by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When, in 1907, Walter P. Temple sued Lafayette F. Lewis, the owner of the 75-acre Workman Homestead, Temple was seeking to halt the further degradation of El Campo Santo cemetery, the final resting place of his parents, grandparents and several of his siblings. While the ranch was lost by his brother, John, less than a decade prior, it seems unlikely that Walter could have entertained much hope in the family’s regaining the Homestead and the best that could have been expected was to prevent more damage.
Lewis, clearly seeking to avoid paying damages that Temple won in his suit, sold the Homestead at the end of 1907 to Eugene Bassett and his son-in-law Thurston H. Pratt. Pratt moved his family on to the ranch and occupied the Workman House, remaining there for several years. Later, the Homestead was leased by Pratt, who lived in South Los Angeles for years and Bassett, who resided in Pasadena, to companies which used the tract as a slaughterhouse and as a fruit and vegetable cannery, these operations being conducted in the wineries built by William Workman in the 1860s.
A decade after Temple’s suit, in late June 1917, the first oil well came in at his 60-acre property near Montebello, a discovery usually attributed to a fortunate find by his nine-year old son, Thomas, of oil indications, while the youngster was playing in the Montebello Hills above the family’s adobe home.
Wasting little time, once royalties came in on that and a second well completed later in the year, Temple moved to acquire the Homestead and, on 26 November 1917, a century ago this week, finalized a deal to buy the 75-acre parcel from Pratt and Bassett.
In the deed, the boundaries of the property include references to the starting point being at “a fence post in the center of San José Creek [now a flood control channel];” then to a point being at a “fence post in fence in the line of the West side of Walnut Orchard marked “E.J.B.,” this being Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who took possession of most of William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente in 1879; to the right of way of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the track of which runs parallel with Valley Boulevard north of the ranch.
The purchase price was $40,000, a substantial sum representing well over $500 an acre, though there were installments, starting with a $100 payment due upon execution of the deed. By 18 January 1918, $2400 was due to Pratt and Bassett, with payments of $2500 due quarterly in April, July and October. These amounts and terms likely reflected assumed oil royalty income for the Temples from Montebello. Then, the balance of $30,000 was due by 1 October 1922 with interest on deferred payment at 6% per year, payable quarterly.
When that first $10,000 was delivered to Pratt and Bassett, the two were to issue “a good and sufficient deed conveying said land . . . free and clear of all liens and encumbrances” and a promissory note issued that left the balance of $30,000 secured by a first mortgage on the Homestead. It was stated that the Temples could pay any of existing balances at any time and complete payment before the October 1922 end date on the note.
There was, however, a notable additional element to the purchase. Namely, the document continued,
said property is now under farm lease to a Japanese by the name of K. Yatsuda; that said lease is dated October 2, 1916, and the term thereof commenced January 1, 1917, and will expire December 31, 1919; that the annual rental under said lease is Eight Hundred Dollars ($800.00) . . . that said lease is unrecorded, but the second party [Temple] hereby agrees to accept said property subject therein.
With taxes paid by Pratt and Bassett through the end of the year, it was stated that Temple would assume those responsibilities for 1918 and that he “shall have free and uninterrupted possession of said premises . . . subject only to the farm lease above mentioned.” Obviously, if Temple failed to keep to the terms of the agreement, it would be terminated and cancelled.
The lease to Yatsuda, who, with all Japanese residents in California, was barred by state law from owning property, may not have continued through the end of 1919 and a deal may have been made to terminate the lease early with a penalty paid by Temple. This is because work on the mausoleum built by the latter in the cemetery began in 1919 and a brass plaque installed by Temple in a planter between the Workman House and La Casa Nueva has his name and that year (the plaque was taken by the family when they vacated the ranch in 1930 and returned a half-century later when the museum was created.)
The news of the purchase was reported in the 30 November 1917 edition of the Whittier News, as reprinted from an article in the La Puente Valley Journal. The article began with “the story of the sudden turn in the fortunes of Walter Temple has been told with many variations, since the Standard Oil Company [of California] brought in its first well on the Temple Lease, near Montebello.” Then, the reprinted piece, riddled with factual errors, was given in full. It started with:
Walter P. Temple, one of the last of the scions of the old Temple family that settled in the Puente hills when there were only two of three settlers [Indians were left out of this reckoning of population] in the whole sweep of valley from the mountains to the ocean, has come into a fortune. His income is over a hundred dollars a day, and it is increasing in amount as the days and weeks go by. A few months ago, Walter Temple was a poor man, not only poor but with little hope of ever being anything but poor.
It certainly wasn’t true that only two or three non-Indians lived between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific! After a brief description of Temple’s grandparents, the Workmans (described, however, as Temples!), the piece continued that Temple “retained 65 acres near what is now known as Montebello,” and, he was not “prosperous, but he had in him the hope that he had inherited from the sturdy ancestors of the early plains.”
The change in his fortune, the Journal went on, was not due to his son finding oil, but that
one day not long ago, workmen who had been driving piles for a county bridge over the river at that point [near his ranch close to Montebello] noticed a black scum of oil emerging from the hole made by the huge pile. It was not long before experts examined it, and the result has been that Montebello has become a great oil-producing center.
It was stated, as well, that Temple “has refused a million dollars for his ranch,” in favor of his one-eighth share in the proceeds of the crude extracted from the wells on his lease. Consequently,
With the money which is now flowing into his hands he has returned to Puente, and has bought back the old Temple homestead, which has gone through several hands since the days when the Temples became scattered. The deal was made this week and the deed turned over by Pratt and Bassett, the owners, to Walter P. Temple, for a consideration of $40,000.
Again, this is not a factual account, in that Temple was neither returning to or buying back the property, that it was the “Workman Homestead,” and that the deed was not handed over because the terms of the agreement, as noted above, provided for that when the whole of the purchase price was remanded to Pratt and Bassett. But, there is added interest in the alleged plans of Temple with his new property.
The new [note Temple was “new”] owner is now engaged in removating and repairing the home of his ancestors, The old homestead is to have many expensive repairs and additions. One of the first things done by Temple is to repair and put into shape again the little cemetery, where enclosed with an iron fence, lie the remains of the original Temple pioneers.
Improvements on both the Workman House and El Campo Santo did not take place right away, because of that lease to Yatsuda, but it is more than telling that the piece observed that “someone with an ability to write fiction can take this story and make it interesting. The best part of it is that it is true.”