Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Walter P. Temple to Thomas W. Temple II, 15 March 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Thanks to donations from family members, we have access to financial records, photographs, letters and other historic artifacts that better help us talk about the lives of the Workman and Temple families. A 2017 donation by Ruth Ann Michaelis, granddaughter of Homestead owners Walter P. Temple and Laura González, included some 150 letters, most from the 1920s and which are a treasure trove of information.

Tonight’s featured object is a missive written from Walter to his eldest child (and Ruth Ann’s uncle) Thomas on 15 March 1929 and mailed a few days later. At the time, Thomas was about to complete the rigorous three-year course at the prestigious Harvard Law School, while Walter was seeking relief from throat trouble by staying in the desert town of Indio, east of Palm Springs. A previous post here was from several weeks later as Walter battle his malady.

This letter began with Walter acknowledging receipt of his son’s latest communication, Thomas being an assiduous correspondent with about weekly contact from the time he first went away to school in the late 1910s until he returned home from Harvard in summer 1929. His father preferred sending telegrams, which was certainly more expedient (and expensive), but these short dispatches, of course, lacked the content letters provided. This is why it was a pleasant surprise for Thomas and his brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar (Ruth Ann’s father), when an occasional letter was received in the late Twenties from their father.

The letter cautioned Thomas not to “despair” about not having heard from his father’s attorney and business partner, George H. Woodruff, who was then on the east coast, visiting with a friend in New York and family in his native Connecticut. Walter then informed his son about his convalescence at Indio, adding he was there “for a stay of several months as I found it necessary to get away from the Puente [family shorthand for the Workman Homestead] for the sake of my throat trouble which has been bothering me right along and which was becoming more and more aggravated while at the ranch.”

Walter insisted that the problem “is nothing but [a] chronic cold lodged in the bronchial tubes or air passages around which region I have been very sensitive.” As with many families, especially when tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses were serious threats to health, the Temples seemed to have their share of lung-related issues. Walter’s brother, Francis, for example, died at age 40 in 1888 of tuberculosis and there were other family members who had to be careful with respiratory problems.

Still, he continued, “A change of residence into this warm and dry desert climate ought to be beneficial, which good results I am beginning to appreciate.” He’d tried some medicine recommended by a doctor, but felt that “it has not helped me materially outside of keeping my bowels open.” But, when he got to Indio, Walter consulted with a surgeon working for the Southern Pacific Railroad and who told his patient that his “lungs and other organs were in A-1 shape beyond the throat irritation.

Walter told his son that “I am using a liquid he prescribed . . . to be inhaled in a pint of boiling water and to my surprise I feel like a new man under his treatment.” Without divulging what the medicine was, he went on to say “that has cleared my throat and nostrils so well that I can now breathe like a regimental trumpeter and cast aside that asthmatic hacking cough.”

Walter then went on to give his son a description of Indio, saying that it “is an important place on the SPRR [Southern Pacific line coming east out of greater Los Angeles] and on the Highway to Imperial Valley and Arizona.” Moreover, “it is lovely at this season of the year, but is very hot in the summer” and it was a growing agricultural region as “they raise all manner of early vegetables, cotton, grapefruit and the famous Neglet [Deglet] Noor dates, a sample of which I have sent you by mail.”

Walter went to inform his son that the dates were imported by the federal government from Algeria in North Africa “and have proven a big asset to his valley,” something still celebrated (well, not the last two years because of the pandemic) at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, held each February.

The conversation then turned to Thomas and his post-Harvard plans, with Walter writing that “my suggestion to you to go to some English school after graduation and round up your training is a good idea,” something that Walter’s brother did in the 1870s. William W. Temple (1851-1917) went to Santa Clara College in northern California before going to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1874, followed by a year-and-a-half of study at the Inns of Court in London.

Thomas followed in much of his uncle’s footsteps by going to the preparatory high school at Santa Clara and, after a semester at the California Institute of Technology with an eye to becoming a petroleum engineer for his father, returned north to earn his bachelor’s degree at Santa Clara. In fall 1926, he began the difficult course at Harvard and, being ready to receive his juris doctorate, the question was what Thomas was to do next.

While his father advocated for further study in England, it was admitted that the idea “may not be fully approved by Mr. Woodruff, who I imagine would prefer Stanford, his Alma Mater, for a post-graduate course in law and business administration.” If this was the route Thomas was to go, Walter continued, “I think it would be of great advantage to take a two years’ course at Stanford.” Meanwhile, the younger Temple sons, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, could attend Santa Clara or St. Mary’s College, which Walter said was in Oakland, but which had moved to the east in Moraga for the fall semester of 1928.

Walter asked Thomas to “think it over . . . [as] you have to apply for admission early enough to get you in this fall” while expressing confidence that “Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Higley [the New York friend the lawyer was visiting], both graduates of Stanford, will get you in.” What’s strange about this advice and discussion about potentially furthering Thomas’ education in England is that Walter’s increasingly precarious financial situation had been a major concern of Woodruff for at least a few years by spring 1929.

As discussed in previous posts here before, a major restructuring took place in early 1926 as bonds were taken out to pay for development through the Temple Townsite Company, which managed Temple City, and the Temple Estate Company, which handled Walter’s other projects in Alhambra, El Monte, Puente and San Gabriel. With the issuance of those bonds, of course, meant interest had to be paid on servicing them, creating long-term debt that Temple, Woodruff and business manager Milton Kauffman could only hope would be managed by future proceeds from oil drilling projects, such as one ongoing in Ventura.

In May 1927, Woodruff penned a long missive to Temple outlining a plan to save the Temple Estate Company, which also technically owned the Homestead, by creating a holding company, led by the principal officers of the John M.C. Marble Company, a financial services firm, to manage its affairs. This plan, however, was not realized.

This was followed exactly a year prior to Walter’s letter to Thomas by letters sent by the lawyer to Walter and Kauffman impressing upon them that the estate company was “approaching the precipice” and that “a very drastic course” was needed “to save the company from a complete financial wreck.” Woodruff hoped to find a group of investors who would underwrite the company’s debt in exchange of a half-interest in the Montebello oil property and the Homestead, he only of Temple’s holdings not to be sold under his plan. This, too, though was not to be.

So, it seems that any idea to send Thomas either to England or to Stanford, a private university, would appear to have been problematic for Woodruff from a purely pecuniary perspective rather than because of the attorney’s allegiances to his alma mater. In any case, Thomas may not have wanted more grueling study after the intensive work he put in at Cambridge. While he later consulted with Woodruff about taking the California bar exam and then, if passing, being placed with a law firm, while also exploring the option of working for a bank, which an unnamed Santa Clara classmate did, Thomas’ real passion in life was history and genealogy and he went on to become the historian for the City of San Gabriel and the Mission San Gabriel and a genealogist for hire.

Walter concluded his letter by saying that “I am feeling better in this lovely desert air” and telling Thomas that he and paramour Maud Bassity, who’d taken care of Laura González Temple in her last illness in 1922 and then stayed on with the family, had moved from a hotel to an apartment. He’d heard from daughter Agnes about her coming home for Easter during her break from Dominican College, then an all-girls school in San Rafael, north of San Francisco, from which she graduated that summer and that the younger Temple boys were doing well at Dummer (yup, Dummer) Academy, a private school north of Boston where they received their high school diplomas, also in the summer.

Within about a year, moreover, the economic picture, especially in the context of the Great Depression, which burst forth that October, was such that Walter decided to lease the Homestead and, to save expenses, move to Ensenada in Baja California, México. In summer 1932, with the Depression and Temple’s finances worsening, the ranch was lost by foreclosure to California Bank.

Letters like these prove to be valuable in helping us better understand the Temple family’s lives in a variety of ways, not just factually, but in terms of their attitudes, hopes, beliefs, expectations and other aspects. We’ll continue to share these through the “Reading Between the Lines” series, so be sure to look for more posts featuring these fascinating letters.

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