by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While there are plenty of interesting narratives in the Homestead’s history concerning the Workman and Temple families’ migrations to Los Angeles in the Mexican era, their prominent involvement in regional politics and the economy, and other broad “big picture” elements, it is also notable to tell the personal stories that are usually more relatable and relevant to most of us.
One of the more fascinating examples of this is the relationship between Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez. For years, we assumed that, because the couple married in 1903 and were together just under two decades before her untimely passing in late 1922, that this was the span of their years together. What we didn’t consider, as well, was that, though Laura was known to have been born in the same Misión Vieja (Old Mission) community where Walter and his family lived, there might have been some close childhood connection between them and their families.
A little over ten years ago, however, a donation of family papers included a few letters written by Walter to Laura in the 1880s when both were in the their mid-teens and these showed that the two had a romance some fifteen years before they were married. These missives also revealed that the two had to keep their relationship clandestine, because members of Walter’s family, specifically his brother, Francis, but likely also his mother, Margarita, disapproved.
At the time, Francis was owner of the Homestead and Laura worked for him, apparently helping to care for Nicolasa Workman, then in her late eighties, but also helping to manage the 75-acre ranch, especially because Francis suffered from tuberculosis and was frequently away for long stretches in Arizona to seek relief from his ailment. Interestingly, Mrs. Workman seems to have helped the young lovers meet in secret to avoid the scrutiny of Francis.
Meantime, we don’t have any direct evidence of Mrs. Temple’s feelings specifically about her son and Laura, but I well remember reading an account provided by a family friend, in which she related the story of a young woman sending flowers to Walter to the Temple family home at Misión Vieja. The friend was very detailed in discussing how, when Mrs. Temple saw the bouquet, she threw it to the ground and stomped on it, sending a none-too-subtle message about her feelings concerning the matter. I’ve often wondered if it was Laura who sent the bouquet!
In any case, in August 1888, Francis died and the Homestead passed on to his younger brothers, William, who was out of state, and John. The former sold his half share to the latter, who then brought his wife and two young children to the ranch. Laura was, presumably, no longer needed and moved from the ranch (notably she and her mother, Francisca Valenzuela, were among the beneficiaries in Francis’ will.)
Today’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is another of the epistles penned by Walter to Laura and is dated 15 March 1888. Walter was several months shy of his 19th birthday and Laura turned 17 that summer. The young man also decided to pen his missive in Spanish, opening with the statement that he had the idea “of interrupting our prolonged silence with a change” that was “sweeter and more impressive than previously” because “the expressions in Spanish are more musical than in any other language.”
Walter then asked Laura to “accept these humble lines in answer to your affectionate letter which was a pleasant surprise for me.” That “prolonged silence” mentioned earlier had, of course, a profound impact on the young man who “had figured that you had already left me in oblivion, having remained so silent all this time.” Yet, the receipt of her letter buoyed his hopes and “now I have more reason to believe that you really love me tenderly,” which led him to declaim, “I also give to you the same affection I have always possessed for you.”
That long period of non-contact dated to early September 1887, when Walter last received a letter from Laura and he observed that he found that missive at home “when we returned from San Antonio canyon.” This is the area above modern Claremont and Upland leading to Mt. Baldy (San Antonio) and was a popular place for winter activities and summer hikes and picnics. It was also where Walter’s late father, F.P.F., had a lumber mill to harvest and cut the forest trees in the upper elevations of the San Gabriel Mountains before the financial disaster that befell the family when their Temple and Workman bank collapsed (when Walter wrote this letter, greater Los Angeles was at the end of the famed Boom of the 1880s.)
Yet, although Walter was glad to receive that missive and to see Laura and sent an answer a week later, he was left with the long silence only recently broken. He poured out lengthy expressions of his fond memories of Laura and claimed that the lack of contact had “remained in you more than in me.” He also wondered if his mid-September reply had not been delivered and that “it may be someone has taken it.” Then, he mused that perhaps Laura did get his missive and “had not written because you have probably changed your love [for me.]”
Now, half a year later and with Laura reestablishing contact, Walter hastened to inform her “do not think that in my sojourn in the mountains, or at home, I have found anything charming enough to forget my memories of you.” Yet, he also mentioned that “because of rumors that circulated around here [Misión Vieja]” Walter learned that Laura was to be married. Affecting a posture, Walter wrote that “if it is true I wish you indescribably joys, and a world of happiness” and went so far as to state that “I believed and hope to meet you at your wedding and enjoy the first kiss of the bride.” Still, he found it important to add, “do not believe that your silence has caused me less insufferable anxiety than mine to you, but also great concern.”
The recently arrived letter from his lady love, though, proved the rumors to be entirely baseless as Walter noted “according to what you say, I think that you have not yet contemplated participating in the pleasures of marriage.” Because of this, he concluded, “I have more reason to believe that you really love me tenderly.” Moreover, he informed Laura that “if you want to forget the past . . . I will always be ready and happy to appreciate your letters, even if they are from a forgotten love.”
He added that Laura apparently wanted the return of her letters to him, to which he responded that it impossible for him to part with them and inquired if she wanted “to deprive me of the only memories of you that can accompany me.” Giving way to the seething emotions of a teenage lover in distress, Walter asked, “Do you not treasure my letters?” and “Do you prefer your letters more than mine?” If Laura was to answer affirmatively, he would send back her correspondence, but expressed the hope that she would not after all request them as she answered these vital questions of his.
The letter concluded with the hope that “I will have the pleasure of receiving your intelligence,” but then Walter decided that “as space allows me to write something else” he would add a postscript. It began with the request that “if you find some errors in my Spanish, have the kindness to excuse me, because I practice very little.” He then wrote, “I will dedicate the following lines to a memory” and penned a little poetry:
You could never know that you live
In my conscience and my memory
Full of charms
Pure and gracious
Like the flowers
Like the dawn
The final words in the letter were “you will say that I’m not good at composing verses.” After 1888 when she left the Homestead, Laura lived for some time in Boyle Heights and was listed in Los Angeles city directories during the following decade as a piano teacher (her daughter, Agnes, became a very talented pianist).
In the 1900 census, she boarded at the home of the widow of prominent merchant Wolf Kalisher and listed her occupation as “farmer,” which implies she owned some property that was, perhaps, rented out for farming.
Three years later, she and Walter married in San Diego, over fifteen years after their teen romance, and honeymooned in Ensenada, where Walter moved in 1930 after mounting financial problems forced him to lease the Homestead to a military boys school and where he lived when foreclosure on the ranch took place in summer 1932. This letter is an interesting document of a couple who found young love in the 1880s and then married years later, after which their lives transformed from being rural farmers to wealthy oil beneficiaries and owners of the Homestead, with La Casa Nueva just in the early stages of construction when Laura passed away.