by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Thomas Workman Temple II, the eldest child of Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead from 1917 to 1932, and Laura Gonzalez, has been frequently mentioned in this blog, from his avid photography that documented much of the use and building at the ranch during the 1920s and of his family generally; to his work as a genealogist and historian; and as a collector of family artifacts and history.
Because today is his birthday, this seems like an apropos time to summarize his life and career. Thomas was born on 4 January 1905, a little over a year after his parents, whose romance began in the 1880s, married on Thanksgiving Day 1903 in San Diego. At the time, his father owned a portion of the 50-acre Temple Homestead, situated south of El Monte and which was a remnant of about 1,200 acres that was given in 1851 to his parents, F.P.F. Temple and Antonia Margarita Workman by her father, William Workman.
Walter Temple built a wood-frame home on his section of the ranch, his brother Charles lived on the Homestead until he sold his interest to Walter and left the area, and he and Laura began their family there. The other children included Alvina, who lived just two weeks in February 1906; Agnes (1907-1961); Walter, Jr. (1909-1998); and Edgar (1910-1977.) Walter was a farmer, working with walnuts mainly, but also was involved in other work, including as a teamster and insurance agent.
Thomas started his education about 1910 by attending the local La Puente School, up the road on Durfee Avenue in South El Monte, an institution whose site was donated by his grandfather in the 1860s as public education came to the area then known as Misión Vieja (Old Mission—because the original site of Mission San Gabriel was nearby).
A couple of years later, Walter sold the Temple Homestead and acquired 60 acres just a few hundred yards to the west on the other side of the Rio Hondo. This was land owned by his parents and then lost to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin after the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and a foreclosure of a loan made by Baldwin to the stricken institution. The Temples moved into an adobe house, built about 40 years earlier by the Basye family, and called part of their property, at the northeastern extremity of the Montebello Hills, “Temple Heights.”
In April 1914, in a tale that grew longer and more fanciful over succeeding decades, nine-year old Thomas was playing up in the hills after a spring rain and found a pool of water that was black, bubbling and gave off a rotten egg smell. He ran home and told his father that he’d found oil. Walter scrambled up the hill and lit a match, not knowing which direction and how large the vent was and the natural gas that emitted sent out a bright flame.
The following year, the Temples executed a lease of the 60-acre property with Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, which also had a lease on the remainder of the hill property with the daughters and heirs of Baldwin, Clara Baldwin Stocker and Anita Baldwin. After a test well on their portion of the hills, completed in late 1916, proved successful, Standard drilled its first well on the Temple lease and brought it into production at the end of June 1917. By the end of the year, the family purchased a house in Alhambra as their primary residence and also acquired the Workman Homestead, where they began extensive remodeling and new construction.
Over the next several years, some two dozen wells were drilled on the Temple property, including several gushers and major producers, including the ninth, brought in during spring 1919 close to the Baldwin lease and which was an enormous success. Some early newspaper accounts played up Thomas’ fortuitous discovery, though at least one other source reported that the oil was found by road crews pounding in supports for a bridge crossing the Rio Hondo on the Temple’s land.
In any case, the sudden propulsion of the family to wealth obviously brought enormous changes. For one, Thomas was pulled from the local school (soon renamed Temple School) and sent to a military academy in Los Angeles and then one in Pasadena. It was the World War I period and military schools were at their peak of popularity. His sister and brothers also went to private schools in the area.
Thomas was the first to leave the area, when, in 1919, he was sent to the preparatory high school at Santa Clara University, a school which some of his uncles attended a half-century or so ago. After completing the program in 1922, he returned home and enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, with the idea being that he would study engineering and then assist his father in oil projects that Walter was working on in several areas regionally and outside California.
Before classes started at CalTech in the fall, however, the Temples took a summer vacation to Mexico and returned home inspired to build a new residence next to the Workman Home, which they used on weekend visits to the Homestead. With a crew of masons hired from Guadalajara, the family embarked on the building of La Casa Nueva in the last half of the year.
Tragedy then struck in late December, when Laura Temple died of colon cancer. Thomas, bereft by the loss of his mother, withdrew from CalTech and decided to return to Santa Clara University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree with emphasis on law in 1926. During his college years, he also was, as he expressed it, “bitten by the history bug.” This meant a budding interest in his family genealogy and history, as well as the pre-American history of California.
After finishing at Santa Clara, Thomas and his brothers were sent, in fall 1926, to the east coast (Agnes went north after finishing high school in 1925 to attend college in the Bay Area), with the younger boys completing high school at a private academy in northeast Massachusetts and Thomas taking a tough three-year graduate course at Harvard Law School.
The intention was to have him become his father’s attorney and business partner, but just before the family took the summer trip to the Temple’s ancestral home in Massachusetts, Walter Temple took out bonds to address financial issues with his oil and real estate projects, the latter including the creation of Temple City.
As Thomas diligently devoted himself to his legal studies, Walter Temple’s financial fortunes continued to decline. La Casa Nueva was completed in late 1927, several months after Walter’s last real estate project, in downtown Alhambra, was finished. This was followed by oil drilling efforts in places like Ventura, the success of which was desperately needed, but proved fleeting.
In 1929, Thomas and his siblings graduated from their respective schools, with his brothers enrolled in the fall at Santa Clara University, but the situation was dire as the Great Depression broke out in October. Even as properties were sold, Walter’s situation could not be improved. In spring 1930, he moved to Baja California to save money and leased the Homestead to a military academy, hoping to preserve the ranch as his last remaining real estate holding.
Meantime, Thomas decided not to pursue law and explored working in banking before turning to his passion for genealogy and history. Moving in with his mother’s sister in a historic adobe within walking distance of Mission San Gabriel, he delved into both family and regional history. In preparation for Los Angeles’ sesquicentennial (150th birthday) in September 1931, Thomas did considerable research on the founding of the pueblo and his findings included establishing the city’s birth date as 4 September. This is still observed, though later researchers question whether it is the actual founding date.
By 1934, Thomas and another man wrote a book-length study about early California history and that September he and his fiancee, Gabriela Quiroz, began a tradition of hosting a “pioneer reception” as part of the fiesta celebrating the founding of Mission San Gabriel. The continued with that event for nearly forty years and Thomas became the historian of the mission and the city. He and Gabriela were married in November 1938, just days after the death of his father. The couple, who were childless, lived in San Gabriel for most of their life together.
He also began a career as a genealogist, hired to investigate the origins of descendants of families from the Mexican and Spanish eras and which involved his being among the first to delve deeply into the original mission records. It was a difficult task given the poor condition of the documents and the often difficult-to-decipher Spanish.
He was widely known as an authority on pre-American history and for his transcriptions of mission records. However, later work has led to questions about the accuracy of his genealogical endeavors, though many people still refer to his pioneering efforts in the field. He made trips to Mexico and Spain in his later years and commissioned a medal to commemorate, in 1969, the 200th anniversary of the Gaspar de Portolá expedition, the first land-based European excursion in California.
Despite a diagnosis of advanced throat cancer, Thomas continued his work and made it a goal to live long enough to be actively involved in the 200th birthday of his beloved Mission San Gabriel, which was celebrated in September 1971. Just a few months later, and two weeks after his 67th birthday, Thomas passed away in January 1972. A signal honor was paid to him when he became (and remains) the only layperson to be buried next to the mission church in an area reserved for clergy.
His was a remarkable life from humble origins on a small ranch, to the discovery of oil that catapulted his family to wealth, to his years of education ending just as his family’s fortune waned, to his dedication to history and genealogy over decades, even as some of his work has been questioned. The donation by his widow and family members of his photographs of the family and Homestead and of papers he assiduously collected over his lifetime mean that his legacy continues through museum programs and publications, including this blog.