Drilling for Black Gold: Celebrating the First Temple Lease Oil Well, July 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

About a month after the first oil well came in on the Temple lease at the Montebello field at the end of June, the family threw a massive party near their home of five years, the Basye Adobe (built in 1869 by Rafael Basye and long used as a store and saloon, to celebrate their incredible stroke of good fortune.

In October 1912, Walter P. Temple, with representation by his long-time friend, El Monte store owner and real estate investor Milton Kauffman, purchased 60 acres of land at the northeastern edge of the Montebello Hills and some flat lands adjoining the Rio Hondo (Old San Gabriel River.)

From the Homestead collection, this is an original invitation to the “Bull Head Supper” held by the Temple family at their home in Old Mission to celebrate the successful completion of the first well at their oil lease in the Montebello Field, July 1917.

Remarkably, the property, part of the 2,363-acre Rancho La Merced, had belonged to Walter’s father, F.P.F. Temple, before the spectacular collapse of the family’s Los Angeles bank, Temple and Workman, in 1876.  Because of a loan to the bank from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the land went to Baldwin when he foreclosed on the loan three years later.

Baldwin, after F.P.F.’s death, did sell 50 acres of the Temple holdings to the family in 1881 and Walter and his younger brother Charles inherited what was called the “Temple Homestead” upon their mother’s death in 1892.  Walter still had the Homestead when he decided to buy the 60 acres, but here’s another amazing part of the story.

At about four feet long, this panoramic photograph shows hundreds of guests surrounding the Temple family at the supper.  Behind the group is a thick stand of what look to be wilow trees with part of the family’s home, the Basye Adobe (built in 1869 and once the home of Walter Temple’s sister, Lucinda Zuñiga) barely visible through the trees.

He didn’t have the cash, evidently, to buy the property, so the executor of the Baldwin estate, Baldwin’s nephew, Henry Unruh, agreed to loan Temple the money.  Why this was done remains a mystery.

In any case, Walter sold the Temple Homestead, presumably using some of the money to pay Unruh some of the loan, and moved his family to the Basye Adove.  A year-and-a-half later, in April 1914, the Temples’ oldest child, Thomas, ran home with the stunning news that he’d found oil on the hills above the residence.

Temples at 1917 oil barbeque
Walter and Laura Temple and their four surviving children (second row, 3rd through 8th from left) surrounded by a few of the guests at the party.  The woman second from the right at the bottom might be Lucille Workman Montenegro, daughter of Joseph Workman and a cousin of Walter Temple.

In 1915, the Temples signed a lease agreement with Standard Oil Company of California, which had a similar arrangement with Baldwin’s heirs, daughters Anita Baldwin and Clara Stocker.  A test well on their much larger part of the hills was successful and was brought into production at the end of the following year.  Work immediately began on the first Temple well and it, located just a short distance east of the Baldwin well, also proved to be a producer and was finished on 25 June 1917.

JH Temple & others 1917 barbeque
Walter Temple’s brother, John, is third from the left in the third row, wearing a bow tie.   Below him and to the left is his only daughter Edith. Two persons over from John is one of his sons, F.P.F II, while the man third from the right in the same row, with a light bow tie, is Boyle Workman, a cousin who served as Los Angeles City Council president from 1919 to 1927.  A part of the Temple family home, the Basye Adobe, can be glimpsed through the trees.

That led to what the Temples called a “bulls-head supper” held in a large cleared area of the “Temple Grounds” just south of the Basye Adobe and a little east of that first well.  On the invitation shown here, the area is called “Old Mission,” a name that hearkens to the original location of the Mission San Gabriel, which was probably situated just a little north of the Basye Adobe.  The mission, made of tule brush and wood, only remained at the site for a few years before flooding from the San Gabriel River (Rio Hondo) forced a relocation to higher, dryer ground at the current site.

Kauffman & others Temple barbeque 1917
Walter Temple’s long-time friend and business manager, Milton Kauffman, is in the light cap and white shirt and tie at the left of the second row.  Over his right shoulder with a dark cap and dark tie might be Kauffman’s brother, Joseph, who died about 14 months later in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in France at the end of the First World War.  Walter Temple built a memorial to Joseph just a stone’s throw away from where this photo was taken–the monument has been, since spring 1930, located at Temple City Park.

According to the Alhambra News of 24 July 1917 some 1,000 persons attended the gathering, which included dancing and, presumably, a good deal of libations (just a little while before the onset of Prohibition).   Note that the invite refers to good music, a good dance floor, and refreshments served at specified booth.

In the Homestead’s collection are three invitations to the event and an original panoramic photograph of hundreds of guests from the celebration.  A good four feet long, the image shows the group standing in front of a dense clump of what look to be willow trees and the adobe can barely be seen behind it.  At the far left, or west end, of the group, the wooden derrick of Temple well #1 is clearly visible up on the hill.

Temple barbeque oil well on hill
At the far left end of the group photo are a couple of nieces (dark and light dresses fourth and fifth from left in the second row) of Walter Temple through his sister Margarita Temple Rowland.  Note the Temple oil well up on the hill to the northwest of the group.

At the center of the large gathering are the Temple family (a detail shows them up close), while other family members are scattered throughout the assemblage, as is Milton Kauffman and, perhaps, his brother Joseph (the subject of recent posts of the memorial erected by Temple on the oil lease after Joseph died in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in the waning days of the First World War).  It is assumed that there was at least some representation of Standard Oil officials, lease field workers and others associated with the business side of things, while most guests were probably family and friends.

More at Temple barbeque 1917
It’s always interesting to see the varied dress, poses, expressions, levels of distraction and other elements to group photos!  As can be seen at the lower left, there were at least some benches used for seating.

About this time, the Temples were readying to leave the Basye Adobe and rent a home in Monterey Park.  After all, who would want to live amongst the noise and smells of a nascent, but growing oil field, where the second Temple well was already being drilled and others not far behind?

By the end of November, enough money was coming in that the family could afford to not only buy a large Craftsman-style residence in Alhambra and the 75-acre Workman Homestead, which had been lost to foreclosure by Walter’s brother nearly two decades before, in 1899.  In fact, John appears in the celebration photo and was asked to run the Temple Oil Station, a gas station Walter built near the adobe.

Adrian Temple others Temple barbeque 1917
The far right, or east, side of the group includes one fellow happy to raise a cheer for the Temples.  Another son of Walter’s brother, John, is at the far left in the third row.

At the time of the July “supper,” the Temples were probably still a little awe-struck by the staggering turn of events that marked the bringing in of the first well.  Future posts in this series will look at further developments at the Temple lease, so look for those continuations of the story.

3 thoughts

  1. I feel so lucky to have a place dedicated to the history of my family and the early days here in Southern California.

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