Sharing History with the Whittier Narrows Nature Center

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For years I’ve gone out this time of year and given presentations on the history of the Misión Vieja or Old Mission community to incoming docents at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center.  Established in 1939 by The Audubon Society, the Center is a 400-acre riparian woodland sanctuary on the west bank of the San Gabriel River with several lakes, varied plant and animal life, including winter waterfowl and which has walking trails, special events, junior ranger programs, school programs and day camps.

The center and natural area also has a direct connection to the history of the Temple family, being situated on the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, which was slightly more than 2,000 acres and granted to Governor Pío Pico in 1845 to Teodoro Romero and Jorge Morillo.  The name came from the fact that Felipe Lugo, a son of Antonio María Lugo of the nearby Rancho San Antonio, grazed cattle on the ranch, which was then on the east bank of the San Gabriel in its older Rio Hondo channel and had its northern line along today’s Valley Boulevard.

Morillo was married to Magdalena Vejar, of a prominent family including her brother Ricardo, who owned half of Rancho San José in the Pomona area.  Magdalena was previously married to José Joaquin Verdugo, from another well-known family, and their daughter Juana María was married to Romero.

1877 map Whittier Narrows
This detail from an 1877 map of Southern California shows the several Whittier Narrows-area ranches within the Old Mission community.  At the right is Potrero de Felipe Lugo, where Baldwin’s name is at the top for the nearly 300 acres he bought from F.P.F. Temple in December 1875.  Most of the rest was taken by Baldwin by foreclosure on a loan to the Temple and Workman bank, though about 500 acres was retained by Temple’s wife, Antonia Margarita Workman.

Adjacent to the ranch to its southwest was Rancho La Merced, granted by Governor Manuel Micheltorena in 1844 to Casilda Soto de Lobo, but she lost it to foreclosure several years later when she could not replay a $2,000 loan from William Workman, who established the Homestead on his half of the Rancho La Puente, bordering Potrero de Felipe Lugo on the east.  Workman turned over La Merced to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, who was married to Antonia Margarita Workman.

As happened with the other two Whittier Narrows ranchos, including most of the tiny 90-acre Potrero Chico, just west of Potrero de Felipe Lugo, and the 4,400+ acre Potrero Grande, title changes hands fairly quickly.  Juana María Verdugo, after Romero’s death by 1850, married Refugio Zuñiga (one of their children, Manuel, married two local women in Old Mission, including Carmel Davis by whom he had three children, and then Lucinda Temple with whom he was married for decades).

In early 1857, Juana María and Refugio Zuñiga sold their half of the ranch, comprising 1,000 acres to F.P.F. Temple for $3,000, a handsome sum.  They may have done so because of the costs of pursuing a federal patent for the ranch and perhaps also because of the post-Gold Rush decline in the local economy.  The couple, however, retained one lot on the Potrero, likely comprising their house and some land around it.

In 1858 and 1860, Temple acquired sections of the other half from Walter Shay, Elmore Squires and Richard Chapman, including what was referred to in a deed as the “Old Davis/Squires Mill” built by Squires and Edward Davis or Davies for grinding wheat and corn into flour and meal.  Davis died in 1859 and his widow Margaret married Chapman.

JH Temple Homestead 1930
This hand-drawn map by Trent Steele for a college paper he wrote in 1930 on the local La Puente School District and which is the Homestead’s collection shows the John Temple Homestead between the San Gabriel River and Durfee Avenue.  The “school lot” was La Puente School, renamed Temple School in 1921 after John’s brother Walter donated money and a flag pole.  The property is now local headquarters for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains jurisdiction over most of the area as part of the Whittier Narrows Dam floodplain.  The New Temple School is in South El Monte today.

Finally, Temple and his father-in-law Workman, also in 1859, acquired the remaining portions of the ranch from Morillo and Magdalena Vejar, as well as a 160-acre (quarter section) from Cyrus Lyon, who later owned the well-known Lyon’s Station in the Newhall section of modern Santa Clarita.

Three years later, Workman signed over his half-interest to his daughter and Temple’s wife, perhaps to protect it in case of future financial problems or as a way to leave property to her children.  In any case, by 1860, the Workman and Temple families owned the entire ranch excepting the lot kept by the Zuñigas.

A 70-acre section of Potrero de Felipe Lugo was sold to the brothers George and James Durfee, who were from a Mormon family that migrated to greater Los Angeles in the early 1850s with other Mormons, but who did not return to Utah when the entire colony was summoned back by church President Brigham Young.  The Durfees wound up having a successful farm and ranch that operated for decades.

The Temples and Workmans, along with Sanchez, continued to be the dominant landowners in the Misión Vieja community until the mid-1870s, during which period greater Los Angeles experienced its first significant period of growth.  F.P.F. Temple and William Workman dove headlong into many business projects in the region, including real estate, railroads, oil and others, and financed much of it by banking, first with partner Isaias W. Hellman in Hellman, Temple and Company (1868-1871) and then on their own.

AAA Whittier Narrows 1923
A detail of an Auto Club of Southern California map from 1923 showing the Whittier Narrows area.  Walter Temple’s oil wells were in the Montebello Oil Fields toward the left.  The Potrero de Felipe Lugo rancho is shown toward the upper left along Durfee Road and the San Gabriel River.

When California’s economy shattered in late summer 1875 due largely to the bursting of a bubble of Virginia City, Nevada silver mine stock, Temple and Workman was forced to close when it could not weather a depositors’ run.  One of those who profited handsomely from the collapse of the silver speculation was San Francisco mining tycoon Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who then invested in Los Angeles-area real estate by buying Rancho Santa Anita for a record price for land in the region.

Surveying the scene, Baldwin saw that the two biggest landowners in the area were Temple and Workman and perceived their vulnerability with their stricken bank.  He engineered a loan “on rather hard terms,” as Temple described in a letter to Workman about the arrangement, and bought almost 300 acres of Potrero de Felipe Lugo (and just over 200 acres of Potrero Grande) at the same time.

With cash from Baldwin in the Temple and Workman bank vault, depositors hastened to withdraw their funds and close their accounts and the institution was quickly drained of Baldwin’s loan, to which was added more money in a desperate move to stave off disaster.  The tactic failed and the bank was shuttered in mid-January 1876.  The result was ruin for Temple, who, ironically, was elected Los Angeles County Treasurer as this was all going on and served his two year term through spring 1878, and suicide for Workman just a few months after the bank closed.

While Baldwin foreclosed and took possession of most of Potrero de Felipe Lugo, some portions were excepted, including the Zuñiga lot, the Durfee acreage, and the section deeded to Antonia Margarita Workman by her father.  In the aftermath of the bank disaster, she turned over large portions to some of her children and to her mother, Nicolasa Workman.  The eldest, Thomas, who was a cashier in the bank and heavily indebted to it, lived for a few years on 100 acres, but could not pay the taxes on it and it was lost to a sheriff’s tax March 1879.

CDV John H Temple 2016.294.2.11
A cabinet card photograph from the museum’s holdings of John H. Temple about 1870.

Another portion, comprising about 130 acres, was given to John Harrison Temple in 1876.  Just 20 years old, John had only recently returned from his father’s hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, where John completed high school and then went to the Bryant and Stratton business college in Boston (his brothers Francis, who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a couple of years, and William, who earned a law degree at Harvard Law School, were the other siblings who were sent back East.)

Despite the financial debacle with the bank, John finished his studies and then traveled to Philadelphia in the summer of 1876 to visit an exposition for the American centennial.  He then took the long train trip back home, returning to a family situation far removed from when he left several years prior.

Unlike with Thomas, John was able to make his ranch succeed fairly well, planting most of it to walnuts and building a home on his acreage.  After a decade, he married Anita Davoust, whose father was a French immigrant and whose mother was from the prominent Dominguez family of Rancho San Pedro.  The couple had two sons before news came that John’s older brother Francis, who purchased the Workman Homestead from Baldwin in 1880 and was just shy of his 40th birthday, died in August 1888.

Francis left the Homestead to William and John, but the former, having left the area to join the Army after trying to represent his family in legal matters after the bank failure and finding little but frustration, was out of state and sold his interest to John.  After a dozen years at Potrero de Felipe Lugo, John appears to have rented his 130 acres for a few years before selling it to A.N. Davidson in 1892.

Cabinet Card John H Temple 2016.294.2.12
Another cabinet card portrait of John from the Homestead collection, probably taken during the time he resided on Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo.

Sadly, the 1890s were difficult years with a national depression in 1893 and six years of drought locally.  John borrowed money from a Los Angeles bank, but could not repay the loan, and was foreclosed upon in 1899 and lost the Homestead.  He lived in Los Angeles for nearly two decades until an astounding reversal of fortune experienced by his younger brother Walter with the discovery of oil on land nearby in the Montebello Hills area.

In 1918, John came back to Misión Vieja to run a service station built by Walter at the corner of today’s San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue.  He remained there for just a short time, because, as Walter had purchased the Workman Homestead in late 1917 but had to wait for a preexisting lease to a Japanese tenant farmer to expire at the end of the following year, he asked John to manage the Homestead for him.

John then moved into the Workman House, where he spent much of his youth and then owned for just over a decade.  He took the opportunity to write recollections of the house, including the only information we have on the 1850s-era wings that extended south from the original adobe core, built in 1842. In fact, John was the first Workman and Temple family historian, gathering family papers and photos as well as writing down material.

Poor health precluded him from continuing to serve as foreman at the Homestead, which he relinquished to a son-in-law of his sister, Margarita Temple Rowland, and John moved back to Los Angeles, where he remained with his wife and children until his death in spring 1926.   He was then interred in the mausoleum recently completed by Walter in the El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead.

Old Mission Gas Station_20190925_0001 (2)
A detail of a recent acquisition by the Homestead of Walter Temple’s oil station at Old Mission and which was briefly run by John in the late 1910s.

The Whittier Narrows Nature Center partially is situated on the John H. Temple Homestead.  As I was giving the presentation this morning, it occurred to me how challenging it must have been for John to have returned home from the East in 1876, just after the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank and the difficulties attending to that financial disaster, and take up managing a large property just out of his teens.

His story is a middle chapter of a nearly century of dramatic ups and downs for the Workman and Temple families, including the rise to wealth and dramatic failure of his father and grandfather in 1876 and the later fantastic stroke of luck and then sad decline in fortune of his younger brother Walter in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Relating these stories, along with the general history of Old Mission, to the folks at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center today is a reminder of how the personal histories of people like the Workmans and Temples can humanize the broader history of greater Los Angeles during our 1830 to 1930 time period and be relatable to people today



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