The Life of Peter Nicholas Cochems

Paul L. Cochems

Peter Nicholas Cochems was born June 7, 1847, in Koblenz, Germany -- the fourth child of seven children. His father, John Cochems, was born in 1804, in the City of Frankfort, Germany. In 1825, John joined the Prussian Guard and became a great soldier weighing around two hundred and ten pounds and standing six feet four inches tall. His mother, Princess Anna Marie of the House of Otto, a direct descendent of Kaiser Otto, defender of the Catholic Church, was born December 12, in Koblenz, Germany. She had a wonderful education and was a very forceful woman in her community and a leader in her circle. Under these circumstances and with these advantages, Peter Nicholas came into the world.

In 1853, at the age of six years, he left Germany and came to America with his family because of the Military oppression of Germany at that time. In the fall of the same year, through a land agent in Wisconsin, his father bought one hundred & sixty acres of timberland in the wild frontier of Mishicott, Wisconsin -- now known as Two Rivers.

By spring his father had cleared enough land to plant a garden and to build a log house from the trees he cut down. In the years that followed all the children helped by working at different tasks to make a living. Because of the hard life that was lead, there was not much time for schooling in those days.

At the age of nine years, Nicholas worked at the shingle bench with a drawknife, making shingles. Nicholas loved hunting, fishing and trapped for fur which helped pay the taxes and something on the mortgage.

Then in 1861, at the age of fourteen, the war between the North and the South broke out. His father and two older brothers, Matthew and Jacob, volunteered in the Union army in defense of their adopted country. This left Nicholas, his mother, one older sister and two younger brothers and a younger sister to farm the land in their absence. On July 4, 1863, his brother Jacob fell in battle storming the fortifications around Vicksburg. This misfortune caused much sorrow in the Cochem family but the greatest tragedy came in the fall of 1864, when the death of their father, who had fallen at Petersburg, was reported. But this double tragedy to the family only served to make them more determined to become better citizens of their newfound land. With every gold dollar that his mother could spare she bought government bonds and greenback issued by the government at that time.

Being the oldest male at home it fell on Nicholas' shoulders to take the lead. He started by clearing the rest of the land of trees and stumps, and draining the swamps. He then succeeded in raising a very good crop of hay, grain, potatoes and corn. After three years of successful farming he broke the record for that district in wheat and corn crops.

During this time his brother Matthew was sent home from the war after contracting Yellow Fever. The doctors thought that by evacuating the soldiers who had Yellow Fever from the South where they had been fighting to the Northern climate where they lived, they would recover more rapidly. In Matthew's case this was true. His convalescence took two years however. During this time he performed such minor tasks as his strength would allow him.

Two years after his recovery Matthew married Elizabeth Wagner and moved to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin where he bought a grist mill and started a general store. He became a very prosperous businessman and raised a family of twelve children.

Nicholas continued to live on the original acreage bought by his father. After paying off the mortgage on the property, Nicholas built a new home and barn and began to modernize the farm as best he could. In the spring of 1865, Nicholas added the science of Agriculture to his many works, having learned this science from his mother who was an authority on bee culture at that time. Nicholas improved on her methods as he went along. In later years he taught this science to his younger brother John who became very successful in that line and made a very good living for himself and his sister Elizabeth. Neither of them ever married.

In the fall of 1866, at the age of 21, Nicholas journeyed through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota with the intention of finding a new place to live. Finding the soil far superior to that of Wisconsin where he resided, he was very well pleased in all the things he had seen on his journey. He hoped that he could make his family see this new and wonderful land as he had seen it. But on returning home his family discouraged him and persuaded him to stay at home and continue farming the land for a few years - which he did.

In February of 1870, at the age of 23, he heard of the wonderful state of California, especially of the fertile land around the city of Los Angeles. Nicholas journeyed there with the prospect of settling in that part of the country. He remained only two months in Los Angeles having satisfied himself of the truth of this southern climate and wonderful soil, he returned home trying to persuade his mother and family to come to Los Angeles. However, this venture was unsuccessful as before.

In May of 1871 he returned to Los Angeles by himself and bought the North West of the North East of Section 11, Township 7, South, Range 14 West, San Bernardino Base, Meridian, in what was then known as Clausen's Canyon, about 7 miles west of the city of Los Angeles. This area is now known as Franklin Avenue, Hollywood. This land being dry land and was considered only good for grazing. There being no spring on this property, Nicholas had to haul all of the water for domestic use from Mr. Clausen's spring over a mile away. The rains being over and the ground too dry and hard to do any plowing, he managed to secure a job as a farm hand and succeeded in leasing some bees. Between the honey and what he earned as a farm hand he managed to make a living until the rains came in the fall. He then plowed the 40 acres he had purchased. In the early spring of 1872 he planted ten acres to vineyard and orchard of different varieties of fruit trees, twenty acres to oats for hay and ten acres he left idle for the lack of funds he needed to purchase seed.

Nicholas went on many hunting trips with his friend and neighbor John Leiboldt. On one of these hunting trips they decided to cross over the ten acres that Nicholas had left idle. For lack of cultivation this piece of land grew a lot of weeds and grass which was dry at this time of the year, as it was late in July of 1872. As they were crossing over the land they noticed there were several spots where the weeds and grass did not grow. Nicholas scuffed the soil in several of these places to see why nothing grew there and in doing so found live moisture about five inches beneath the surface of the soil. They both talked about this strange phenomena and the more they talked the more excited Nicholas became. He went home and brought back his shovel and they began to dig first where the weeds were and found no moisture and then in the spots where no weeds were and there they found moisture as far down as six feet. Nicholas decided to plant watermelons in some of these spots to see what happened. He raised a few melons but not of a very good quality, as the season was too far advanced. Then he got the idea that if he plowed and cultivated the soil he could save the moisture of the winter before and with the rain of the present year, he could raise a very good crop at the same time giving the soil a chance to rest. The next year Nicholas planted this ten acres with garden produce such as potatoes, string beans, corn, green peas, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons and tomatoes. He raised a large crop of each, by properly spacing the rows far enough apart, which he figured out by the size of and the depth of the roots and the distance that the plants covered the soil. In this way he proved that he could raise any plant that was adopted to the particular climate he cared to farm in. With this in mind, he called in all of his neighbors that would come, he told them what he had discovered and what he had done. Some of the men thought that it would work but other said it would not, that they could not see that were willing to try Nicholas explained his method of dry farming and those that followed the new method became very successful farmers.

In 1874 Nicholas became very popular with the county and city officials, they having heard so much talk about what Nicholas was doing just west of the city. This land was understood to be only good for grazing purposes, but through his method of dry farming Nicholas had changed all this by raising fresh vegetables on this dry soil without irrigation. Now when this fact became known to the people of Los Angeles, that most of the fresh vegetables they bought in the city came from this land which had previously only grown grass and brush, they came out to see for themselves. As many as 40 carriages and buggies would come with the most prominent people from all walks of life. Nicholas' farm became somewhat of a showcase!

Later Nicholas discovered that every time he cultivated the soil, he would bring the wet soil up to the top and the sun dried it out. The dry topsoil would become mixed with the wet, thereby drying all the soil down as far as he had cultivated and still not kill all of the weeds. He designed a new kind of cultivator or "weed cutter" as he called it. Early in the spring of 1875 Nicholas took his plans for the new cultivator to Mr. Harper who had a blacksmith shop and small foundry. Here was born a new kind of cultivator, one that he had never been built before. This cultivator had several steel blades that were adjustable for depth as well as width. After taking the cultivator home adjusting it to the proper angle he found that it would go beneath the top of the soil at any depth that he desired cutting off all the roots from the weeds, but did not expose the wet soil to the rays of the sun. The weeds cut off in this manner soon withered and died, leaving the topsoil with an airtight seal or mulch as deep as he could cultivate. In later years he improved on this kind of cultivator, although he never had it patented.

Now there were only two fruit stands in Los Angeles at that time, one was operated by Ramish & Marush, the other one by Woodhead & Gay. Nicholas delivered most of his largest watermelons to the latter, but most of his fresh vegetables and smaller melons he sold to Ramish & Marush. On July 23, 1876, the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Los Angeles made this statement to the press, "Mr. Cochems is one of the greatest agricultural genius that this world has ever known." Photographs of the larger watermelons that Nicholas had delivered to the fruit stand were taken and then the melons were weighed. The weighted from 55 to 98 pounds each, and to emphasize the size of the watermelons he had a ten year old boy sit between two of the largest melons which weighed 95 and 98 pounds each. Nicholas raised enough watermelons that he controlled the market in that line. He also sold nothing but the finest, thereby setting the standard by which the other farmers had to compete and in that way nothing but the finest was sent to market.

One of Nicholas' best friends was the late ex-senator Cornelius Cole of California, who settled south of Mr. Cochems place on a section of land that later became Colegrove. Mr. Cole said that Mr. Cochems' method of dry farming was the greatest work of the age. He often remarked, "Who but Nicholas would think of storing up last year's rainfall in such a unique way." He followed Nicholas' instructions to the letter and soon enough became a very successful farmer himself.

In 1877, there was a crop failure all over southern California, the precipitation being just enough to sprout the grain seed but in some places the wheat and barley did grow about seven inches tall. Most of this grain land was used for grazing, as it did not pay to cut it for hay or grain. Nicholas continued to follow his program that he had set for himself and raised a very good crop. Mr. Cole also had over eighty acres of summer squash and tomatoes which were raised using the dry farming method. A very high price was received by Nicholas and Mr. Cole for all their produce because there was no competition. Because it was a dry year, and Nicholas and Mr. Cole had still managed to raise a good crop, it was proved that the dry farming method was practical and reliable. Other farmers, seeing this proof, came to Nicholas and asked him to teach them his method. He gladly obliged all that came for advice, the result being a market that was flooded with produce in the following year. To avoid profit loss by falling prices, Nicholas called a meeting and it was decided that the excess produce would be shipped to San Francisco by rail and boat.

At this point, Nicholas had heard much about the Mojave Desert in the northern part of Los Angeles County and that nothing would grow there. Ever the pioneer, he decided to go take a look at this desert. In the late spring of 1877 he journeyed by horseback up through the Cahunga Pass into the San Fernando valley, passed the old mission San Fernando then over the Newhall Pass into the Newhall Valley following the old stage road through the San Francisquito Canyon to Elizabeth. He continued over the hills to the southern rim of what is now Antelope Valley or the western part of the great Mojave Desert. Nicholas stood looking down on a vast expanse of desert sagebrush and cactus and sand. But upon further investigation what a first seemed to be only desert brush and cactus, turned out to be a very fertile sandy loam soil and very deep. He also noticed that there had been considerable rainfall. He took his shovel and began to dig and found that the moisture went down about five feet, enough to raise a crop, but the farther he went out onto the floor of the valley, he found that the moisture was less and less. Nicholas reasoned that the geographical construction of the country had a great deal to do with the rainfall, now making a note of this he took several samples of the soil from time to time. After several days of exploring and asking questions of the people who lived in the Elizabeth Lake area he found that the people deemed this land good only for raising sheep and cattle.

Nicholas returned to his farm in Hollywood and was very enthusiastic about all that he had seen and heard about this wild and wonderful country. He immediately began to organize a party of fearless men to start a new settlement and help him build a new frontier. However, he did not succeed in generating other's interest until the late fall. It was decided that every man of the party was to contribute his share to the expense of the expedition, it was further voted that Nicholas was to be in charge of the expedition. Nicholas engaged an engineer and his staff to survey this new land. After some more delay, they finally got started on their journey on the last of the year, arriving on the new land in January 1878. The surveyed three townships of land, so that every man in the party would be able to file on 320 acres of government land. After the survey was completed they returned to Los Angeles where Nicholas called a meeting of al the men of the party. At this meeting they drew lots to determine what particular 320 acres of government land that each man would file on. Nicholas drew the south 1/4 of Section 24, Township 7 North, Range 14 West, San Bernardino, Base, Meridian. He immediately filed a homestead claim on this piece of land at the United States Government land office in the city of Los Angeles on February 7, 1878. He then made arrangements with his Nephew Arnold Cochems to supervise his Hollywood farm in his absence.

Arnold Cochems had come from Wisconsin several years previous and had worked for his Uncle on the farm. Nicholas was satisfied that Arnold could take over this project and thus free him to work the new land. Nicholas purchased a six-month supply of groceries and building materials for a cabin and small barn and loaded up his household furniture onto a wagon. He set out in the early morning to develop and conquer a new land that was wild and harsh, a land of wonderful opportunities but also spiced with a lot of heartaches. Upon arriving at his destination three days later he immediately unloaded his plow and plowed the first acre of land in this new country. This was the first furrow that this vast land had ever known.

Having built his cabin and barn Nicholas planted the first almond trees, he also planted figs, cherries, peaches, apricots, plumbs, pears and grapes. Around his cabin he planted several umbrella trees for shade. He then plowed the rest of the 320 acres of land, although he sowed only half of this acreage to wheat, summer fallowing the other 160 acres of land. In the fall of that same year Nicholas harvested over 1,900 sacks of wheat. In the fall of 1879, he harvested the summer fallowed land which yielded a crop of 3,800 sacks of wheat and barley.

In the several years that he spent roaming around the country Nicholas had found several large bush-like trees that were over eight feet tall and looked like almond trees, the blossoms as well as the fruit were very similar. This prompted him to plant more almonds. He urged his friends that had land suited to almonds to do likewise. In this he was very successful in causing several thousand acres of almonds to be planted ion Antelope Valley, bringing thousands dollars of revenue to the community.

During the time that Nicholas was proving up on his homestead claim, the town of Lancaster, 14 miles away on the Southern Pacific Railroad was expanding. In 1880, the town of Maynard was established which consisted of a general store, post office, school, small hotel, blacksmith shop, saloon, and several homes. Later on the town of Maynard was renamed Del Sur. While shopping in Lancaster one day Nicholas noticed some alfalfa plants growing around the railroad water tank. Upon further investigation he learned that the seed had dropped from railroad cars which had been passing through. Nicholas figured that if the alfalfa was planted in a properly irrigated field, it would produce a good crop of hay. Now the more he talked about it to the people the more they thought that he had a little too much sun and they would not listen to him. So, in desperation, Nicholas bought some alfalfa seed and gave this seed to Mr. W.P. Ward and had him plant it on his land in Lancaster. Mr. Ward had a well and could irrigate the land properly - which he did despite everyone's ridicule. Then one day everyone was surprised at the heavy yield of alfalfa hay, and this proved that with sufficient water to irrigate alfalfa could be raised profitably in this desert climate. At the present time it is one of the main sources of revenue of the valley.

Nicholas discovered that the wild bushes growing around the country were rich in bloom and that the flowers had an abundance of nectar. With this came the idea that the country was suited to horticulture as well as agriculture. This discovery caused Nicholas to branch off into the bee business in a large scale. The result was that he shipped the first carload of honey produced in Angelope Valley to the eastern market.

Nicholas purchased and got title to 26 acres of land on July 19, 1881. This land was situated between Bronson Avenue and Beachwood Drive in Hollywood and consisted of two knolls joined together, one higher then the other and more or less frostless. Nicholas raised early vegetables such as green peppers, tomatoes, string beans and summer squash which he could market far earlier than anyone else in the district and thus receive high prices. With the extra revenue he was able to carry on his project in Antelope Valley.

After five years of growing enormous corps on his homestead, Nicholas proved up on September 25, 1883 and got the title to his land. That same fall he harvested over 5,500 sacks of wheat and barley, he also sold to Levey and Company on Commercial Street in Los Angeles 1,000 pounds of almonds raised in Antelope Valley. Having no water on his homestead Nicholas had to haul all the water for domestic use from a spring over a mile away on the land adjoining his homestead. The Southern Pacific Land Company decided to sell several parcels of land, Section 25 being one of these parcels. Nicholas bought section 25, the sale is on record as Section 25, Township 7 North, Range 14 West, San Bernardino, Base, Meridian, and contract of sales is dated November 3, 1883.

In the spring of 1884, Nicholas planted another orchard and vineyard on the South West of this newly acquired land. This vineyard was planted from grape cuttings from his vineyard in Hollywood. Every tree, grapevine or any crops that Nicholas raised he raised without irrigation. Most of the original trees and vineyards are still producing and the first almond trees that Nicholas planted in 1878 still stand as a monument to testify in his behalf.

Nicholas' Nephew Hiram Leach came to California in 1885. Hiram went to work for his Uncle on his large ranch, after a month's vacation. Here he learned to farm in a much larger scale then he had in Wisconsin where he had farmed on his father's place. Nicholas and his Nephew farmed for several years, raising very large crops of wheat, barley, almonds and other fruit.

In the fall of 1888 Nicholas journeyed back to Wisconsin to visit his mother. There he met Miss Annie Kumer. Annie was born on October 26, 1875 in Eisenstadt, Hungary. Her father, Paul Kumer, was born in Purbach, Hungary and was an officer in the Hungarian army. Her mother, Thersa Berger, was born in Eisenstadt, Hungary in 1844. She had a very good education and was popular within her circle of friends. In 1877, at the age of two years, Annie Kumer and her family left Hungary to come to America. Her father was tired of he military oppression and longed for freedom. The family settled in the wilds of Wisconsin. There the Kumer family was happy and carefree for a number of years. Then tragedy struck. While working in the forest their father was struck by a falling tree and was killed. This caused much sorrow for Mrs. Kumer - she never fully recovered. She became sick and passed away in August 1880. The children were left alone with no parents or other relatives to care for them. Their neighbors sent the children to St. Joseph's Orphans Home in Green Bay, Wisconsin. They lived here for several years. When Miss Kumer was thirteen she was granted permission to have visitors. On September 29, 1888 Nicholas' mother met this child and fell in love with her. She decided to take her home and Miss Kumer received a good education and learned to cook, sew and keep house. She also became an accomplished musician. In 1893, Nicholas once more journeyed to Wisconsin with three-fold intention - to visit his mother, to go to the Chicago World's Fair and to pay court to Miss Kumer, who by now had become quite a beautiful girl. They did not become engaged until December of 1894 when Miss Kumer finally consented to become Nicholas' bride. They were married in St. Joseph's Catholic Church at the 9:00 mass on February 22, 1895 in Santa Anna, California. After the reception and breakfast they returned to Los Angeles by train, where a wonderful wedding dinner was in readiness for them, turkey with all the trimmitwo weeks of traveling all over Southern California on their honeymoon. After this they resided in Los Angeles for over a year and a half and then moved to their ranch in Antelope Valley where Nicholas built a small house and barn.

In January of 1895, Nicholas sent a sample of Antelope Valley almonds that he had grown on his homestead to the world's fair in Atlanta, Georgia. He received first prize, as the best almonds in the world, this is on record at the State Capitol of Georgia. The secretary of the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Los Angeles also made this statement at that time, "There is no finer grapes, grain or other fruit grown then in Antelope Valley and the finest almonds in the world are raised in Antelope Valley."

After passing through three of the driest years, 1893, 1894 and 1895 Nicholas planted another orchard of about twenty acres of almonds in the spring of 1897. He also raised one of the largest crops of wheat in Antelope Valley grown on summer fallowed dry land. He harvested over 45 bushels of wheat per acre. This record stands uncontested to this day.

Nicholas, having farmed and pioneered all these years, decided in 1900 to lease his ranch out and devote the greater part of his time to bee culture. His leisure time was spent prospecting and mining for different kinds of minerals. In the course of time he was directly responsible for good mining laws to be written into the statute books of the State of California. He also caused the investigation that exposed the greatest mining fraud in the history of the United States, when he proved that the Gold Bullfrog mining stock of Goldfield, Nevada was worthless. This stock had caused thousands of honest people to lose their lifetime savings and property and also caused several to commit suicide.

In 1917, during the First World War, he raised great quantities of honey, which found its way into the armed forces for medicinal purposes. He also bought war bonds and towards the last of the war invested in victory bonds. Nicholas raised a family of eight children and saw his oldest son marry in 1924 and begin to raise his own children. This caused him to decide to take life a bit easier. Then tragedy struck the Cochems family. After midnight on March 13, 1928 the St. Francis dam broke and his oldest daughter perished in the resultant flood. Peter Nicholas Cochems died on October 24, 1928 in Los Angeles.

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