Getting Schooled: A Donation of a La Puente Grammar School Diploma for Hillard Cain Durfee, June 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We were happy to receive yesterday a donation, by Angela Leal, of a 1919 diploma for Hillard Cain Durfee for completion of his studies at the La Puente Grammar School because there are ties to the Temple family much less to the history of the Durfee family. Despite the name, the school was not in La Puente, but, rather, several miles west at Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, a community established around the original site of the Mission San Gabriel in the Whittier Narrows.

Among the residents of that community were Antonia Margarita Workman, daughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and her husband, F.P.F. Temple. After Workman took possession in late 1850 of the Rancho La Merced following the foreclosure of a loan he made to its grantee, Casilda Soto de Lobo, he, early the next year, gave the property, totaling nearly 2,400 acres to his Rancho La Puente foreman Juan Matias Sánchez and to the Temples.

The enumeration of James D. and Diantha Cleminson Durfee in the 1860 census with in-laws, Samuel and Lydia Cleminson Reeves and other Mormon settlers of the area, including the Cleminsons and Blackleys. At the bottom is the household of John Rowland, co-owner with William Workman, of Rancho La Puente, several miles to the east.

Several years later, a group of Mormons arrived at what is now El Monte, many of them leaving San Bernardino, an outpost established in 1851 by the Latter Day Saints, after the Mormons were recalled to Utah by church President Brigham Young as tensions with the United States government led to concerns of all-out war. Among those who did not return to Zion were the brothers George (1823-1896) and James Durfee (1840-1920) and their wives, the sisters Lydia and Diantha Cleminson, whose family came to the area in 1852, also settled at El Monte.

The Durfees were part of a very large family (17 children!) that converted to the Mormon Church by 1831, very early in its history, and their father, James, died in 1844 at Nauvoo, Illinois, where the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, was killed by those vehemently opposed to the Mormon presence there. When the church faithful migrated to Utah a few years later, Cynthia Soule, mother of George and James and who’d remarried, perished on the trip in what became Nebraska. The brothers, however, remained in Illinois for a time and, in 1855, came to Los Angeles.

The Durfees in the 1870 census, with James’s brother George at the bottom. Other locals on the sheet include William Turner, who operated the Workman Mill, sheepherder Andrew Kittilson, partner of F.P.F. Temple in herds that grazed in today’s Avocado Heights, and the family of Refugio Zuñiga, early settlers on Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo and whose son Manuel married Lucinda Temple.

James and Diantha were married at San Bernardino at the end of 1858 and then established a farm on just shy of 70 acres of land that was part of the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, immediately north of the Temple homestead on La Merced, and with which there was a deed of partition between the Durfees and Temples not long afterward. George also settled in the community. These families were not just neighbors, however, as they had a common interest in trying to boost education in the Old Mission community.

This led to the formation, in 1863, of the 40×20 foot wood-frame La Puente school on an acre donated by Temple and, five years later, the creation of the La Puente School District, with Durfee and Temple as trustees. Because William Workman had a private school at his house, the Temple children were educated there, not at the La Puente School, but Temple remained an active presence, along with Durfee, at the institution for years.

An early reference to La Puente School by county school superintendent and El Monte resident George H. Peck, Los Angeles Herald, 11 November 1874.

As a school in a sparsely populated rural area, La Puente did not get much attention over the years. In 1874, at a county teachers’ institute, or conference, county school superintendent, George H. Peck, a resident of El Monte and namesake of a main street in the area, remarked on “a noted increase of attendance of the Spanish element” in the region’s schools and talked about La Puente, noting “over forty pupils were present. Excepting about a half a dozen, the children are Spanish.”

He noted that third graders were progressing rapidly in their English studies, while observing “the school house, but recently an overgrown building, is too small.” After praising the unidentified teacher and “stirring and intelligent trustees,” of whom Temple and Durfee were included, Peck stated that no class of citizens were beyond the improvement provided by county schools.

School trustee Walter P. Temple’s “Old Mission Notes” from the Whittier News, 27 July 1900.

Nearly a quarter century later, there was mention of an unusual Memorial Day lesson provided by principal J.N. Stewart. Because there was no local cemetery for decorating graves, a common practice for the observance at the time, Stewart devised “a novel plan” in which the students studied important battles from the American Revolution onward with all kinds of statistical detail on personnel involved from the Army and Navy, the names of commanding generals, which side emerged the winner, and the number of casualties incurred. It being the middle of the Spanish American War, there was a particularly patriotic bent to the exercise.

In 1900, the Whittier News occasionally published news from the Misión Vieja community, included those contributed by Walter P. Temple, the tenth of the eleven children of Margarita and F.P.F. Temple and who succeeded, with his younger brother Charles, to the 50-acre family homestead after their mother died eight years prior. In March, for example, Walter, a trustee of the school as his father had long been, presented a gift and gave an “appropriate address” in honor of a teacher who’d since moved to another local school.

The oil boom’s effects on property valuation to the benefit of La Puente School explained in the Covina Argus of 12 September 1919.

In his “Old Mission Notes” in the 27 July issue of the paper, Temple reported that the La Puente district was likely to be part of the El Monte Union High School district and added that “La Puente school is beginning to be felt as an educational factor in our community,” though it was nearly four decades since it opened! He noted there were all of three graduates of the school the prior month, including Lucy Zuñiga, step-daughter of Temple’s sister Lucinda (whose second husband was Manuel Zuñiga, native of the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo.)

After adding that the county superintendent of schools was present to hand out the diplomas (one wonders how different they were than the 1919 version), Temple went on to state that the district’s trustees included himself, Fred Thienes and Charles Mulholland (it is not known if he was any relation of the powerful engineer, William Mulholland, the “Father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct) and that the trip reappointed Lupe López as principal and Idell Weatherholt as teacher for the 1900-1901 school year.

Angela Leal’s donation of a June 1919 diploma for La Puente School graduate Hillard Cain Durfee.

Two years later, Temple married Old Mission native Laura Gónzalez, a sweetheart of his when they were teens in the 1880s and when she worked for Walter’s brother Francis at the Workman Homestead, and the couple had five children, four living to adulthood and all of whom started their educations at the La Puente school. Walter remained a trustee for much of the first part of the 20th century, before an stunning stroke of fortune struck the family after oil was found on their ranch, just west of the Temple Homestead, and which began yielding abundant and ample royalties starting in summer 1917.

The Temples quickly moved to Monterey Park and then Alhambra, but Walter still manifested an interest in the area. As for the Durfee family, they remained in Misión Vieja, as well, and continued farming. James Durfee had a large family that included son James R. (1847-1947) and Hillard was one of the children of the latter and his wife Stella Cain. By the time Hillard graduated from the school, the emergence of the oil industry transformed the little district in short order.

Walter P. Temple was involved in a battle over school district boundaries as noted by the Pasadena Post, 3 February 1921.

The Covina Argus of 12 September 1919, just a few months after Hillard graduated, noted

the success in securing oil in the Walter P. Temple hills . . . has added millions of dollars of assessed valuation to the La Puente grammar school district . . . Discovery was made that this year the oil wells and personal property improvements in the field will add $11,000,000 to the assessed valuation.

Even the reduction of the school tax rate to twenty cents for each $100 of property meant that improvements at El Monte High would be paid entirely out of the proceeds for the year. This was a far cry from previous years when values of land at Old Mision and nearby areas were low and the districts operated on shoestring budgets.

An architectural rendering of the dramatically enhanced and expanded school, Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1921.

In early November, the Pomona Bulletin put a finer point on the amazing changes for the La Puente district, when it noted “one of the most astonmishing increases in valuation” came from oil revenues that “caused one of the smallest districts in the [San Gabriel] Valley to increase in assessed valuation in three years’ time from only $500,000 to $14,300,000” which was more than Pomona, considered the largest and wealthiest town in the area. It was added that the La Puente district only covered fewer than five square miles and a population of just 800 people. The next June, the Bulletin wrote that the valuation was anticipated to exceed $18 million and a few mohths later, the elder James Durfee died at age 80 having witnessed this remarkable circumstance for the district he helped found nearly six decades prior.

In early 1921, trouble brewed when the Potrero Heights School District, adjacent to the north and west and formed just five years before, sought to annex part of the La Puente district. The Pasadena Post of 3 February reported that, at an upcoming meeting, “it is said Walter Temple, millionaire oil king, is pitted against the residents of the present La Puente grammar school district in an effort to negotiate a change in the boundaries of that district.” The paper continued,

Mr. Temple, for many years a rancher living in the La Puente district and also for many years a member of that school board, a few years ago came into more than local prominence because of the discovery of vast quantities of oil on his limited acreage in the center of the present Montebello oil field.

He is now said to hve severed his former devotion to the school district in which he has so long lived [again, he moved elsewhere shortly after the oil revenues rolled in] and it is stated has secured the asistance of an attorney in an effort to turn large acreage of oil bearing lands into the limits of Potrero Heights school district, land with an assesed valuation in 1920 of $19,000,000. This action is being valiantly fought by the residents of the La Puente district . . .

It is further stated that Mr. Temple has promised the residents of the Potrero Heights district a new and handsome building to cost some $200,000 in case the change is made.

It was noted that Potrero Heights had but 15 students in its school, while La Puente had above 150 pupils and that students from the latter would have to double their walk to school. Moreover, it was added that La Puente “is recognized as one of the great Americanization centers of the state” with a principal who was formerly a school superintendent in the Phillipines “and is very familiar with the foreign work.” Among the students were Italians, Japanese and Mexicans who were learning English quickly.

Temple’s rift with the district was apparently assuaged and it renamed for his uncle Jonathan, Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1921.

The petition to annex was denied and, while it is not yet known why the rift emerged between Temple (who recently unsuccessfully sued the City of Montebello for annexing his oil lands, subjecting him to city taxes) and the La Puente district, a rapprochement was soon achieved. In mid-March, the Los Angeles Times observed that “La Puente school district will now be known as the Temple school district, in honor of John Temple,” Walter’s uncle and the second Anglo to settle in Los Angeles, arriving in the Mexican pueblo in 1828. It was added that the Temple homestead was within the district and that County Supervisor Prescott Cogswell sponsored the name change, no doubt sought by Walter.

It was also in 1921 that, with bonds taking out for financing a large portion of the $65,000 cost, the school, also renamed Temple, was dramatically renovated. Architect E.C. Thorne employed an enthusiastic Spanish Colonial Revival design with the existing center section heavily ornamented with with a dramatic arched main entrance and an enhanced bell tower, while two wings were added with effusive decorative elements, as well. Temple donated a flag pole for the remodeled structure, of brick and plaster construction, with eight classrooms, two basement rooms for instruction, and an auditorium with a stage and a capacity of 360 persons. the four-acre site was also to have a baseball field and tennis and basketball courts and abundant landscaping.

The original school building, albeit in a sorry shape, still stood when it was discussed by the Times, 8 March 1953.

When the school was moved years later and became New Temple School in the Valle Lindo School District of South El Monte as the area became part of a flood control district, part of the old building remained to become district headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Remarkably, the original school from 1863 still survived close to a century later, having been remodeled with an addition and bell tower in the late Seventies, and then replaced in 1912 and moved to the property of Mrs. J.D. Caruthers and used as a storehouse. A 1953 article in the Times noted that the decaying structure was filled with bird and wasp nests and it is ont known when the building was finally razed.

With respect to Hillard, who never married and died in 1972, he remained on the family farm, which included hog raising and which was sold off with the 60 Freeway running through the site. This donation, then, is a great addition to the museum’s holdings as representative of a school and district to which the Temple family had long ties, not to mention the connection to the Durfee family.

Leave a Reply