Remnant Landscapes at Mision Vieja (Old Mission), South El Monte and Montebello

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Saturday morning I went out to the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte to give a volunteer training presentation on the history of the Misión Vieja (Old Mission) area around the center.  It’s a talk I’ve been giving for quite a number of years now, but, this time, I decided to take a walk through the center and then drove a mile or two away—in both cases to check out areas formerly owned and occupied by members of the Temple family.

As I noted in the discussion with the volunteers, Misión Vieja was the original site of Mission San Gabriel, established on the west bank of the Río Hondo, or Old San Gabriel River, in September 1771.  While proximity to water (and, therefore, abundant plant and animal life) seemed good, there is also too much of a good thing.  Flooding in the narrows where the river flows between the Montebello and Puente hills ranges forced the fathers to move the mission to higher and dryer ground.

A portion of the Whittier Narrows Center which sits on a portion of a nearly 133 acre ranch owned from 1876-1888 by John H. Temple, who then owned the Homestead until he lost it to foreclosure in 1899.

The old mission area remained the domain of San Gabriel until secularization was decreed in the 1830s, after which the several ranches in the area were granted to citizens, including Portrero Grande, Potrero de Felipe Lugo, Potrero Chico (ó La Misión Vieja), and La Merced.  The total of all four was over 8,000 acres and the grants all took place during the mid-1840s.

La Merced was a rare example of a grant to a woman (something, incidentally, American women could not legally do—that is, own real property) as widow Casilda Soto de Lobo obtained the rancho in 1844 and constructed a small adobe house on a bluff overlooking the Río Hondo.  In need of money, however, she borrowed $2,000 from William Workman of the neighboring Rancho La Puente and, unable to repay the loan, she lost the ranch to him.

Workman immediately turned the ranch over to his La Puente foreman Juan Matias Sánchez, who moved into the adobe house Casilda Soto de Lobo built and added a wing to it (it is now the Soto-Sanchez Adobe, owned by the City of Montebello), and F.P.F. Temple, Workman’s son-in-law.  The Temples built an adobe house near the present southeast corner of Rosemead Boulevard and the junction of San Gabriel Boulevard and Durfee Avenue, just a short distance south of the nature center.

It’s hard to image this landscape was once a working walnut farm, but the nature center as opened by the Audubon Society in 1939, so who knows how long before that the walnut ranch closed?

From the early 1850s to the mid 1870s, the Temple Homestead expanded significantly, with the spacious adobe having a wooden second floor added, as well as a two-story French Second Empire brick home built next door.  Fully fenced, the property had vineyards, orchards, grain fields, and grazing land for cattle and horses, among other elements and was quite a showpiece for its time.

Meanwhile, Sánchez, Temple and Workman eventually acquired the other ranches in the Old Mission area as their wealth and influence in the community grew.  By the late 1860s, Temple, with ambitions of being a major player in Los Angeles’ emerging business community, convinced Workman to join him in a banking enterprise with merchant Isaias W. Hellman.

The two ranchers and farmers should have let Hellman manage the bank and enjoyed the benefits of his talents and skills, but Temple wanted to be an active partner and the result was a split.  Hellman formed Farmers and Merchants Bank and later ran Wells Fargo, achieving stunning financial success.  Temple and Workman opened their own bank in late 1871, but proved to be startlingly unequipped to manage the institution.

Here is one very large and old (though how old is not known) walnut tree on the nature center property.

In late 1875, the bank received a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, but not without Sánchez pledging his half of La Merced as part of the collateral for the transaction (Workman kept the deed after his 1851 transfer of the ranch to Sánchez and Temple, meaning he was the legal owner until the deed was recorded in the other mens’ names for the Baldwin loan.)  The loan failed to stem the tide of dissatisfied depositors, who closed their accounts taking the borrowed funds with them (much of it presumably to Hellman’s bank.)

The Temple and Workman bank closed in early 1876 and ruined the two proprietors, even though Temple took office as county treasurer two months later.  Some of the land in the Misión Vieja area remained in family hands because of transfers of property to Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, daughter of Workman and wife of Temple.

Among these was a portion of Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, a little under 133 acres of which was given by Mrs. Temple to her son, John H. Temple in 1876 after he returned home from years of schooling in Massachusetts, where his father was from.  John Temple planted walnuts on the ranch and built a home, which he occupied for about a dozen years.  In 1886, he married Anita Davoust, whose father was a French immigrant and whose mother was from the prominent Dominguez family.

A granite marker placed in July 1921 by Walter P. Temple to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mission San Gabriel, the original location of which was just north of the plaque location.

Two years later, John’s brother, Francis, who purchased the Workman House and 75 acres of the Homestead from Baldwin in 1880, died of tuberculosis, leaving that property to John and another brother, William.  William, however, was living out of state and sold his interest to John for $3,000.  John, in turn, sold his Potrero de Felipe Lugo property and moved to the Homestead.  The 133 acre ranch wound up becoming part of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center decades later.

Meanwhile, Margarita Temple was able to buy the Temple Homestead and 50 acres from Baldwin in 1881 and raised her younger children, Margarita, Walter and Charles on it, though financial troubles continued to haunt the family.  In early 1892, a flu epidemic claimed the lives of Mrs. Temple, her mother Nicolasa Workman, and her eldest child, Thomas.  The Temple Homestead was then left to her youngest children, Walter and Charles, with the former owning a third and the latter two-thirds of the property.

By 1905, however, personal and legal problems led Charles to sell his share to Walter and move to Arizona (and, later, Santa Monica and Glendale, where he died on 20 October 1918, a century ago Saturday.)  Walter, who married Old Mission native Laura Gonzalez in 1903, built a new frame dwelling for his family while the old adobe and brick house were destroyed by a fire.  Raising walnuts and apples on the property, as well as working as a teamster and insurance agent, among other jobs, Walter struggled financially.

The site was long neglected, but a recent renovation has introduced drought-tolerant landscaping, sidewalks, decomposed granite walkways and hardscape to make for a pleasing environment.  In the background are the Montebello Hills where many oil wells were drilled on leases owned by Walter Temple and the two daughters of “Lucky” Baldwin.

In October 1912, however, through the assistance of his friend, store owner and realtor Milton Kauffman, Walter made a deal with the Baldwin estate (Lucky died in 1909) to acquire about 60 acres (owned by his father before the bank failure and foreclosure by Baldwin) a little west of the Temple Homestead on a tract that was partly in the northeastern corner of the Montebello Hills and partly on some level land along the west bank of the Rio Hondo.  He sold the Temple Homestead and moved his family to an adobe, built by Rafael Basye in 1869 and long used as a store and saloon, including by his sister Lucinda and her second husband, Manuel M. Zuñiga.

A year-and-a-half after Temple bought what he called “Temple Heights,” his nine-year old son stumbled upon indications of oil on the steep hillsides above the house.  This led to a lease with Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron) and some two dozen wells were drilled after 1917, including several gushers.  Suddenly propelled to wealth, the Temples moved to Monterey Park, then Alhambra, and also purchased the Workman Homestead, which John Temple lost to foreclosure in 1899 after a bank loan went unpaid.

Walter used his substantial revenues from the Temple lease at Montebello to embark on an ambitious and aggressive agenda involving oil and real estate development, the latter of which included founding Temple City in 1923.  He also poured large sums into the Homestead, including the building of the elaborate adobe mansion the family called La Casa Nueva.  By 1930, as the Great Depression dawned, Temple’s fortunes floundered (and like his brother, father and grandfather) foreclosure was the final result, with the Homestead lost in 1932.

Looking east from the marker location, this is the old path of San Gabriel Boulevard, with the current route at the fat left, heading to a crossing of the Rio Hondo.  To the right is where Walter Temple and his family lived in the Basye Adobe and where many of the Temple lease oil wells were located.  In the distance are the Puente Hills.

I walked over much of the nature center and imagined what it looked like 140 years ago when John Temple had his walnut ranch on the site and noticed there are a couple of old walnut trees still on the property, though probably from later occupancy.  With the Puente Hills, Montebello Hills, the two rivers (the current San Gabriel channel was created by flooding in the winter of 1867-68) and, in the distance, the towering San Gabriel Mountains, it must’ve been a picturesque area way back when.

During my presentation, I mentioned that Walter Temple, in July 1921 for the Mission San Gabriel sesquicentennial (150th anniversary), had a granite marker placed at the base of the Montebello Hills to commemorate the original site of the mission, although the actual location of the mission was actually a bit north (but he didn’t own that property!)

A couple of people mentioned that the marker location was recently renovated and improved with new landscaping, including soft and hardscape elements, so, after my walk through the center, I drove over to the corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue (at the extreme northeastern corner of Montebello) to check it out.  I was surprised, after visiting several times over the last thirty years, to see how nicely done the work was.  Drought tolerant plants, decomposed granite walkways, and other aspects really have done wonders for what was a neglected site for so many years.

The location of the Basye Adobe, built in 1869 and which was a store and saloon for over 40 years, including under the ownership of Walter Temple’s sister, Lucinda, and her second husband, Manuel M. Zuñiga.  From 1912 to 1917, Walter and his family lived there until oil development led them to move and the adobe became the field headquarters of Standard Oil Company of California until it was torn down in the 1930s.  To the west is a portion of the hills where the Temple oil lease extended.

I then wandered across Lincoln and south of San Gabriel Boulevard where the Temples once lived in the Basye Adobe.  Nothing much remains, possibly some trees that were there at the time and a number of yellow steel poles marking the capped oil wells from the Temple lease.

The Montebello oil field was relatively short lived, though there are scattered wells still in operation, and the advent of county and federal flood control planning led to the declaration of most of the Misión Vieja area as a restricted flood plain.  In 1957, the Whittier Narrows Dam was completed and, long before, almost everyone who’d lived in the community left as part of the rezoning of a region largely under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  In fact, the Corps’ regional headquarters is in the old Temple School, built on land donated by F.P.F. Temple in 1868 and the school renamed for Walter Temple in 1921 after he donated a flagpole to the site.

Amid the trees shown in the above photo is one of many markers for a capped oil well on the Temple lease.  The plate at the top reads “T-5,” meaning Temple well #5.

The accompanying photos were taken Saturday at the nature center, mission plaque, and Basye Adobe and oil field sites showing some of the “remnant landscapes” associated with about 80 years of occupancy and use of land by the Temple family between the early 1850s and early 1930s.

13 thoughts

  1. Excellent blog posting.
    I have long known of the Temple family activity in the area, but never thought of trying to find or visit it. Is this human history marked and presented as a regular part of the nature center activities?

    I could see perhaps sometime scheduling a W-T Homestead “off site tour” that would explain the importance of the area especially in its relation to the site that’s within the City of Industry.

    Today it is easy to view the San Gabriel Valley history only from the perspective of the few acres that are marked and preserved here and there, but 100+ years ago the residents were looking at borders and lot lines that were much, much farther apart than modern residents see or can imagine.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for your comment and kind words about the post. The Whittier Narrows Nature Center focuses on the natural history of the site, though there may be some mention of human history in the small museum (I haven’t actually looked at the displays for a while.) We did a museum volunteer and paid staff road trip years ago in which we drove to various San Gabriel Valley sites (Alhambra, Temple City, San Gabriel and Old Mission) associated with the Workman and Temple families. Your idea of a meet-up and tour is something to consider, especially because we could discuss natural history, native Indian settlement and use, and later European and American occupation.

  3. I drive by the Temple marker site daily on my commute. I’ve often wondered where the original location for the mission was. I too would be interested in a tour of the ‘true’ original site, as well as other historical locations in the area.

  4. I found this article highly informative and interesting since I was born in the “La Mission” area on Worsham Rd at home and attended the old Temple School.

  5. Hi Miz, glad you found the post and we’ll occasionally have more information on the Mision Vieja area, so check back from time-to-time. Thanks!

  6. Interesting post! I’m glad to see any mention of my ancestors’ presence in the area, because we (the descendants) have lived in the region for a long time! Though the Basyes had a long history in the United States (since VA was a colony) and the Southwest before it as well became part of the US many don’t know why there is a Basye Street, why it’s spelled that way, or how it’s pronounced.

  7. Hi Veronica, thanks for your comment and glad you found this post. Before he died, we had occasional contact with Al Basye, who shared much information on the family. There will be more on the Basye family, including the unfortunate situations involving them and the Temple family in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and reference to Walter and Laura Temple and their family living in the Basye Adobe during the 1910s. So, check back from time to time.

  8. I lived in South El Monte, CA for about 23 years, was always interested in the strange marker I visited a long time ago. My sister attended the Temple School before the Army Corps of Engineer’s moved into it. I’ve visited that particular area in my life several times, but never knew there was an actual community living in that area since I’ve only known it as oil property which one should not transgress on. Would be nice to one day return and visit the area, just wish someone could find old Mission Vieja to give the area a new way of showing this important but forgotten bit of history. thank you very much for doing this series.

  9. Hi Paul, we’re glad you found this post and there are others on the blog that detail some of the history of Misión Vieja/Old Mission that we hope you enjoy.

  10. I’ve been trying to vision what Mission Vieja may have looked like. Of course, no one now knows exactly where it was located. I no longer live in South El Monte, CA, so I am stuck trying to look at images I can find. In the Whittier Narrows park area, there seems to be a group picnic area on the east side. Using Google Earth there appears to be a somewhat square area where the ground seems to be dug into. I’ve made a rough estimate, compared the general area to that of the original square of buildings at Mission San Gabriel and they seem to be similar to this strange square dug-out area in the park. Don’t know, but the Whittier Narrows area is hard to read, but
    palisades I believe started by digging out trenches before walls. Is there anyone who could investigate this? (Location: 34 02.43 N/ 118 03 03.68W). I have a list of at least 7 buildings that were built (Chapel, storeroom, carpenter’s room, gear room, two monjerios (male/female) and a two-room palisade). I assume soldiers needed wall to secure area against attack and an area for horses/pack mules and such. Nothing else in the area comes close to something on that scale, of course plenty of old foundations for 1 building places, but local sands have covered everything in the area and of course rivers have changed since then too.

  11. Hi Paul, an archaeological survey of that area from a few decades back noted the heavy disturbance of the area due to settlement and then oil drilling, but indicated the most likely spot of the original Mission San Gabriel was on the west bank of the Río Hondo (old San Gabriel River) and north of San Gabriel Boulevard. It’s not precise or definitive, but it might be the best available estimate we’ll have. What we do know is that Walter P. Temple’s historical marker from July 1921 (the 150th birthday of the mission) is not the actual site—he just happened to have owned that spot—but it appears to be pretty close as it is south of the presumed location. Thanks for your interest!

  12. 20 Oct 2022: Came across a survey for Rancho Potrero Grande which shows where the Mission Vieja was located. I made an image from Google Earth to compare, and they seem to match. If you would like copies of these referenced will be glade to email them to you.

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