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The story of the oil mill

In 1823 the Berlin businessman, Salomon Herz, acquired a piece of land on the banks of the Elbe in Wittenberge, and began the construction of an oil mill and an oil trading company; the first in Germany. At this point in time Wittenberge had 100 inhabitants and the first industrial plant. Raw materials such as linseed, oil seed rape and turnips came in from the surrounding lands, as well as the workforce. In a short space of time, import connections with Rumania, Russia and India were established. At that stage, the transportation of raw materials and finished products took place using the waters of the Elbe. The major part of the raw oil produced was used for lighting and as a lubricant; a smaller quantity was refined and used for human consumption.

As a major shareholder of the Berlin-Hamburg and Magdeburg-Halberstädter railway company, Herz used his influence to have the Hamburg to Berlin railway line pass through Wittenberge; furthermore, he was able to force through a railway connection from Magdeburg to Wittenberge. Included in the latter project was the construction of the bridge over the Elbe.

The years 1838 to 1839 saw the digging and completion of the Herzscher Canal between Stepenitz bei Klein Breese and the town harbour. This was used as a water race to power three waterwheels, and thus replaced the horses that had until that time been used to power the oil mill’s machinery. In 1937/1938, after close to a century in use, the canal was filled in and turbines installed to replace the water wheels, the use of which had become outmoded.

In 1856, a massive fire completely destroyed the entire oil plant. In the same year, a re-construction project began. The following years featured constant enhancements to the factory premises and the modernisation of the production plant and equipment. In 1873, two institutions named Herzsche Foundations were created. The foundation funded the construction of 16 rent-free apartments for invalided and old employees, as well as the building of a town orphanage. In 1898, what until then had been Mühlenstrasse was renamed Herzstrasse (today’s Bad Wilsnacker Strasse).

The years of the Great Depression made it impossible to operate the plant profitably and, as a result, 1929 saw the establishment of the public limited company “S. Herz Ölfabriken Wittenberge”. In 1942 a new crisis occurred, caused by the difficulty in obtaining sufficient raw materials: In April 1945 the “Märkische Ölwerke AG” decided to close down production.

In 1949, under the difficult condition of the past-war years, the oil works recommenced production under the name, VEB Märkische Ölwerke Wittenberge. During its best years, for example 1968, the plant employed 690 workers. Machine oil and lubricants, as well as cooking and edible oils, and synthetic lacquers formed its product portfolio.

After the political changes caused by German reunification, the company operated between 1990 and 1991 under the name, Märkische Ölwerke AG, until in 1991 it was decided to cease production and close the plant. In January of that year, the company still employed 319 workers, although a third of those were on reduced working hours. The major part of the factory’s production areas and workshops were torn down. Subsequently, because of their special and distinctive architecture, the remaining structures were given listed-building status in June 1992.

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