24 March 2008

California: Jewish presence in Santa Maria Valley

Ever wonder who sold newspaper magnate and U.S. Senator Hearst the land for his famous San Simeon castle?

Viennese-born (1818) Leopold Frankl - who served as an engineer for General Fremont -founded and named the village of San Simeon in the mid-1870s and opened its first store. He sold Senator Hearst eight leagues of land for $85,000, the castle's site.

California's Santa Maria Valley has an interesting Jewish history covering the towns of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Lompoc, Guadalupe, San Simeon and other population centers.

The Santa Maria Valley Historical Society has organized a two-month exhibit of Jewish culture, including artifacts, antiques, photographs and memorabilia dating to the mid-1870s. According to a story in the Santa Maria Times, Emily McGinn of San Luis Obispo has spent many years studying the Central Coast's Jewish history.

Much has been written about European Jewish immigrants arriving on the West Coast, some for the Gold Rush. In 1880, Los Angeles had 280 Jews in comparison to San Francisco's thriving 20,000. Most were from Poland, Russia and Prussia, but there were also Sephardim.

Homing in on Santa Maria Valley, the article details the oldest section of San Luis Obispo's cemetery with the graves of French Jews who lived in Lompoc and Guadalupe, including the Cerf, Godchaux and Coblentz families. The brother - Otto - of Supreme Court Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter is also buried there.

In 1849, Lazare Godchaux from France bought the Mexican land grant of El Paso de la Robles for $8,000. He and his partner raised cattle.

The earliest Jewish family was Goldtree in 1858, establishing area branches, including North County where they had a Wells Fargo office and a newspaper. They deeded 200 acres to Union Sugar, which built a sugar plant.

Most merchants were literate, and were soon involved in city, county and state offices, and set up benevolent societies to help transients and the needy. They brought Mexican land grants, helped start towns and were involved in merchandising, mining, real estate, hotel construction and starting land companies. They established stores in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and often exchanged partnerships. Goldtree bottles from their wine company are now collectors items.

One of the first beet sugar growers was Lazar Blochman, whose home is today's Santa Maria Inn. A big landowner, he experimented with nuts, fruits, vines and orchards and was also a weather forecaster. In the 1890s, he conducted High Holy Day services attended by some 100 people at San Luis Obispo's Masonic Building.

Joseph Kaiser, cousin of the Blochmans, was a real estate dealer and president of Kaiser Land and Fruit Company. He first came to work as bookkeeper for his brother at the general store of L. M. Kaiser and Company at Guadalupe.

When Kaiser went into business with Blackman & Cerf, the name was changed to Kaiser Land and Fruit Company, with Joseph as president, who had about 2,700 acres of ranch property suitable for farming. Three hundred acres, called Fair Lawn, were subdivided to be sold to settlers. Joseph Kaiser was treasurer of the Santa Maria Stock and Agricultural Assn.

Kaiser Land and Fruit Company turned 300 acres of land, Fair Lawn, into lots for settlers.

Research shows that many of the Jewish merchants were in business together and marriages often took place among the families.

Even though they were closer to Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Jewish families often went to San Francisco for shopping and High Holy Days. Travel between towns wasn't easy, and it wasn't unusual for them to have to get out and push their coaches up the hills.

In Lompoc, Jewish history begins with the arrival - in 1880 - of Isidore and Hannah Weill. Born in Alsace, he enlisted in the Civil War, serving under General Hancock. He founded the Weill and Co. store, and was the Bank of Lompoc's founder, vice president and manager. Their son, Maier, was born in Lompoc in 1887. He made his first stage appearance - with Sara Bernhardt - while a University of California student. He adopted the stage name Morgan Guild and appeared on the New York and London stage as well as silent films, in more than 500 roles.

Morgan worked in D. W. Griffith's silent films in Long Island. His first screen role was in “Orphans of the Storm.” Comedian W. C. Fields is said to have favored Wallace because of his birth in Lompoc, a city Fields loved to use as a comic target.

He was also a director for Keystone Comedies, appearing in WWI USO shows, and was a theater owner. His greatest achievement was as founder and the third member of the Screen Actors Guild. He also served on its board of directors before retiring in 1946.

The article names many families active in the early days, including ORENSTEIN, KAPLAN, GOODMAN, BERKOWITZ, MEYER, CHERN, COHEN, FRIEDMAN, HELLER, KREIDEL, FLEISHER, KAISER, GOODWIN, BRYANT, BLOCHMAN ROSENBLUM, CASSNER, WEILL, KLEIN, LEHMANN, GOTTSCHALK, while Jewish graves (from 1980) in the Lompoc Evergreen Cemetery include BERNARD, BRAMBIR, EPSTEIN, HOWARD, KANNER< KRUPKIN< KUSHNER, QUART, TUNIC.

The Santa Maria Historical Society has more than 5,000 photographs and more than 1,000 can be searched in a computerized database. If your families are among those noted above, this could be a good resource for you.

Read more here.

Additional stories will be appearing on some of the families over the next few months. The COBLENTZ and SCHWABACHER families are detailed here.

4 comments:

  1. I'm writing a paper for school on Jewish Literature Set in California (or the lack thereof) and have been researching the history of Jews settling in California, when I came across your blog (this page in particular) today. What a wonderful find! Please consider me a "subscriber" to your blog. I'll read up on the rest of your entries. :)

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  2. Hi!

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    Schelly

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  4. Anonymous12:54 AM

    The Coblentz family are my distant relatives. I was born in Costa Rica, Central America
    Howard Coblentz

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