“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These are among the wonderful words that represent the promise and the dream that is America. They are, of course, on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Multimillions of people passed by that wonderful statue with nothing in their pockets, only dreams in their hearts.
Simon Cohn was one of those dreamers. He was sent by his family to seek a better life in the New World. He left behind the miseries, and the hopelessness, and years of prejudice that was his future if he remained at his home in Prussia.
The year was 1873. He was eighteen and as soon as he was processed he sought out people from his homeland and soon found work selling socks, tread, and buttons. He walked through the streets of New York pushing a cart with his merchandise, receiving for his labors sixty cents a day.
As he looked for opportunities, that is what our country promised him; his search focused his attention to Los Angeles. The West Coast was still sparsely populated, but it was growing. The California Gold Rush was still a recent event, and new cities were sprouting up and down the West coast.
When he was finally able to get to Los Angeles, he had three hundred dollars in his pocket and a heart full of dreams. He did good there peddling his goods up and down the streets of Los Angeles and was soon able to buy himself a trading wagon and a couple of mules. His business continued to improve.
He heard people talking about the gold that was still in Northern California, that there were still many opportunities up there to make a fortune. His mind was made up; he would go to San Francisco. He filled up his wagon with merchandise and headed north.
The only road north, El Camino Real, went from Los Angeles to Mission San Fernando, then it went through the mountains to a little town called Castaic. Near this place these days is the amusement park called Magic Mountain. In other words he more or less took the route where Highway 5 goes today.
He then continued going down the other side of the mountain, toward the ocean, to Mission Ventura. This coastal plain would later be known as Ventura County. He passed through the future townsites of Pirú, and Santa Paula. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is near and this area.
Simon was now getting closer to the Pacific Co should ast. He crossed the Santa Clara River where there is now a town called Saticoy and somewhere between there and the town of Port Hueneme he stopped at the river to rest.
This was a common resting place for all the north and southbound travellers. They were made mostly of mule skinner’s with their wagons. This place became known later on as the Four Corners.
Simon made camp there for the night. At this time there were three important seaports in all of California. They were San Francisco, San Diego, and Hueneme. Boats would anchor at Hueneme and unload there. They also loaded products to export. From there the shipments went by land to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and to all the other towns nearby. There was only one road out of Hueneme and this was where Simon stopped.
He saw the Mule Skinner’s there, resting alongside their wagons and he started selling them his merchandise. He did good business that night, and then he saw the possibilities. He decided to stay at this place by the Santa Clara River.
He had the idea of starting here in addition to his store, a community of fellow Jews, so he named this place New Jerusalem. The Pochis, that is the original Spanish and Mexican families there, found it difficult to say New Jerusalem and the sound that came out of their mouth sounded like “Chirula.” In a short while the name of this place was changed to El Rio, but the local people there kept on saying “Chirula” for a long time after that.
El Rio grew to become the social center of the region. It still wasn’t a town, it was more like a crossroads. Over the years, Simon was able to build his general goods store. He had a contract for a United States Post Office. He had a beer joint there. He sold construction materials such as lumber. He had a corral where he sold livestock. Over time, people found his business convenient and started living near his corner, EL Rio became a town.
I was just a boy but I remember him well. He was an old man at that time having lived there many years. He found his dream in a small community of mostly cattle ranchers and local farmers. The town and later two cities grew around him. This new land was to become our new home as well and it had a new name. Welcome to Oxnard, California.