Reading Between the Lines: A Quartet of Letters from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. and Agnes Temple, 27-30 August 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After the obviously devastating loss suffered by the Temple family with the death of Laura González Temple at the end of 1922, there were, of course, enormous adjustments to be made by them. For one, the construction of La Casa Nueva, which began the prior summer, was halted while the family pondered what to do with what was often called Laura’s “dream home.” While work resumed by summer 1923, it was not long before a new architect, Roy Seldon Price, was brought in and instituted significant changes, including for portions already built, which, along with financial issues, delayed completion for several more years.

Walter P. Temple also decided to move the family full-time to the Homestead, largely used for weekend visits during the school year and more extended stays in summer, and sell the Alhambra house they’d occupied since their significant royalties from the oil wells on their Montebello-area ranch came in about a half-dozen years prior. He continued to occupy a second-floor room in the circa 1880s water tower (which is still with us), while the four surviving children, Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar stayed in rooms on the west side of the renovated Workman House.

As to the children, Agnes continued her high school studies at the Catholic girls’ school, St. Mary’s Academy, in southwest Los Angeles, while the younger Temple sons continued to attend the Pasadena Military Academy. For all three, they’d been attending these schools since the late Teens. The eldest Temple child, Thomas, attended the fall semester, his first college term, at the California Institute of Technology, with the evident intention of studying petroleum engineering and someday helping his father in the oil business.

The death of his mother, and, likely, the degree of difficulty at Cal Tech, led Thomas, however, to withdraw from that school and return to the University of Santa Clara, near San Jose, where he’d attended the preparatory high school and graduated in spring 1922. He had many friends, as well as the support of the priests who were the administrators and much of the faculty at the Catholic institution, and it was clear that his return there was a way to deal better with the passing of his beloved “Meema.”

We at the Homestead are very fortunate that Thomas was a dedicated and consistent letter writer and that family members have preserved most of these missives written from the late 1910s through the late 1920s. Four letters, penned from 27-30 August 1923, comprise the featured objects from the museum’s holdings for this post, with one of them donated by Jeanine Raymond, whose father was the second husband of Gabriela Quiroz Temple Sutter, Thomas’ widow, and the others given to the museum by Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, Edgar Temple’s daughter.

Thanks to these and many others, the “Reading Between the Lines” series allows us to know more on a very personal level about the Workman and Temple families and to share them with readers of this blog. The first duo of missives were written on 27 August to Walter and Agnes (addressed with the nickname “Nin”) and included in one envelope addressed to Mr. Temple at his San Gabriel office in the Temple Building across from the historic mission and on a block with two other structures built by Walter in that city.

Both begin with fairly lengthy discussions of recent family portrait photos, with Thomas telling his father, “[I] received the pictures and must say that our of the number of proofs, some are very good.” Reminding Mr. Temple that “it is the first time since we went to Alaska, if you remember that we have been photographed,” Thomas added that he was returning the proofs by registered mail and hoped that the ones he chose would be approved.

He was particularly complimentary of the photos of his sister, whom he called Inezita and noted that some “were quite surprising,” though Thomas did not elaborate on why this was so. In his letter to her, he accounted himself “very well satisfied” with the results of the sittings and also hoped that Agnes would agree with his selections.

He was especially happy with “the 2 profiles together” and told his sister to “take any one, they are both good,” as were “the 2 full figures in your white outfit [which] are both very good.” Thomas told his sister “have them sent to Studio [it is not known which] as soon as Dadup decides on number.” He was hoping for seven dozen, but would have been fine with half that amount, though he wanted one of each sitting and added that there should be prints that were “large and mounted on art paper as they were on the studio” because “they look wonderful that way.”

In his letter to his father, Thomas noted that he’d received letters from Agnes and Edgar and was happy to have them as he was “homesick for you all” since coming back north. He noted that his siblings would be heading back to their respective schools before too long (after Labor Day as was common in many of our schools until quite recently). He told Walter, Sr. that it was very hot at Santa Clara and “with not much to do, it is unbearable,” but he continued “I suppose the Rancho [Homestead] is also sweltering.”

Thomas mentioned that a classmate with the last name of Dean was back at the university again and that “our schedule called for a lot of Grey Matter during this second year.” But, he added, “when I get that Junior certificate [after two years of study], I can assure you it shall have been well earned.” He was also eager to let his father know that, when it came to managing his finances, “[I] have determined to show that can save money as well as spend it,” so that, by Thanksgiving, he’d provide a proper accounting.

Meanwhile, the campus was undergoing “a great building program” including a gym to cost $75,000 and a quarter million dollars expended on a residential and classroom building for the preparatory high school. With this, Thomas closed his letter asking his father to send the usual telegram (Mr. Temple did not begin writing letters to his children for another five or so years) and asked that he “keep me in touch with developments at the Rancho” and stating that he assumed his father would “act promptly with those pictures.”

Pasadena Post, 24 May 1923.

In his letter to his sister, Thomas noted that he was “rooming alone and like quite as well” and that he and unnamed others “took in a dance last night, Sat[urday],and had quite some fun.” He added that “you are getting to be quite a shopper,” apparently based on something she wrote him in the missive he acknowledged to his father that he received from her, but noted, “I don’t like the idea of Cash.”

He also wrote “I hope you liked the opening night at El Monte,” referring to the recent completion by their father of a building in that city that included a post office and the Rialto movie theater. He followed this by telling Agnes “I hope Dad likes my Room,” which appears to have suggested that Mr. Temple abandoned his water tower quarters for Thomas’ bedroom in the Workman House.

Thomas then joked about receiving the letter from Edgar, but asked his sister “tell him that I don’t think much of his Australian scrawl” and “also to write with his right hand from now on.” He also told Agnes to tell Walter, Jr. to sell his gun if he could not bag any quarry while hunting and asked “how did Dadup take my last letter, it sure was to the point.” The Homestead has letters in its collection written by Thomas to his father and dated the 20th and 22nd and which we’ll certainly share in a future post.

On the 29th, Thomas penned a missive to Mr. Temple acknowledging receipt of the usual telegram and saying he was happy to know that the selection of photos was approved. The hot weather in Santa Clara of two days before had eased, but “as a result [I] am suffering from a slight cold,” though it was nothing serious.

He then referred to his brothers returning to the military academy, adding that Edgar could make up any unsatisfactory work as “he is no longer a kid [he turned 13 in December] and must realize what you as a father are [is] doing for him.” As for Walter, Jr., who had his 14th birthday in February but was in the same grade as his younger sibling, Thomas wrote that “he is sensible, quiet yet thoughtful and does appreciate what his father, out of duty and kindnes commands for his own good.” While Thomas and Agnes were studious and achieved high marks in school, the younger Temples were excellent athletes and musicians, but not as academically inclined.

After some remarks about wanting more letters from home, “as I do get lonesome at times for more than a telegram from home,” and inquiring about other relatives, Thomas turned to what was happening at Santa Clara, telling Mr. Temple that he was “down to bed rock in Elementary Law,” an early indication, perhaps, of his change in academic emphasis to legal studies, and that “[I] plan to work harder than usual as it may be my last year at a Jesuit College.”

The reference here appears to be a plan to compete that junior certificate after two years at Santa Clara and then a transfer, though to where was not mentioned. It turned out that Thomas remained at the university to complete his four-year degree in spring 1926 and then went east to attend the three-year program at the prestigious Harvard Law School. Even then, he decided to abandon a legal career and pursued his passion for the history and genealogy of early California, which he did for some four decades.

The comes a bit about the Homestead and the building of La Casa Nueva, with Thomas asking “How is the Alamo getting along?” He then addressed the adobe-makers, led by Don Pablo Urzua, a master stonemason from Guadalajara, Jalisco, México, by stating, “I hear you have some tough-looking brick layers” and added, “give them a gun andand [I] am sure the place would pas for a quartel [cuartel, or jail.]”

Walter P. Temple, as part of his independent operations as an oil producer, leased some property from the Didier family of Puente (his namesake son married into that family about a decade later), and drilled a well. Thomas wrote that “about the Didier well, I suppose if it comes in it will make some of the moss-back old rancheros loosen up and lease [to Mr. Temple.” Warming up to the topic, he continued,

Something must be done to waken Puente. You as So[uthern] California’s foremost benefactor to small cities should see that the home town of your predecessors gets some recognition in this line.

It turned out that the Didier project did not yield the anticipated gusher, nor did other oil drilling projects in that area and Puente remained the center of a productive agricultural district, including citrus and walnuts, until well after the Second World War. After saying he would write to the Mullender family, Joseph and Rosebud, the latter being a granddaughter of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned the Temple and Workman bank money in 1875 in an attempt to stave off the closure of the institution but then foreclosed four years later and took most of William Workman’s half of Rancho La Puente, asking about a new priest, presumably at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Puente, and reporting that he was taking French, Thomas ended his letter by telling his father, “my prayers are for you—yesterday was 8 months that mama passed away” and reminding him “Don’t forget [flowers in] the Mausoleum” where she was interred.

Was 18-year old Thomas going for the Valentino look?

The final of the four missives is dated 30 August and found Thomas informing his father than a monthly vacation was to be between the 7th and 10th of September and, with Admission Day celebrating California’s statehood on 9 September 1850 and that holiday falling on a Saturday, there would be a Monday observance. So, he continued, “I can leave here Friday night and be home Saturday, Sunday and Monday, which I would like very much.”

Thomas couched this as being more than a “mere vacation,” as he could also visit before his siblings returned to school, and tried to sweeten the deal by noting that he’d researched fares and found it was $17 round trip, “which is very reasonable.” He rather formally followed this with “I trust you are in sympathy with this proposition as I would like very much indeed to see you all again.” Not only that, but he’d forgotten some item when leaving to go north and he could certainly retrieve them. Finally, he added that he “must talk to you over certain matters” though nothing more was said about what this entailed.

As he closed he again pointed to the “splendid opportunity” to get home and because “I a dying to get home,” Thomas added that “I cannot bear to see it [this chance] pass by.” So, he implored his father to wire one of the priests to inform the school of his absence as a boarder and to inquire whether he could stay until Monday night and return the next morning in time for his first class. Whether or not he was able to make the quick trip home is not known, as the collection does not have any September letters from him.

It turns out that we do have at least two of the photographs from the summer 1923 sitting mentioned in three of these letters, though we did not know when they were taken until these missives were donated many years (15 at the earliest) after the photos were. Beyond this, it’s great to have these so we can learn more about the personal connections between the Temples during a period when the family was mostly separated with the children at the various boarding schools for about a dozen years.

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