by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For roughly a decade after the Temple family’s oil lease at the Montebello field yielded its first royalties in 1917, Walter P. Temple, Sr. utilized telegrams as his preferred method of communicating with his four surviving children, Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, when the quartet were attending a variety of private schools in greater Los Angeles, Northern California and Massachusetts.
These messages were, by their nature, short and succinct and lacking much, if any, emotional statements. So, it was more than a pleasant surprise for Thomas, the eldest and who kept most of his correspondence to and from his parents, when Walter, Sr., suddenly started writing letters towards the end of the 1920s.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, donated just about two years ago by granddaughter Ruth Ann Michaelis, whose father was Edgar, the youngest of the Temple children, is a 1 May 1929 missive from Walter, Sr. to Thomas. Written in pencil from Indio, where Walter, Sr. was enjoying the dry desert air for this health, the letter began by stating that he was planning to stay in the town east of Palm Springs for several weeks.
Not only was his health improving, he added, he was “getting a heavy coat of desert tan,” as well. Being the first of May, the days were “not severely hot” and the evenings were “delightfully cool.” Observing the Indio had a fine climate for nine months of the year, except blazing hot summers, Walter, Sr. noted that “it is a great place for pulmonary troubles,” or, rather, a good location for dealing with those problems!
He also observed that “there are now building several sanitariums, adobe bungalows, along the foothills some miles out of town.” Greater Los Angeles was, in fact, a “health seekers paradise” from the late 19th century onward as sanitariums and like facilities were found throughout the region, especially along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in towns like Monrovia.
At Indio, Walter, Sr. went on, “there are select apartments for people of means, including such amusement features as golf links, swimming pool, dance floor, stables, etc.” He told his son that he’d met many people in the professional and business fields and went on to describe his interactions with the Jorge (George) and Josefa Gonzales family, originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua and residents of Indio for some twenty years.
The Gonzales’ “acquired excellent farm lands and business property” at a time when the land was “overrun with coyotes and snakes.” The family owned a grocery store, farmed some 200 acres in Bermuda onions, a sweet variety as “a staple and successful crop in the valley.”
They also managed properties for absentee owners “such as the Gillettes, of razor fame, Crane hardware manufacturers of Chicago, etc.” Walter, Sr. added that one of the Gonzales daughters attended St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls school in Los Angeles, that his daughter Agnes attended until she graduated from high school in 1925.
Speaking of schools, Walter, Sr. then turned his attention in the letter to the topic of the return of his three sons from their schools in Massachusetts. Thomas was finishing his rigorous and demanding three-year course at Harvard Law School, while Walter, Jr. and Edgar were finishing up their high school curriculum at Dummer Academy (which was named for a colonial governor, William Dummer, but which changed its name some years ago to Governor’s Academy, because his surname was believed to keep prospective students away.)
Walter, Sr. mentioned to Thomas that “you can select any of 3 routes into California, the S.P. [Southern Pacific], Union Pacific or the Santa Fe.” Noting that “as you have traveled on the former two routes,” he asked “why not come on the Santa Fe, and see the country within its lines, especially to old towns of Santa Fe, Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Grand Canyon in Arizona?”
Their ancestors William and Nicolasa Workman, she a native, resided in Santa Fe until 1841 when they migrated to Los Angeles and settled on Rancho La Puente, though Walter, Sr. was more interested in offering to his sons that “I can get a stopover at El Tovar Hotel on the brink of the [Grand] Canyon so that you may view and enjoy the great chasm of the Colorado” than about the family’s history in Santa Fe and Taos.
Though their graduations would not be at the same time, Walter, Sr. assumed that Thomas “can hold the boys with you until you get ready to come home which I imagine will not be later than June 15th as you mention in your letter [literally delivered to Walter, Sr. as he wrote his missive].” He asked his son to tell him the date of departure and whether the Temple brothers intended to stop along the route home, so that he could arrange for their train fares.
In the meantime, this letter originally was accompanied by a “Ventura oil report” and clippings from the Puente Journal newspaper of 25 April, though neither of these were with the missive when it was donated. The Ventura oil project, along Ventura Avenue heading north from the mission town towards Ojai, was something of a last effort by Walter Temple to hit a big strike and salvage something of his battered financial standing. Unfortunately, the effort did not yield the success that was hoped for and badly needed.
The contents of the local newspaper clippings is not known, though it may have been something to do with Walter, Sr.’s last topic in the letter: the recent engagement of Agnes Temple to Luis P. Fatjo, a former schoolmate of Thomas at Santa Clara University near San Jose. Fatjo, an heir to a massive ranch called San Luis Gonzaga near Gilroy, proposed to Agnes earlier in 1929.
Walter, Sr. wrote his son that “there is enough time to discuss Agnes’ engagement to a man like Don Luis, of whom I don’t know much about,” though he added that “I believe he is worthy, responsible, and a man of serious good thoughts and actions.” When he learned of the engagement, Walter, Sr. “wrote Agnes and Don Luis giving my hearty approval and cooperation in the matter.”
Like her brothers, Agnes also had an impending graduation ceremony, as she was completing her studies with a major in music and a minor in Spanish at Dominican College, a Catholic’ girls school in San Rafael north of San Francisco. The letter then closed with greetings to Temple relatives in Massachusetts and stating that he hoped his sons were looking forward to their graduations.
Though not mentioned in the letter, the dire circumstances of the Temple family’s finances were further straitened by continued expenditures with the private educations of the four children, in addition to the long construction of La Casa Nueva, completed in late 1927, and ongoing commitments to real estate and oil projects, like that in Ventura.
The Temple children did return home in June and spent a last summer at the Homestead. In the fall, Walter, Jr. and Edgar began studies at Santa Clara University, while Agnes married Luis Fatjo on Thanksgiving Day, followed by a half-year honeymoon and prolonged stay with his relatives in Spain, before the couple returned to settle in San Francisco. Thomas, who considered taking the state bar exam, but also thought about working in banking, instead began to indulge his passion for genealogy and history, which became his career path.
Within a year of this letter, Walter, Sr. decided he had to vacate the Homestead, leasing it to a boys’ military academy, Golden State (later known as Raenford), that moved from Redondo Beach. The school required dormitory space, so open sun decks on the rear wings of La Casa Nueva were built by his sister’s son-in-law and remain to this day. In summer 1932, a little over three years after this missive, the Homestead was lost to foreclosure filed by California Bank, which held a mortgage on it.
This letter is a rare example of Walter, Sr.’s correspondence and came at a time of great expectation for the Temple children’s graduations and returns home, but also the impending financial failure that was compounded by the Great Depression.