All Over the Map: Temple Oil Lease at Montebello

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There is plenty of historical irony in the complicated story of the Workman and Temple families.  One of the most notable is, undoubtedly, the remarkable discovery of oil on property owned by Walter P. Temple in the Montebello Hills area in 1914.

Amazing enough on its own is the fact that the lucky find was made by Temple’s oldest child, Thomas, who was nine years old when playing on the northeast corner of the hills, after a period of rain, he stumbled upon a pool of water on the family’s ranch that was bubbling, turning black and was accompanied by a smell like rotten eggs.

After he ran down to the Temple home (the Basye Adobe, built in 1869, and which long served as a store and saloon in the community of Misión Vieja or Old Mission) to notify his family, Walter contacted Standard Oil Company of California.  A lease was arranged and in June 1917, just as America was entering World War I, the first Temple oil well was “put on the pump” after a successful strike.  Over coming years, some two dozen wells were drilled with several being gushers and big producers, bringing the Temples, who had a one-eighth royalty, into a significant fortune.

The Montebello oil field did not have a particularly long history before most of its reserves were played out, but it was a major field during the late 1910s and through the 1920s.  The Temple lease of some 60 acres was just a small piece of the field and its most successful well, Temple #9, was brought in during the spring of 1919.  That well happened to be located on the western edge of the lease, very close to some of the most successful wells in the field generally, almost all of which was owned by Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, the heirs of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.

This is where the heavy irony comes in.  The Montebello oil field primarily was within the Rancho La Merced, granted in 1844 by Governor Manuel Micheltorena to Casilda Soto de Lobo, one of the few women to receive a Spanish or Mexican land grant in California.  She built an adobe on a bluff overlooking the Rio Hondo (the old San Gabriel River channel) and stocked her ranch with cattle and horses.  Within a few years, however, and in the early years of the American era she got into financial trouble.

William Workman, owner of the Homestead and of half of Rancho La Puente to the east of La Merced, loaned Lobo $2,000 and her ranch was put up as collateral for the loan, which then went unpaid.  At the end of 1850, just after California entered the Union, Workman foreclosed and took possession of La Merced.  He then gave the ranch in half shares to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, who occupied the Soto adobe, and to his daughter, Antonia Margarita and her husband, F.P.F. Temple.

This detail from a 1918 map in the Homestead’s collection of oil properties in the Whittier Narrows area, shows the Walter P. Temple lease at the left, where San Gabriel Boulevard comes south from the upper left and meets Lincoln Boulevard leading west to the left center.  To the right where it says “F.E. Keeler OIl Co.” and “St. Helens Pet. Co.” is the Temple Homestead, where Walter grew up.  At the far right is the Rancho La Puente.

The Temples built a large L-shaped adobe on the bottomlands just east of the Rio Hondo and, over twenty-five years, built up a prosperous life at La Merced.  With eight of eleven surviving children, as well as retainers and ranch workers, the couple expanded their adobe by adding a second floor and then built, in the early 1870s, a French Second Empire brick home adjacent to the older dwelling.

Their share of La Merced had cattle, sheep and horses, as well as field crops, vineyards, orchards and other crops.  Even when there were difficult times, such as a flood in early 1862 that forced the Temples to escape from their home on a raft and a devastating drought the followed, wiping out much of the region’s cattle industry, the Temples weathered the storms and expanded their wealth.

By the mid-1870s, during greater Los Angeles’ first boom, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman were business partners in banking, real estate, oil prospecting (as recently discussed in a blog post here) and other endeavors and were the two largest land owners and wealthiest citizens in Los Angeles County.

In late August 1875, the boom went bust, however, and the private bank of Workman and Temple, one of two commercial banks in Los Angeles, was vulnerable to the downturn because of heavy investing with depositors’ monies and poor accounting and other management practices.  The bank suspended business on 1 September, as noted in a blog post here, and, that being the day of the county elections, Temple won the contest for county treasurer.

As bank president, Temple sought out a loan, but had difficulty in finding a willing source until he met, in late November, with San Francisco capitalist Baldwin, who reaped a fortune from a lucky accident when Nevada silver mining speculation tapped out and left him a huge profit from the sale of stock after he’d intended to exit the market.  Buying Los Angeles-area real estate, such as the Rancho Santa Anita in what is now the Arcadia area, Baldwin had his eye on Workman and Temple and their vast holdings.

The deal made to loan the bank money was, in Temple’s words, “on hard terms.”  In fact, they were virtually impossible to meet, but, blinded by desperation, Temple agreed to them, when bankruptcy probably would have been better.  The bank reopened in early December, needed an infusion of cash when depositors flocked to the stricken institution to close their accounts down and was refused further funds from Baldwin when the situation worsened by the first days of 1876.  On 13 January, the bank closed permanently.

Baldwin waited over three years to foreclose, allowing the interest to accumulate to guarantee that no one could repay the loan and assuring that the property put up by Temple and Workman as collateral for the loan (this was a quarter century after Workman did the same to Lobo) would go to him.  In late 1879, the foreclosure was completed.  Workman committed suicide in May 1876 and Temple (who was allowed to serve his two-year term as county treasurer, though he did little work) suffered a series of strokes, with the fatal blow coming months after the foreclosure was finalized.

This is a close-up of the same general area from a 1924 map, also in the museum’s collection.  The Temple lease, marked as “S.O. Co. [Standard Oil of California]” is at the upper left.
Baldwin did allow Temple’s widow, Margarita Workman to buy the family’s homestead of 50 acres in 1881, while he took over control of virtually everything else around it.  Margarita lived about a decade further, struggling to keep her finances together and raise her younger children.  Upon her death during a flu epidemic in early 1892, the Temple property passed to her two youngest children, Walter and Charles.

The brothers subdivided the property and resided on it for about a decade or so until Charles’ legal troubles involving the death of his first wife and his killing of her brother in an argument over Charles’ culpability for her death led him to sell his interest to Walter and leave the area.

About that time, on Thanksgiving Day 1903, Walter married his longtime sweetheart, Laura Gonzalez, who grew up very close to the Temples in the Old Mission community and served as an employee of Walter’s brother Francis, who owned the Workman Homestead in the 1880s.  The couple settled into a new home Walter built on the Temple place and had five children, four living into adulthood, while residing there.

In fall 1912, however, apparently on a tip from Walter’s friend, El Monte merchant Milton Kauffman, who dabbled in oil and real estate, Temple approached H.A. Unruh, Baldwin’s nephew and executor (Baldwin having died three years prior), about buying some property in and near the Montebello Hills.  Kauffman, evidenrly, believed that oil might be in the area due to its proximity to recent finds in the Whittier area and encouraged Temple to seek out a deal with Unruh.

Remarkably, Unruh, with the approval of his cousins, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, agreed, even when Temple could not afford to buy the agreed-upon 60 acres outright.  So, a loan was made to Temple to consummate the sale.  Perhaps the Baldwin heirs, who retained all of the nearby property, felt sorry for Temple in making the deal. In any case, the sale was made and Temple moved his family just a few hundred yards west into the Basye Adobe and the astounding revelation of oil followed.

The maps highlighted here, from 1918 and 1924, show the Temple lease within the broader Montebello field.  Shortly after the first wells came in, Temple formed his own oil company and invested in others, with projects throughout the region as well as in Mexico, Texas and Alaska.  As a small player competing with the big firms for good, proven oil-bearing lands, however, Temple far more often came up empty than hit a successful pool of crude.

By 1930, having also aggressively moved into real estate in Los Angeles, Alhambra, San Gabriel, El Monte, and his own townsite of Temple City, Temple was in dire financial straits and soon lost the Montebello lease.  By then, the field was significantly diminishing in production, though oil operations have continued.  The days of active prospecting, however, may be numbered, both for the Temple lease and for the larger field.  Maps like these help document what was once a major part of our regional economy and a big part of the Workman and Temple family history.

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