by Paul R. Spitzzeri
He was the owner of the 75-acre Workman Homestead from 1888 to 1899 and was the first family historian of the Workman and Temple families in this area and today is the birthday of John Harrison Temple, the fifth of the eleven children (and fourth of eight who lived to adulthood) of Antonia Margarita Workman and Francis Pliny Fisk Temple.
John, whose middle name was an homage to David Harrison, an uncle of William Workman who left his estate to Workman’s father, Thomas, and which then contributed to William being able to migrate to America, was born at the Rancho La Merced, a 2,363-acre property stretching from the Whittier Narrows in a triangular form west to a point where Montebello and Monterey Park meet.
That ranch was acquired by William Workman by foreclosure at the end of 1850 after he loaned money to its grantee, Casilda Soto de Lobo, a rare woman owner of a rancho. The following spring, Workman handed the ranch over to his Rancho La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez (who occupied and later enlarged Soto’s adobe, now a City of Montebello historic landmark) and to son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.
The Temples built an adobe house (expanded to two stories at a later date) east of the Río Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River, and later added a two-story brick house for the growing family, which included retainers and others who helped with the children and the management and operations of a successful cattle ranch and farm.
John was born just as the Gold Rush had subsided and as the greater Los Angeles economy entered roughly a decade of depression, which worsened in his childhood by the dual disaster of deluge and drought. When John was just shy of six years old, an extended period of heavy rains, denoted Noah’s Flood because it lasted about forty days, pounded greater Los Angeles dropping an estimated 50 inches on the region and forcing little John and his family to “effect their escape from the house on a raft.”
This was followed by two years of punishing drought, with four inches of rain in the years of 1863 and 1864, compounding a dire situation for the cattle industry that was the foundation of the area’s economy. The Temples were able to withstand the tough first half of the decade and moved into unprecedented prosperity in the decade after 1865.
By then, John was receiving his early education at the private school established by his Workman grandparents at La Puente in a room on an adobe wing to the house that still stands at the Homestead. In the 1870s, as his father and grandfather rose to the heights of wealth in a growing Los Angeles and owned one of the two commercial banks in the small city, John was sent back to his father’s home state of Massachusetts, where two older brothers, Francis and William, attended M.I.T. and Harvard Law School.
John went to the high school in F.P.F. Temple’s hometown of Reading, graduating there in 1874, and went on to a two-year business course at the Bryant and Stratton school in Boston. While he was in his last year, however, the situation back home became desperate. The collapse of the California economy, following the national depression of 1873 and then the implosion of silver stock speculation in Virginia City, Nevada, unleashed a panic in Los Angeles. Depositors forced a run on the Temple and Workman bank, which lacked the cash reserves to meet the demand.
The bank suspended business for several months and finally reopened with a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who hungrily eyed the substantial landholdings of John’s father and grandfather which formed the collateral for the loan. The bank only lasted six weeks after reopening as the borrowed funds were withdrawn by skittish and jittery patrons and the institution closed in February 1876.
Despite the dire circumstances, John completed his commercial studies and then visited the American centennial celebration at Philadelphia before taking the long train trip back home to Los Angeles, where he, at just 20 years old, found a totally transformed situation.
One of the properties not encumbered with the bank loan was a portion of the Rancho Poterero de Felipe Lugo, which was left to John’s mother. She then granted him a 130-acre tract there a little northeast of the Temple Homestead, which was 50 acres and sold by Baldwin to the Temples. John built a house on his ranch, which was planted to walnuts, and lived there for about a dozen years.
Meanwhile, on 30 September 1886, the same day his parents married some four decades before, John was married to Anita Davoust, whose father was from France and whose mother was from the prominent Dominguez family of Rancho San Pedro. The two settled at John’s homestead and had their first two children, sons F.P.F. II and Francis W. II, there.
The younger of the boys was named for John’s older brother, who’d occupied the Workman Homestead after the suicide of William Workman following the bank failure and who purchased the 75-acre parcel from Baldwin around the time he arranged for the acquisition of the Temple Homestead for his mother and younger siblings. Francis, however, had tuberculosis and died in August 1888, unmarried and childless. He left the ranch to his brothers, William and John.
William was living out of the state and sold his interest for $3,000 to John, who promptly sold his Potrero de Felipe Lugo property (much of which is now the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte) and moved with Anita and the two boys to the Workman Homestead. When this happened, greater Los Angeles was at the end of the famed Boom of the 1880s which saw tremendous population growth and a rapidly expanding economy, controlled by agriculture, especially oranges, as well as walnuts and other crops.
Unfortunately for John, his ownership of the Homestead was marked by a decade or so of major problems. First, the vineyards that Francis carefully maintained for their grandfather and then successfully ran under his own ownership were devastated by a disease that destroyed almost all the grapevines in the region. Second, drought was experienced in six of the ten years of the 1890s, wreaking havoc on the farms, groves, and ranches in the region. Finally, a national depression broke out in 1893 severely hampering business and agricultural activity.
Caught up in the dire days of the decade, John was forced to borrow money and mortgage the Homestead. Conditions, however, did not improve and foreclosure proceedings were implemented, leading to the loss of the ranch in 1899. John later said in print that the reason for the move was to seek better educational opportunities for his growing family, which, by 1904, numbered six sons and a daughter.
John and family moved to Los Angeles, living for a period in Boyle Heights, which was developed by his cousin, William H. Workman, in the 1870s and then in south Los Angeles. He finally settled in the brand-new Miramonte Tract in the Florence district near Huntington Park and South Gate.
While living there, his younger brother Walter, who’d inherited the Temple Homestead with Charles, the youngest in the family, after their mother’s death in 1892, came into an extraordinarily fortunate circumstance. Having sold the 50-acre Homestead and then acquiring a slightly larger property just west at the northeast corner of the Montebello Hills and nearby flatlands, Walter learned he had oil on the parcel thanks to a lucky find by his nine-year old son Thomas.
Oil was brought in through a lease with Standard Oil Company of California in summer 1917 and propelled Walter and his family to sudden, significant wealth. He asked John to come out to the oil property and operate a service station built on a corner of the property. When this became too much for John, whose health was becoming worse in his early sixties, Walter invited him to be the foreman for the Workman Homestead, which Walter bought in November 1917 and which was subject to a lease by a Japanese farmer named Yatsuda until 1919.
John’s tenure at the Homestead proved to be short, again because of worsening health, and he returned to his home in Los Angeles, where he remained until his death in April 1926 at the age of 70. He was buried in the mausoleum built by Walter at El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead–this formed the theme of a post on this blog a couple of years ago. His main legacy, which bears fruit today, was his avid interest in the history of the Workman and Temple families and his gathering of family papers and materials.
Perhaps his interest was sparked by his years spent in Massachusetts living in the area his family had been since the 1630s, but, over the years, he wrote biographical sketches of his grandfather, father and siblings; jotted down recollections of the rooms in the Workman House and the two long adobe wings that extended to its south; and cobbled together family history that was published in John Steven McGroarty’s 1921 book From the Mountains to the Sea. Much of this information would not exist if John had not provided it and the same goes for many of the family documents he collated—this was a passion shared by his nephew and Walter’s son, Thomas Workman Temple II.
The Homestead’s ability to interpret the Workman and Temple family story would be a good deal thinner and impaired were it not for John Harrison Temple’s efforts, so it was particularly gratifying for the Homestead in 2015, when a room in the Workman House was, unexpectedly, remodeled as a late 19th century period room containing furniture, photographs and other artifacts owned by John and Anita Temple and used in the house during their ownership.
Now, a portion of our Workman House tour finally gives John and his family their interpretive due, which was largely lacking for over thirty years!