“All That Glitters in the Gilded Age” Postview: The Twisted Tail of the Workman Homestead in the 1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s “All The Glitters in the Gilded Age” presentation, the seventh in a series of eleven talks on the Workman and Temple family, dealing with the 1890s Los Angeles covered the activities of the family members at the Workman Homestead, where the Museum is now; the Temple Homestead in the Whittier Narrows south of El Monte; and those living in Los Angeles.

One of the main points of the talk was that the lasting impression of the Gilded Age was about the fantastic wealth generated for the very few at the top of American society was countered by the widening gap between them and the rest of the country, especially with the effects of the Depression of 1893, the worst yet experienced in the country.

Los Angeles Express, 25 July 1891

For the Workman and Temple family, there were also measures of significant economic difference, with ex-mayor William H. Workman of the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and his son, Boyle and daughter Mary Julia representative of the upper class of Angel City society. William H., having been chief executive in 1887 and 1888, the peak years of the great Boom of the Eighties, tended to his real estate business, while also serving on the city’s parks commission, along with other activities.

Boyle, who was his father’s assistant during that mayoral term, had a real estate business with William May Garland, later one of the most prominent developers of downtown Los Angeles and, much later, head of the local committee that planned and carried out the 1932 Olympic Games. Boyle also ran for city treasurer in 1896 and, while not successful in that campaign (his father, four years later, did seek and win that office), later rose to the upper echelons of Angel City politics as a member and president of the city council.

Los Angeles Herald, 29 October 1896.

Mary Julia, who graduated from Sacred Heart College (now Holy Names University) in Oakland at the beginning of the 1890s, later enrolled at the Los Angeles branch of the state Normal School for teacher education and, as the decade came to a close, embarked on a career as an elementary school teacher. She also became increasingly involved in Catholic Church activities, among which, most importantly, was settlement house work. This is something that will be featured further in the next couple of the presentations in this family history series.

While the “Los Angeles branch” of the family tree continued its prominence, which would further grow in the early 20th century, other branches went through turbulent and tumultuous times during the Nineties. For example, Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, was enjoying a well-to-do lifestyle residing next door to his cousin William H. in Boyle Heights while leasing his 814-acre portion of the Rancho La Puente given to him by his father in 1870. For reasons that are not clear, however, loans were taken out and both properties mortgaged and, by 1895, they were lost, with the ranch take over by El Paso businessman Oscar T. Bassett, for whom the area is named.

Express, 23 January 1895.

The Temple family, meanwhile, suffered a triple tragedy in the first two months of 1892. There was a flu epidemic that hit much of the world in the early years of the decade and, on 10 January, Nicolasa Workman, who was 90 years old, contracted the virus, sometimes called la grippe and which very quickly led to pneumonia. Almost certainly, her 61-year old daughter, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple, caught the bug while caring for her mother and, notably, her condition worsened much quicker.

On 24 January, after just six days of care by a doctor, Margarita, as she was commonly known, succumbed to flu-caused pneumonia and, eleven days later, Nicolasa followed, after being sick for about a month. Notably, some press accounts took advantage of Mrs. Workman’s death to remind readers of the lamented late history of the family with respect to the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, more than fifteen years earlier—an event, however, which still very much resonated with older residents of greater Los Angeles and the institution’s demise was the first major business collapse in the Angel City’s history.

Herald, 26 July 1890.

The eldest son of Margarita, meanwhile, contracted the flu, as well. Thomas W. Temple, who was a cashier in the bank and was indebted to it to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, spent some years living in Hermosillo, Sonora, México, before returning to this area in the mid-1880s. He worked with a real estate firm and a utility development company, both of which had interests in northern México, and then became the proprietor of La Crónica, the long-standing Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles. The 45-year old, however, was struck down by the flu, dying from it a week after his grandmother’s passing.

With Mrs. Temple’s death, the 50-acre family homestead in the Whittier Narrows, which included the early 1850s adobe house and its wooden second-story addition as well as an early 1870s French Second Empire brick house, passed to her two youngest of eight children: Walter and Charles. More of their lives and of that property will be focused upon in the next two talks in this series. Another son, John H., meanwhile, was residing at the Workman Homestead.

Express, 14 September 1891.

John became the owner of the 75-acre tract, which included the Workman House, El Campo Santo Cemetery, the still-existing water tower, three 1860s-era winery buildings and other structures along with vineyards and orchards, after the 1888 death, from tuberculosis, of his brother Francis. A sibling, William, was designated co-owner in the will, but he, who lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico and in México City, sold his half-interest to John for $3,000.

With his wife, Anita Davoust (a descendant of the prominent Dominguez family through her mother) and their two young boys, John leased a ranch, where the Whittier Narrows Nature Center is today, given to him in 1876 just after the bank failure and his return from Massachusetts, where he went to school, by his mother and moved to the Homestead. Whether he tried to tend to the vineyards planted by his grandfather William Workman and ably managed by his late brother is not known, but the advent of Pierce’s disease, or phylloxera, spread by a pest, destroyed almost all of the region’s vineyards, so the Homestead’s could well have been victim to the infestation, as well.

Los Angeles Times, 23 October 1891.

Whether this disaster was involved or not, John then invested heavily in a growing area of animal husbandry, the raising of purebred swine. This was not actually new to the Temple family, as his father, F.P.F., purchased prize swine back in the 1860s and raised them on his share of Rancho La Merced, where the Temple Homestead was situated. Notably, in the 1910s, a company called the Puente Rancho Packing Company leased the Workman Homestead and, in addition to fruit and vegetable canning, raised and slaughtered hogs (young swine are pigs and mature ones are hogs) for the local market.

In John’s case, he raised Berkshire pigs, named for the English county from which they were imported to the United States, and the Poland China variety, which emanated from Chinese imports cross-bred in Ohio with Poland and Berkshire types earlier in the 19th century. For several years, John entered his animals in local agricultural fairs and, on at least one occasion, took top honors for his Poland China pigs, while, on another, he placed second with his Berkshires.

Express, 19 June 1895.

The raising of purebred pigs, which took place at the same time east of the Homestead out at the Rancho Los Nogales, in modern Walnut, and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles, has often been called “the mortgage lifter” because of the high profitability potential involved. Yet, it may be that the initial outlay for the purchase of the animals and the infrastructure and feed to support them did not provide the quick profits he hoped for.

It may also be that the national depression alluded to earlier and the fact that there were several years of drought regionally during the decade were contributing factors. Whatever the reasons were, John took out an $8,000 loan in 1892 from the Northern Counties Investment Trust, a firm founded in Bradford in northern England, about 85 miles from where William Workman grew up. Even the sale of his Whittier Narrows ranch for $15,000 in 1892 did not alleviate his future financial misfortune.

Herald, 7 September 1898.

The local agent for the investment trust happened to be a Bradford native, Frederick J. Smith, who was also a realtor and highly successful orchardist in Pomona. The loan was structured with typical interest rates of 10% per year and, as John struggled financially, the principal naturally grew significantly year after year. Additionally, delinquent tax listings, which grew longer with each season as the economy lagged, showed that John was not fully paying his property tax every year after 1894.

In early September 1898, a suit to foreclose on the loan was filed by the Northern Counties Investment Trust and, notably, defendants included not just John, but his wife, brothers William and Walter, brother-in-law Francis Steinike (perhaps William, Walter and Steinike were sureties for the loan), as well as family attorney H.H. Appel and Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin and five other defendants—it is not known why so many others were involved. By that time, the loan’s principal ballooned to over $11,000 and the plaintiff also sought $500 in attorney’s fees for the filing.

Times, 19 January 1899.

By the time newly-appointed Superior Court Judge Dummer T. Trask (yes, that was his first name, the same as the Governor Dummer Academy in Massachusetts where Walter Temple’s youngest sons went to school in the late 1920s, so there may have been a connection to Governor William Dummer of colonial Massachusetts?) heard the matter early in 1899, the loan amount was north of $12,000.

Without any way for Temple to redeem the loan, “a heavy foreclosure,” as it was expressed by the Los Angeles Times was ordered by the jurist. The day prior to the ruling, as reported by the Catholic newspaper, The Tidings, John “moved his family out to Puente ranch, the old William Workman homestead” after having “spent several months in Los Angeles,” perhaps with Anita’s mother. The reason was that “the favorable season makes it desirable that he should be on hand to see the spring work properly carried on now that there is a prospect of abundant rains,” this being especially important because of the frequent drought conditions mentioned earlier.

The Tidings, 21 January 1899.

Whether some arrangement was made for John to reap whatever he could realize from that year’s crop harvests or not, it was not until September 1899 that a court commissioner finalized the conveyance of the Homestead for the $12,109 owed on the loan to Fred J. Smith. Having ample resources on his own, it seems likely that Smith approached his bosses in his hometown about buying the ranch and was given the green light. His tenure was short, just four years, but we’ll return to that part of the story with the next talk in the series.

In a 1921 biographical sketch, John stated that he moved his family to Los Angeles for the “superior educational facilities” afforded to the several children he and Anita raised, though the reason, clearly, was because of the financial problems that led to the loss of the Homestead as the 19th century came to an end. He was hardly alone, as foreclosures were filed and ordered in huge numbers in depression-era America during the Nineties.

Express, 4 September 1899.

The Workman Homestead remained out of family hands for almost two decades, while the Temple Homestead, owned by Charles and Walter Temple for most of the 1890s, soon passed entirely into Walter’s hands, for reasons we’ll save for later, too! As the 20th century dawned, the Workmans of Los Angeles continued to be a prominent family in the Angel City, while the Temples of the San Gabriel Valley largely remained out of the public eye (with a notable exception or two), but the eighth edition of the family history series, coming in September, will pick up the thread of the tale, as will posts on this blog. Stay tuned!

Leave a Reply