Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from George H. Woodruff to Walter P. Temple, 14 May 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the most remarkable stories of the colorful and complex history of the Workman and Temple families was the surprising rise to wealth in the late 1910s of Walter P. Temple from oil royalties on land owned by his parents decades before and lost to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin by foreclosure on a loan to the doomed Temple and Workman bank and then purchased by him from the Baldwin estate on what was basically credit.

An implausible discovery of oil indications on the property by Temple’s nine-year old son, Thomas, was nothing short of stunning and when Standard Oil Company of California brought in Temple well #1 in summer 1917 and more producers followed in short order, the result was a small fortune for the family and an impetus for Temple to delve into business much as his father had done a half-century before.

Woodruff Bench and Bar 1909
Woodruff’s entry in the book, History of the Bench and Bar of Southern California, by Willoughy Rodman, 1909.

Temple took on a pair of advisors and partners shortly after the royalties began to flow.  His long-time friend, El Monte merchant and real estate speculator, Milton Kauffman, became his business manager.  George H. Woodruff took on the role of attorney and, while it is not known how Temple and Woodruff met, it may have been when the latter was the principal of the state boys’ reform school and then the city attorney in Whittier in the early years of the 20th century.

In any case, the trio embarked on oil and real estate projects over the course of about a decade, including through the creation of the Walter P. Temple Oil Company, the Temple Townsite Company, the Temple Estate Company.  The first, which launched earliest, had an obvious purpose in prospecting for oil throughout greater Los Angeles and out of the region.  The second, too, had a clear direction in developing, from spring 1923 onward, the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City.  The last, also formed later than the first two, managed all of Temple’s other real estate projects, including in Los Angeles, Alhambra, San Gabriel and El Monte.

Who's Who Pacific Coast 1913
Woodruff’s entry in Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast, 1913.

Woodruff was born in Watertown, Connecticut in 1873 and was four years younger than Temple and nine older than Kauffman.  He spent much of his childhood there before his family migrated to Washington, where Woodruff was one nine graduates in 1894 of Vashon College on the island of that name in Puget Sound off Tacoma, but he continued on and appears to have earned a graduate degree there in 1896.

Woodruff then headed south and spent four years studying law at Stanford University and, after graduating, he took the job as principal of the boys’ section of the state reform school, which opened in 1891 and was known for years as the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility (closed in 2004, the site is a state historic landmark and is now being redeveloped, though a groundbreaking planned for about a month ago was cancelled because of COVID-19 restrictions).

Los Angeles Express, 11 January 1915.

After a couple of years at the helm of the institution, Woodruff was admitted to the bar and became Whittier’s city attorney for about a year in 1903.  This was followed by three years as an associated counsel for the Title Insurance and Trust Company and chief counsel for the Union Trust and Title Company, both in Los Angeles.  He briefly had his own law practice and then was partner with Frank D. McClure for several years before joining forces with Clyde C. Shoemaker.

The letter to Temple is on the Woodruff & Shoemaker firm’s letterhead, with the pair’s practice on the 8th floor of the Merchants National Bank Building at Spring and Sixth streets in downtown Los Angeles and which, of course, is now a residential lofts building called SB Lofts.  Addressed to Temple’s residence at 9 North Almansor Street, at the northwest corner of Main, where the family moved at the end of 1917, the letter has three purposes.

Luther A. Ingersoll from his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, 7 October 1926.

The first concerned the first project launched by the Walter P. Temple Oil Company at the McClure lease in Whittier.  This property is at the intersection of Beverly Boulevard where Norwalk Boulevard becomes Workman Mill Road and the lease was executed in 1919 and work started soon afterward, though Woodruff’s letter dealt with some difficulties.

Specifically, the lawyer informed Temple, “I have examined the lease very carefully, and I find that it contains no provision where your rights will be in jeopardy by reason of your discontinuing operations pending your inability to secure material for resuming work under the lease.”

1622George Woodruff Workman House South Porch
Woodruff standing by the south porch of the Workman House, ca. 1925.

Woodruff added that a draft letter to McClure was clear that Temple was in “strict compliance with the lease” and “that it is your intention to commence drilling operations against just as soon as the necessary material for so doing can be obtained” even if he didn’t actually do so and decided “to arrange with someone else to finish the will.”

Soon after, however, Temple did find the equipment and material and recommenced operations.  The September 1920 issue of Petroleum Magazine reported that

after several months of effort to bring in a well on the McClure lease near Whittier, Walter P. Temple, who cleaned up a neat fortune by leasing his ranch at Montebello to the Standard Oil company and later organized a company of his own, has retired and sold his interests to the West Whittier Company, which will redrill No. 1, which has shown some good indications of oil.

The new firm, with capital of $100,000, was formed by five men, including Thomas B. Talbert of Huntington Beach, whose namesake oil company included Temple as a director, and Earl M. Wheatland, a well-known building contractor whose firm constructed the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum in El Campo Santo Cemetery at the Homestead between 1919 and 1921.  Temple was a stockholder as well in West Whittier.  The West Whittier Oil Company was highlighted in a post on this blog this past January.

Woodruff 1920 census
Woodruff listed in the 1920 federal census with his wife, Nellie Brittan, whom he married in 1902, and their three sons, a daughter and a servant at their residence in the Sierra Madre Villa area of northeast Pasadena, where the prominent 1870s hotel once stood.

The second item of business in Woodruff’s missive concerned “the problem of dividing up your estate” but the attorney explained that that “it [was ] entirely solved to my satisfaction” and his trust plan sent to his former employer, the Title and Trust Insurance Company, for review and acceptance.  Critically, there was “a detailed statement of how the plan, as developed, will affect your income tax, on the basis of the present schedule of rates.”

The details of the plan are not known, but, with the income tax reintroduced (one existed for a few years during the Civil War to raise funds for the Union) in 1913 as national Prohibition seemed a certainty and a large proportion of federal revenue was from alcohol-related taxes, the wealthy enlisted people like Woodruff to help them structure their situations so as to ease the burden as much as possible.


The third item concerned an early priority of Temple’s once the oil money started to roll in—having a Workman and Temple family history published.  Luther A. Ingersoll, who hailed from Chicago, came to Los Angeles in 1887 during its famous Boom of the 1880s and, while an employee of the Lewis Company, based in the Windy City, he wrote greater Los Angeles regional histories, including an 1890 county history, one of San Bernardino County, and a 1908 history of Santa Monica, an 1870s boomtown with which Temple’s father had an important role through the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad.

In the course of his years of work in this area, he built up an impressive collection of manuscripts, papers, and over 1,000 photographs (including early daguerreotypes and stereoscopic images) valued at some $10,000, but which he donated to the Los Angeles Public Library in 1914.  The next year, the institution, which counted Temple’s eldest sibling, Thomas, as a founding trustee, held an exhibit of Ingersoll’s material.  Temple, who was an avid collector of historical material, became aware of Ingersoll, who remained curator of the library collection and continued adding to it, and hired him to write his family’s history.


Woodruff, however, wrote Temple that “you probably have in mind the fact that the Ingersoll-Dustin [Dustin appears to have been an assistant on the project] contract will expire to-morrow.”  He added that Ingersoll “was in to see me about that the other day, and I told him that we would take it up with you after the expiration date of the contract, and determine what you would do regarding a rearrangement of this whole matter.”  The attorney concluded by stating that he would visit Temple at his home the following week.

With respect to the contract with Ingersoll, who died six years later, it was not renewed, for reasons that are not yet known.  Instead, Temple hired one of his former attorneys, Johnstone Jones, who represented Temple nearly fifteen years prior in a lawsuit to halt the desecration of El Campo Santo Cemetery by the Homestead’s owner Lafayette Lewis.  Jones, however, was forced to bow out in 1921 after a short time because of poor health and soon passed away.

1569Milton Kauffman; George Woodruff; Walter P Temple Southwest Corner Workman House
Woodruff, center, flanked by Walter Temple at right and Milton Kauffman at left at the southwestern corner of the Workman House, ca. 1925.

Temple then turned to [James] Perry Worden, who essentially wrote Harris Newmark’s landmark autobiography, Sixty Years in Southern California, first published in 1916.  Worden, whose remarkable letters are occasionally highlighted in this blog, remained on the payroll for the rest of the Twenties and volunteered for or was enlisted in other duties, such as finding schools in Massachusetts for Temple’s children.

Though he amassed some material and wrote up some rough drafts, Worden did not complete the book before Temple’s money ran out as the Great Depression began.  The elusive Workman and Temple family history, which could have been written by Temple’s son, Thomas, a well-known genealogist and historian from the 1930s until his death in 1972, remained unrealized until 2008.

Times 7Apr27
Times, 7 April 1927.

As for Woodruff, who was probably, in spring 1920, fairly new as Temple’s attorney, he became an investor in the Town of Temple and other projects in addition to his legal work.  By 1927, his partnership with Shoemaker ended and the latter wound up being an Assistant District Attorney with an infamous role in the Zoot Suit Riots controversy of the 1940s.

Woodruff formed another law firm with Elvon Musick, Christian Hartke, and Warren Pinney, with Clyde Burr (whose firm with Musick and Pinney also dissolved) having offices with the others.  Woodruff’s new firm was located in the Great Republic Life Building, highlighted here recently, built in 1924 by Woodruff, Temple, Kauffman and partners and which is also a residential loft structure.  After 1931, Woodruff and Burr were in partnership and then he had a solo practice until near his death in 1944.

Woodruff Dupuy Temple
Woodruff, left, Temple, right and Sylvester Dupuy at the center standing at the front door of Dupuy’s “Pyrenees Castle” in Alhambra, infamous recently as the site of where music producer Phil Spector, owner of the home, killed Lana Clarkson in 2003.

This letter is one of several of the attorney’s missives that help provide a better understanding of Walter Temple’s business activities from this early example when times were flush and the financial future seemed bright to later ones when the situation was dire.

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