by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For several years after Walter P. Temple realized a significant fortune starting in summer 1917 from the stunning discovery, made by his nine-year old son Thomas, of oil on the family’s ranch near Montebello, he initially pursued other oil prospects in such locales as Whittier and Huntington Beach, but he also began to invest in real estate, such as in Alhambra, where he and his family moved shortly after the oil money started coming in.
At the end of 1921, he completed his first commercial building project, the Temple Theatre on Main Street between 3rd and 4th and located across from Alhambra High School. In succeeding years, he put a great deal more emphasis in real estate, advised by his business manager Milton Kauffman, who likely reasoned that there was more likelihood in realizing consistent passive income from rents in commercial structures than in the more highly speculative oil industry. Real estate, of course, has its own degree of risk, but the main point is that Temple’s strategy in pursuing both ramped up considerably by the early Twenties.
That was all well and good, provided that income outpaced expenses, but that proved to be very problematic as time went on, not that the Temples were alone among people of means in having that struggle. The Temple Lease at Montebello was initially extraordinarily lucrative and tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection, a “Report of Disbursements and Receipts” for the period between 18 December 1921 and 20 January 1922, shows that, four years after the first well came in, the royalties were still very substantial.
For that month, the royalty, comprising one-eighth of all net revenues generated from oil and gas extraction from the wells maintained by Standard Oil Company of California, was more than $23,600. According to an online inflation calculator that comes to just about $365,000 and, provided that was consistent through a year, the revenue would well in excess of $4.3 million. Beyond that predominant source of income, there was another $6,000, including interest, “payments on principal,” which appear to do with loans made to others, rental and revenues on stock, including the Texmex Oil Company, which actually operated in a field near Tulsa, Oklahoma. So, overall income that month was just shy of $30,000, or $465,000 in today’s money.
On the disbursements (shown as “dispursements” which is an unintentionally inspired misspelling, for sure), there is a wide variety of expenditures. These included salaries for those working for Temple, including Elmer A. Potter, who was a manager of properties for Temple throughout the decade, and who was paid $125.00 a week. Three others received weekly salaries, including Stanley Benson, who was known to be the family’s chauffeur, and E.G. Seely, both of whom were paid $35.00, while Sara H. Murphy was paid $25.00. Seely appears to have been employed at the family’s Alhambra home, while Murphy seems to have been a secretary on the business side, including, presumably, typing up reports like this one.
Another employee was Temple’s brother-in-law, Manuel M. Zuñiga, the second husband of Walter’s sister, Lucinda. Zuñiga was recorded in the 1920 census as a gardener in the Temple household and he was paid $100 a month. For December, however, there were bonuses and “Xmas cheer” paid out, with the latter bringing $50 to Zuñiga and $20 to Murphy, half of which was chaerged to Kauffman. Seely, meanwhile, received a $20 bonus.
Not on salary, but having his own account because of his services as business manager was Kauffman, whose expenses amounted to about $1,300 for the month, including some funds paid to him directly, but also expenditures like a market, service station, a drug company, for his automobile, a jeweler, for life insurance, and others.
Temple was known for loaning money to family and friends and there were several examples recorded here. One was an “additional loan” of $1,000 to Charles and Thisba Glenn, whose relationship to the Temples is not known. Others were to Ed Fickewirth, a Puente-area rancher, for $175.00, Joseph O’Neill for $150, Cirpriano Ramirez for $300, and James E. Bassity for $200. Bassity was married to Modesta Romero, who would take care of Laura Temple during her battle with cancer and which, sadly, ended with her death at the end of 1922. Walter also provided regular payments of cash to Nettie Friend de Temple, the widow of his oldest sibling Thomas, who died in 1892. She received $25 in December and would continue getting financial assistance until her death in 1928.
Miscellaneous expenses included utility bills, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, dues to the San Gabriel Country Club and the Automobile Club of Southern California. A $10 contribution was made to the San Gabriel Settlement House, which provided assistance to recent immigrants, presumably mostly those from Mexico and which received other donations from Temple including the securing of property for a building. In addition to Kauffman’s charges at the jewelers, Feagans and Company, Laura Temple had $600 expensed there, which is not too far south of $10,000 in today’s money. Another major personal expense concerned a serious illness suffered by the Temples’ youngest child, Edgar, who turned eleven years old in December. A doctor was paid $250 for treating him, while Alhambra Hospital charged $75 and Matilda Conn was paid $49 for nursing the young man. Another $300 was paid out Dr. Henry F. Bishop for “professional services” and this might have been for Laura, though there is no specificity noted.
There are three “Sundry Persons & Concerns” listings totaling nearly $5,000, with 75% of that shown simply as “Expense Personal” while the remaining quarter included interest paid, money given to individuals but with no indication as to why, contributions (meaning, presumably, charitable donations), auto expenses, household goods, and over $600 toward the Workman Homestead, where the family stayed on weekends. Other expenses for the Homestead included about $1200 for fencing and another $500 payable to the First National Bank of Puente. One $1,000 payment to J.A. Brookman was explained as “pick-up check to distribute Laura G. Temple’s outside of office check,” though what this meant is anyone’s guess. There is a $300 payment on Walter Temple’s account to George H. Johnson and $225 to the George H. Birkel Company, a major music store in Los Angeles, for “organ for church,” this being a donation.
One of the revenue items comprised a little more than $200 as “Royalty Cruz Lease” and this had to do with an oil property a short distance away from the Temple lease. The small tract of under ten acres was sold by Walter’s father, F.P.F., in the 1870s to Venancia Peña de Davis, who married a nephew of Juan Matias Sánchez, co-owner of Rancho La Merced with the Temples. After Venancia died, the land was given to her children and managed by her daughter, Julia, who was married Carlos Cruz.
Julia, described in an obituary as a nurse to the Temple children, including Walter, died in 1917, just prior to General Petroleum Company bringing in oil on the property, so it was arranged for Walter to basically serve as executor for the royalties. Six persons received these, including Julia Davis’ brothers Peter and Thomas, the latter having a guardian, Lucy Poyorena, whose parents were Manuel Zuñiga and his first wife, Carmel Davis, Julia’s sister; Poyorena and her sister Leonor Zuñiga Hartnell, their father, and, lastly, Walter Temple, whose share was the smallest.
Other personal expenses for the month concerned the private education of Walter and Laura’s children. Daughter Agnes attended St. Mary’s Academy, where she was a freshman in the high school section, though there were no charges in this statement. Her older brother, Thomas, was in his senior year at the preparatory high school at the University of Santa Clara (from where he would earn his bachelor’s degree in 1926) and $60 was paid to the school that month. A $20 payment to Milton Kauffman’s father, Isaac, was for “Ticket for Thos. Temple” and this was perhaps train fare to get him gome for the holidays. The younger boys, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, were attending the Pasadena Military Academy, located where Annandale Country Club is at the base of the San Rafael Hills west of downtown, and a bit over $100 was paid to it.
Most of the rest of the “dis-purse-ments” were of a business nature. Walter P. Temple worked with realtor Thomas H. Berry to acquire one of the latter’s prime properties at the northwest corner of Garvey and Garfield avenues in the emerging downtown of what was then called Ramona Acres, but which shortly was rechristened Monterey Park. Temple had plans to tear down Berry’s two-story wood frame business building and replace it with a two-story brick structure, though that idea was abandoned later in 1922 for reasons unknown and he turned his attention to other projects. Berry was paid $100 while the Security Trust and Savings Bank of Los Angeles received just over $700.
The Temple Theatre was completed in December and opened to the public just before Christmas so there are expenses of $180 to the California Architectural Decorating Company, presumably for interior finish work, $600 to Wagner Woodruff Company, which produced decorative lighting, about $500 to two electrical firms, and nearly $8,300 to the general contractor Darrell Condley Company of Los Angeles. There would be plenty more expenditures for commercial building projects over the next half decade. For the “Sears property” in Alhambra, Temple paid out $1,000 to the city’s Elks lodge, of which he was a member and for which he threw large parties at the Homestead in those years. Another $500 went to the First National Bank of El Monte for the “Meeker Property,” likely on Main Street where Temple later built the city’s post office and the Rialto Theatre.
With respect to oil projects, Temple forked over $1,000 to George W. Brown for “San Gabriel Well” and this appears to either be for a lease or because Brown had something to do with machinery for drilling on the site. $635 was paid out to Temple’s attorney George H. Woodruff and his partner Clyde Shoemaker for what was likely the carrying out of legal services for “Ventura Land.” Later in the decade, drilling was done at the Ventura Avenue field north of the city on the road (now State Route 33) towards Ojai, so this expenditure may have concerned that area. There was also an assessment of neaerly $1,700 to the Argonaut Oil Company, which took over Walter’s failed oil drilling project in Whittier, but also had wells in Huntington Beach, a major area of investment for him in those years.
The total amount of expenses for that month was north of $35,000, while expenditures were just south of $30,000 and it was recorded that “Cash in all Banks [as of] Jan.20, 1922” was just over $6,300. While the oil was flowing freely and the royalties were rolling in at the rate recorded in the report, a modest deficit was nothing to worry about. Over the course of the next few years, oil drilling continued throughout the region, while real estate projects grew dramatically in scale, including office buildings in Los Angeles, a block of three buildings in San Gabriel, the post office and theatre in El Monte, several structures in Alhambra and the establishment, on 285 acres, of the Town of Temple. Six months after this report was issued, the Temples traveled to Mexico for about a month and came back so inspired that they began the construction of La Casa Nueva, a five-year project involving considerable sums of money.
Unfortunately, the Montebello field began to yield much less crude during that period and other oil projects could not make up the difference. By 1926, it was decided to raise funds by issuing bonds for the Town of Temple and for projects outside that community under the aegis of the Temple Estate Company. Obviously, oil had to be found in large quantities, while sales at the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928) and rents at the several buildings controlled by Temple had to be substantial enough to help meet obligations on interest for those bonds. By the end of the Twenties, the risks assumed could not be overcome and the financial situation rapidly deteriorated. All that was left by the early years of the Great Depression was the Workman Homestead and that, too, was lost in summer 1932 as the Depression worsened considerably.
This report, along with others that have survived, helps provide a better idea of how Temple managed his finances and is part of the larger story of risk taken by him during the boom times of the early 1920s as he tried to parlay his initial wealth into a bigger windfall. Such speculation can be immensely successful when conditions are right, but can also backfire when situations change and Temple’s story is just one of many whose fortunes turned sour in the years leading to the Depression.