Another Temple Family Donation: A Cache of Letters, 1917-1944

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The support of the Homestead by members of the Workman and Temple family members is one of the most gratifying parts about working at this special historic site.  One of many elements of developing these relationships involves the donation of family artifacts which help to tell the history of the family and the greater Los Angeles region during our interpretive period of 1830 to 1930.

Today I met with Ruth Ann Michaelis, whose father Edgar Temple was the youngest surviving child of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez, owners of the Homestead from 1917-1932 and builders of La Casa Nueva.  Over the years, Ruth Ann has donated many artifacts, including photographs, documents, household items and more, including a great collection of material that she presented just before last June’s family reunion and farewell party for our longtime director, Karen Graham Wade.

Her gift today is a cache of hundreds of letters dating from 1917 to 1944, most of which were written by Ruth Ann’s uncle, Thomas W. Temple II, though there are some by other family members as well as friends and associates of the Temples.  These missives were a surprise find inside an old trunk that had been passed down within the family and was locked, but the keys were long gone.  A corner of the bottom of the trunk was carefully pried open, revealing the documents.

One particularly interesting sample from the collection is a very rare letter from Walter Temple to Thomas, dated 24 March 1928 and on letterhead reading “Workman Homestead / Puente, California.”  The correspondence began with an acknowledgement of several letters received from Thomas, who was a consistent letter-writer while away at his various schools, including, in 1928, Harvard Law School, where he was soon to earn his L.L.D.

This 24 March 1928 letter from Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead and builder of La Casa Nueva, to his eldest child, Thomas, is one of hundreds of missives donated today to the museum by his granddaughter, Ruth Ann Michaelis.

Mr. Temple followed by stating he’d received letters from his other two sons, Walter, Jr. and Edgar and noted “Edgar had been elected Captain of the Basketball team for the ensuing year.”  The two younger Temple sons were attending Governor Dummer Academy (now Governor’s Academy and the oldest continuously operating school in America) in South Byfield, Massachusetts, not far from Cambridge where Thomas was living and attending Harvard.

While Mr. Temple observed that both Walter, Jr. and Edgar “excel in athletics and music”, he cautioned that “at the same time they should not neglect their studies.”  Still, he looked forward to another year to complete their high school curriculum.  In fact, all four children graduated from their respective schools (daughter Agnes attended the all-women Dominican College in San Rafael, north of San Francisco) in spring 1929.

Mr. Temple then turned to news at the Homestead, pointing out that

I am enclosing [a] picture of [the] Tepee taken by Dr. Worden . . . The Tepee is finished and provides a quiet and cozy retreat for study, and office work.  It is surrounded on the East side with a veranda-like porch with eucalyptus posts supporting the thatched roof and hewn out to appear like Totem poles, as wel saw in Alaska.

Constructed just to the southwest of La Casa Nueva, the Tepee was a copy of a structure Mr. Temple stayed in while visiting the Soboba Hot Springs resort in San Jacinto near Idyllwild and Palm Springs.  Made mainly of adobe, with the upper walls built with bricks salvaged by Mr. Temple from the Temple Block, built by his father, F.P.F. Temple in the early 1870s, the Tepee has a main room that today contains the original office desk used by Mr. Temple and a small half-bath.  James Perry Worden was a historian hired by Mr. Temple to write a history of the Workman and Temple families, though the project was never completed.

There is also a substantial attic, where original blueprints and many family photos were stored.  Remarkably, when the Temples vacated the Homestead in 1930 and then lost the ranch two years later, they never returned to retrieve these and other items.  It remained for the Brown family, which operated El Encanto Sanitarium on the ranch for over a quarter century to preserve these items, which are now in the museum’s collection.

The second page of the letter discusses the recently completed Tepee, a retreat adjacent to La Casa Nueva, business activities including oil development in Ventura, and other news.

The letter continued with Mr. Temple’s assertion that “business affairs are running smoothly, but yet burdened with obligations which are being met as we go along.”  This was, to put it mildly, putting a positive spin on matters.  Using income from oil wells discovered by Thomas at family-owned property in the Montebello Hills, Mr. Temple invested heavily in oil projects throughout greater Los Angeles, as well as in Mexico, Texas and Alaska, and a flurry of real estate projects in downtown Los Angeles, Alhambra, El Monte, San Gabriel and the new Town of Temple.

But, by mid-1926, declining oil revenues and ramped-up spending, including the building of La Casa Nueva, led Mr. Temple and his business partners, Milton Kauffman and George Woodruff to take out bonds to raise cash for completing existing projects.  Woodruff, an attorney who helped structure the bond issue and worked to convince the Temples to economize in subsequent years, was discussed in the letter, with Mr. Temple writing, “Mr. Woodruff is a nice fellow . . .and a loyal friend, and [I’m] glad to have him with us in my affairs.”

As to other economic activities, Mr. Temple informed Thomas that “our [oil] leases in Ventura are looking very favorable and promising.  We own some 220 acres, some on the Avenue in Ventura where they now are drilling 4700 ft and the rest some miles out of town.”  The Ventura project did include several leases on the main road leading north from the city toward Ojai inland.  Unfortunately, the rosy projections about its prospects proved to be inaccurate and the yields there minimal.

Returning to the Homestead, Mr. Temple continued by reporting

The ranch is looking very presentable and [I] think you will enjoy our work and efforts when you come home.  Maud [Bassity, who managed the household at La Casa Nueva] is preparing a box of nice things to send you for the Easter Season.

Often, these boxes consisted of baked goods, fruit, nuts and other delicious edibles sent to the Temple sons across the country.  The letter then concluded with Mr. Temple writing “I understand the boys will stay with you during Lent.  Take care of them.”  He also stated there were enclosed photographs of a fishing trip Mr. Temple took with friends at San Bernardino.

Look for future posts highlighting original Workman and Temple family letters from the Homestead’s collection, including another example from Walter Temple from some forty years before today’s sample in the next few days!

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