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In December 1882 one hundred members of the Hovevei Zion movement from Romania purchased land in Zichron Ya’akov (then known as Zammarin) with the intention of settling the land. However the rocky terrain was very difficult to farm and an outbreak of malaria resulted in the deaths of adults and children alike. The main cemetery in Zichron Ya’akov is the last resting place of many of the settlers and their families and their grave stones are still visible today. These difficult circumstances led many of the settlers to leave within the first 12 months.
In 1883 Baron Edmond James de Rothschild decided to assist the remaining settlers. Plans were formulated for the development of the land for agricultural purposes and for the establishment of a residential area. It was at this time that Baron Rothschild renamed the town Zichron Ya’akov in memory of his father, Baron James (Ya’akov) Mayer de Rothschild.
Professional planners designed the main street with French inspired, tiled-roof housing units facing the road. Behind each home lay a long interior courtyard and a rear building for storing agricultural implements. This street today is the main street of Zichron Ya’akov and is known as the Midrahov. The original courtyards and rear outbuildings are still visible in many places.
Elijah Shaid, the Baron’s clerk, was responsible for administration and ensured that each working farmer was paid a salary. He directed the agricultural economy according to the Baron’s wishes and the building where his offices stood remains today opposite the public garden known as the Gan Tiyyul.
The Baron also commissioned the construction of the Ohel Ya’akov synagogue in honour of his father. The synagogue has served Zichron Ya’akov since 1886 and is a notable feature of the town’s architecture at the northern end of the Midrahov. The synagogue holds daily services (more on Shabbat and Holydays) and is much loved by the residents of the town.
In 1885, following several economic failures, the Baron helped establish the first winery in Israel, the Carmel-Mizrahi winery. A bottling factory was also founded in the area – on what is today Kibbutz Nahsholim. Initially the winery was an economic success but in 1892 the grapevines were attacked by phylloxera disease and harvesting was impossible. Subsequently American seedlings that were phylloxera resistant were planted and the winery flourished once more, as it does until the present day.
Zichron Ya’akov continued to develop slowly and in 1912 the population of the town was increased by new immigrants from Yemen, many of whose descendants live in Zichron Ya’akov today.
At the time of the First World War, the famous agronomist Aaron Aaronson and his family were living in the town. Turkish rule had resulted in great hardships for the residents and as a result Aaron founded the NILI, the undercover intelligence group that supplied information to the British government. His sister, Sarah, also became an agent for the British and in 1917 she committed suicide rather than reveal any secrets to the Turks who had arrested her. The Aaronson House, now a Museum, is open to visitors.
When the British came to power, the town began to flourish and attempts were made to grow tobacco, olives and flowers for perfume. By 1935 there were 1650 inhabitants in Zichron Ya’akov. In 1951, three years after the founding of the State, the population amounted to 4,200 people. This number has increased over the years and the population has grown to approximately 18,000.
Today Zichron Ya’akov is an important tourist attraction. In 2008 plans were announced to further develop the centre of the town from the Midrahov through Derech HaYayyin, down towards the Carmel winery.