit Rappaport, the manager of the Minkov site, went on a visit to the English citrus orchard in Ness-Zionna.  They found there a ruined Roston engine, dirty and full of smog, and the broken parts of a pump scattered around. The disappointment was large, but Hedvaty had a gleam in his eyes like a child in a toy store. He was very excited to see the engine and claimed he could fix it.

The engine and pump parts were transferred to the care of Hedvaty in Ein-Shemer. Two months later Carmit and Tamar came to check on the engine and found a clean and polished Roston engine with a fresh coat of green paint. Only then they understood the source of Hedvaty’s excitement. 

In a complex feat of engineering the engine and pump were transferred to the Minkov site and installed there. Till this day the 106 year old engine is still functional.  Visitors stand on a glass floor, which is also the water well’s ceiling, where they can look down and listen to the engine’s beats. Not only the children are glad, but so are the birds. With the years many birds (mostly pigeons and warblers made their home in the holes created between the stones after the restoration of the well. Today the warblers fly upwards when visitors arrive, knowing that their presence means that soon the tap will be opened and fresh water will arrive, both to demonstrate the workings of the water system and for the birds to drink.

A boutique orchard

With the beginning of the preservation and restoration work in the site, the question of what to do with the orange trees of the orchard came to mind. The trees were in a very poor state because of their age and because of the fact that for many years they were not treated. After consultation with farmers and conservation experts it was decided to uproot most of the trees and plant new ones in their place.

The orchard today is a young one that was mostly planted about 15 years ago. It is not an orange orchard as Zalman Minkov and his followers grew and processed, but a “boutique orchard” which contains many different types of citrus trees. Species from the past, such as grafted trees (bitter orange, Limta) and blood orange which disappeared from the local view and markets, grow side by side with new species developed by the team of researchers from the “Agricultural Research Administration – the Vulcanic institution”, such as the peelable Meirav, Michal and Or. 

Following the fertile cooperation between the Minkov site and the Vulcanic Institute, every year on Tu-Beshvat (the holiday of trees) an exhibition on the site presents many new types of citrus fruits, developed and researched by the institution’s team.

What does Nachum Gutman has to do with the Minkov orchard?

After the construction and restoration work on the site was finished, it was decided to put there a large sign which will tell a short history of the place, as commonly done in historical sites. But because of the site’s special character – a yard with several structures documenting a variety of roles – it was decided to put a sign on all the buildings, so that every building will tell its tale. In a random conversation between Tzvikah Zelikovich, an artist and conservationist, and Carmit Rappaport, the site’s manager, Zelikovich commented that if only it was possible to bring Nachum Gutman back to life and back to the city of Rehovot, he probably would have been willing to paint the orchard and write a story about it. After all one of the prominent motifs in Gutman’s stories and paintings is the orchard, its facilities and its labors. It was also known that Gutman has worked in the citrus orchards of Rehovot (but not the Minkov orchard) where he met his wife Dora.

This comment led to the idea of combining drawings and quotes by Gutman into the site’s signposts.  This led to a relationship with the Nachum Gutman museum and with his son, prof. Chami Gutman, who gave the Minkov site permission to use Gutman’s drawings on the site. Tzvika Zelikovich was trusted with this mission. He was sent to the Nachum Gutman Museum where he sifted through the artist’s work and found appropriate drawings. Today these drawings decorate the different signs of the site. 

Activities at the Minkov site

Over 15 years have passed since a program was written for the orchard site, and the same spirit of things is still kept. The orchard site is a growing attraction for groups coming to study through fun and experience about the early days of citrus farming in the land of Israel, and the pioneers in the field of citrus fruit.

Most of the site’s activity takes place during the winter, when the orchard is at its prime. During this time kindergarten and elementary school children come to the site, visit the water well and learn about its importance and how it is an essential condition for any agricultural land, and especially and orchard. They also visit the packaging facilities and the exhibition which reenacts the stages of work: selection of fruit, its sorting and packaging. After that the children experience for the first time in their lives fruit picking from the trees, and then they squeeze fresh, natural juice from the fruit the picked.

5th and 6th graders and middle-high students come to the site all through the year in order to get to know the world of the pioneers. The students meet characters from the first and second Aliyah, who share with them the different dilemmas they face in their lives – starting from the question of whether to come to Israel, all the way to the arguments considering the importance of mutual responsibility. The students tour the different buildings together with the pioneers and learn history in a new and interesting way.

Adult visitors also come to the site: Soldiers, senior citizens and tourists. Like in a time machine they enter through the orchard’s gates and go back a hundred years to the day of the first and second Aliyah, the pioneers and their belief in Hebrew work, to days of innocence when the smell of citrus orchards stood in the air, and orange juice fresh from the tree was sweet on the lips. During the holidays there are activities which combine the spirit of the place with the spirit of the holiday. In the evenings the site sometimes holds cultural and musical events, and meetings with artists, writers and historians. 

The Minkov orchard site is community-oriented and believes in giving back to the community in which it resides. Because of this the sits adopted some of the welfare child care facilities of the city of Rehovot. The care center’s children come to the site once a week, where they learn about plants and biological processes and work in the vegetable garden and in the orchard. They make salads and dishes from the fruits and vegetables they grow in the garden, and also take some to their home and the care center. This activity is enabled thanks to the support of Applied Materials Inc. which is located in the nearby science park.

Plans for the future

The Minkov site continues moving forward. Its directors and guides have worked on the construction of a rail Trazinas, carts on which the workers laid their fruit filled baskets and boxes. The carts were pushed by workers on narrow rails around the orchard in order to collect the fruit and bring it to the packaging house. In addition to the Trazinas, the packaging house exhibition was upgraded under a joint project with the Rokach foundation. The project objective is to commemorate the work of Yitzhack Rokach, the son of Shimon Rokach who was one of the founders of the “Pardes” society, and to expose visitors to the site to the changes and innovations that accompanied the citrus farming field through the years. Rokach, who was the manager of the “Pardes” society and made it a large and leading company in worldwide distribution of citrus fruit, was also in charge of most of the innovations to that field. The visitors will experience different ways of selection, sorting, and packaging, and will also help in finding different uses for the second-grade citrus fruit. This activity is less about the fruit itself and more about the business-technology-marketing aspects of the citrus farmer’s work.


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