Drilling for Black Gold on the Temple Lease, Montebello Oil Field, June 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A century ago today, on 25 June 1917, the Los Angeles Times ran a short article on developments in oil fields in and around the Fullerton area, where big strikes were made from 1897 onward in places like Olinda, Brea Canyon, and others.  One of the pieces of news in the article was

Temple lease No. 1, drilled by the Standard Oil Company in the Montebello field, has been brought in and is making more than 300 barrels of high quality oil daily.

The story of how Walter P. Temple and his family discovered and benefited from the oil found on their 60-acre property at the northeastern tip and nearby areas of the Montebello Hills is a remarkable one that went back over 65 years before the Times piece was published.

Temple lease 1 LAX 25Jun17
Mention of the successful “putting on the pump” of Temple lease oil well #1, Los Angeles Times, 25 June 1917.

The Rancho La Merced, a former ranch of the Mission San Gabriel, the original site of which was just a few hundred yards north of the ranch boundary, encompassed just under 2,400 acres of land in the Whittier Narrows area where the San Gabriel River bore through the hill range that had two parts: the Montebello Hills to the west and the large Puente Hills chain to the east.

After the California missions were secularized by the Mexican government in the 1830s, former ranch lands held by the missions were made available for private ownership.  La Merced, in 1844, was granted to María Casilda Soto de Lobo.  It should be pointed out that, unlike women in the United States, women in Mexico and its territories, such as Alta California, were able to own real estate and Señora Lobo, a widow, was granted the ranch just as any other land grant was made.

She built an adobe house on a bluff at the southeastern end of the Montebello Hills, overlooking the Río Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel (the new and current channel was created during a flood year in the winter of 1867-68.)  Presumably, she stocked the ranch with cattle and horses as other ranch owners did, but within several years of residing on the property, she got into financial trouble and needed a loan.

She borrowed $2,000 from William Workman, owner of the Homestead and half of the massive Rancho La Puente, which bordered La Merced to the northeast.  When Señora Lobo was unable to repay the loan, Workman foreclosed and, at the end of 1850, assumed ownership of La Merced.

1877 map La Merced
A detail from a copy of an 1877 regional map showing the Rancho La Merced, next to the “Old Mission” community where the Mission San Gabriel’s original location was from 1771 to 1775.  The 2,363 acre ranch extended to a corner in present-day Monterey Park and included much of Montebello.

The following year, he gave half the ranch to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, who moved into the Lobo adobe and added a wing to it (it is now a historic site operated by the Montebello Historical Society) and half to his daughter Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband, F.P.F. Temple.  While Sánchez controlled the southern part of the ranch, the Temples took up residence on the northern portion, building a L-shaped adobe house at what is now the southeast corner of Rosemead Boulevard and San Gabriel Boulevard/Durfee Avenue.

Over the next twenty-five years, Sánchez and the Temples raised livestock and farmed on the ranch, but the Montebello Hills was worth little more than grazing land.  By the mid-1870s, F.P.F. Temple, a banker with his father-in-law Workman and a major business figure in Los Angeles, was pursuing early oil development in the San Fernando field in today’s Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles.  Yet, he had no inkling (and there was no reason to expect him to) that there was oil on his own ranch!

After a statewide economic panic in late 1875 affected the Temple and Workman bank and a loan was being worked out between the owners of the stricken institution and Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, an interesting thing happened.  William Workman finally recorded the deed he issued nearly a quarter-century before to Sánchez and Temple for La Merced.  Even though the operated the ranch as if it was theirs, the deed was still with Workman until he had to get it recorded in preparation for the Baldwin loan!

The bank loan could not save the institution and it collapsed in early 1876.  Baldwin waited over three years to allow the interest to accumulate and make it undesirable or impossible for anyone to pay the loan balance off and then foreclosed in 1879.  He took possession of most of La Merced, though he sold the Temple homes and 50 acres to Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple in 1881 (her husband, F.P.F., died the previous year) and allowed Sánchez to remain in his home and some acreage around it until his death, which took place in the 1880s and then took possession.

Basye Adobe Temple Oil Field 1920s
This 1920s photo shows the Basye Adobe, which the Temple family lived in from 1912 to 1917 and which then became Standard Oil Company of California’s Temple lease headquarters.  The oil wells in the photo are on the lease.  At the right is San Gabriel Boulevard heading northwest.

For over thirty years, Baldwin owned the majority of the ranch, also not knowing (again, why would he?) that there was oil there.  He died in 1909 and, after his estate was settled within a couple of years, his daughters Anita and Clara became the owners of the ranch.

Then a strange thing happened.  Walter P. Temple, who succeeded, in 1892 after his mother’s death, to the ownership of the 50-acre Temple Homestead with his younger brother Charles and then bought out his brother about 1905, approached the Baldwin estate in 1912 with a proposal.  He wanted to buy some land in the Montebello Hills and adjacent to the Río Hondo from the estate, but couldn’t put up the cash to buy the 60 acres outright, so he suggested receiving a loan from the estate.

Why Baldwin’s nephew and executor, Henry A. Unruh, agreed to this is not known, but, in October 1912, the deal was struck.  Temple sold the family homestead, held for 60 years by his parents and he and his brother, and then moved onto his new holdings just a half mile or so to the west.  The new property included an adobe, built by the Basye family in 1869 and long used as a store and saloon.  In fact, Walter’s sister, Lucinda Temple de Zuñiga lived there at the end of the 1800s when her husband, Manuel, ran the store and saloon.

Within about 18 months of residing on their new ranch, the Temples were thunderstruck when their eldest child, Thomas, discovered oil on their holdings—a story that will be told next April on this blog, so look for that.  In 1915, a lease was signed with Standard Oil Company of California, which also made a similar arrangement with the Baldwin daughters and active prospecting for oil began.

Montebello oil field LAX 3 Sep16
An article referring to the history of the area encompassed by the Standard Oil leases from the Baldwins and Temples at Montebello, Los Angeles Times, 3 September 1916.

It is to be wondered, though, whether Walter Temple knew that, because oil discoveries were happening in places like Fullerton, Whittier and other nearby locales, the possibility that there was oil in the Montebello Hills was reason to try and acquire some of the land his parents once had in the hopes that black crude would be found.

In any case, Standard started drilling on the Baldwin lease towards the end of 1916.  A Times article from 3 September was titled “Standard Oil on Hallowed Ground” and used information provided by Temple about the fact that the first Mission San Gabriel was nearby and that the Soto-Sánchez Adobe was important in the history of the area.

Temple also related that historical “relics” were found on the land that Standard was looking to use for oil drilling, including a human skeleton, a pair of old spurs and stone bowl that apparently had asphaltum on it.  Temple told the paper that he loaned the items, along with a silk bed spread from his parents, for a film called The Daughter of the Don which premiered in Los Angeles in August.

Montebello oil field Mining and Oil Bulletin Nov 1917
The Homestead collection has a copy of the August 1917 issue of the Mining and Oil Bulletin, which includes a long feature about the Montebello field and first Baldwin and Temple wells.

The first Baldwin well was started in December 1916 and brought successfully into production the last day of February 1917 at 650 barrels per day.  Emboldened by the find, Standard then sited the first Temple well in the northeast corner of the hills not far from the Baldwin well and began drilling on 31 March.

While at 2000 feet depth on 12 June, the company hit oil and the Temple well was initially identical in production to the Baldwin well at 650 barrels.  As the Times article noted, production, which was often the case, dropped to less than half within a short time, but the well was a steady producer.

At a gravity level of 23, indicating high quality, the price per barrel was then $1.03.  Immediately after the well was brought in, Standard  erected rigs for Temple wells 2 and 3 lower down the hill and to the east and north from the first well.

The Montebello oil field was officially inaugurated with the successful delivery of oil from these first Baldwin and Temple wells and it became a major field for several years, bringing greater wealth to the Baldwin daughters (who were already very rich) and a staggering return to wealth for Walter Temple, who was six years old when the family bank failed over forty years before.

More on the Temple lease in future posts in the “Drilling for Black Gold” series!

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