Reading Between the Lines (Father’s Day Edition): A Letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 21-22 June 1931

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted here on several occasions, the dramatic story of Walter P. Temple’s fortunes over his nearly seventy years of life are a core component of the interpretation we provide at the Homestead. He was a boy of six when the Los Angeles bank owned by his father, F.P.F. Temple, and grandfather, William Workman, failed. In his early twenties, he and younger brother Charles inherited the 50-acre Temple Homestead in the Whittier Narrows community of Misión Vieja, and, during the two decades he owned and lived here, he often struggled to make a decent living.

In fall 1912, he, his wife Laura González and their four surviving children, Thomas, Agnes, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, sold the Homestead and acquired about 60 acres, just to the west, of land formerly owned by his father and lost to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin in the aftermath of collapse of the Temple and Workman bank. Not having the cash to buy the property outright, Walter arranged financing through Baldwin’s nephew and trustee—under two years later oil was found on the tract by 9 year-old Thomas who was playing with friends on the hillsides the family christened “Temple Heights.”

When the first royalties came in during summer 1917 on the Temple lease, which yielded quite a few producing wells and a few gushers, the family was very quickly propelled into significant wealth and, over the next decade, spent, as many do, lavishly. This included the purchase of the 75-acre Workman Homestead (enlarged to 92 soon after), renovations of the Workman House and El Campo Santo Cemetery and other structures and, as we begin to commemorate this year with the centennial, the construction of La Casa Nueva.

Walter invested heavily in other oil-drilling ventures while also pouring large sums into real estate projects from Puente to downtown Los Angeles, including in Alhambra, El Monte, and his own Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. Unfortunately, as oil production plummeted at the Temple lease, there was not nearly enough income to offset expenditures and taking out bonds, with the usual interest, to raise money to keep current work going, as well as a mortgage on La Casa Nueva as it was being built, could not prevent the inevitable financial failure.

Los Angeles Express, 19 March 1931.

In April 1930, with a newly signed lease of the Homestead to Golden State Military Academy recorded, the Temples vacated the Homestead and Walter decamped for Ensenada, Baja California, México, where he could live economically while hoping for some miracle with his finances. Agnes had recently married Luis Fatjo, a former University of Santa Clara classmate of Thomas, and moved north. Walter, Jr. and Edgar were near completion of a year’s study at that school. Thomas, who did not pursue a career in the law despite earning his degree from the prestigious Harvard Law School, briefly went to work for a San Francisco bank but could not shake his passion for the history and genealogy of early California.

So, he returned home to this area and moved in with his mother’s sister, Luz González de Vigare, in her historic adobe just south of Mission San Gabriel. Thomas plunged deeply into his work, including publishing and serving on a committee planning the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the founding of Los Angeles. These activities and other items comprise his letter to his father, who was in Ensenada, on 21-22 June 1931, the latter being the day before Father’s Day, which is the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s holdings for this post.

Thomas began by telling his father “you have no idea how very happy I was to hear from you,” adding that he and his brothers read and reread the letter many times. Edgar had returned from a trip to Idaho including with his “Rosita,” this being his future wife, Rose Achain. As for Agnes, he reported to his father that she was spending a month at the beautiful seaside town of Carmel, while Luis was working during the week at his school preparing applicants to take civil service examinations.

At the end of the missive, Thomas stated that Walter, Jr. thought about driving down to Ensenada to visit their father and was on a break before stating summer school, though where is not known, as he completed the one year at Santa Clara. Poor Edgar, however, “looks like a lost soul and employment is very scarse [sic] here as elsewhere.” The Great Depression was only going to worsen, including with waves of bank failures in 1932, during which, in July, the Homestead was finally lost to foreclosure to California Bank.

Thomas then informed his father of the death of Inocencia Yorba de Duarte, who was from the prominent family that owned much of Orange County in the pre-American era, but who was raised in the Old Mission community where Walter grew up (she was four years older.) Inocencia was married to José Andronico Duarte of the family that owned the Rancho Azusa de Duarte in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains west of the San Gabriel River where the city of Duarte now is.

Moreover, her son, Manuel, married Theresa Rowland, the daughter of Walter’s sister, Margarita Temple and her husband Samuel P. Rowland (grandson of John Rowland, co-owner of Rancho La Puente with William Workman.) Thomas told his father that he, Walter, Jr. and Edgar were going to the wake “at Willy McCormick’s old Grape vine,” which is where the old “mother vine” still survives next to the Mission Playhouse at San Gabriel, on the corner of Mission Drive and Santa Anita Street. It was added that Señora Duarte was being buried by her son Manuel at the Mission cemetery “where the rest of the Yorba and Duarte clan have slept these many years” and Thomas noted “no doubt the old timers will turn out en masse.”

Los Angeles Times, 20 May 1931.

Thomas then reported that he and Walter, Jr. “went to visit old ‘Gene’ Plummer,” this being Eugenio Rafael Plummer, a descendant of early California families as well as a British ship captain and the Plummers long owned a piece of the Rancho La Brea, west of Los Angeles near where the famed tar pits are location and where Plummer Park in West Hollywood is situated. Plummer and Thomas served on one of the committees for the upcoming Los Angeles Fiesta and it was also noted that Thomas was working on an article for Harry Carr of the Los Angeles Times along with Marion Parks.

Parks, who worked in the publicity department of Security-First National Bank, wrote extensively on regional history, including her article “In Pursuit of Vanished Days: Visits to the Extant Adobe Houses,” published in the annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California in 1929. As she researched for that piece, she traveled to the Homestead and Thomas wrote in his letter, “no doubt you remember the young lady out at the Puente one day,” adding that they all met again for Fiesta board meeting at the Biltmore Hotel.

When the Fiesta was held on 4 September, the Times published a two-part article called “How Los Angeles Began” with the byline credited to Parks “in collaboration with Thomas Workman Temple II,” who was credited with assigning that day as the founding date of the Angel City and who published a 30-page article about his research in the Historical Society of Southern California’s annual for 1931. Thomas told his father, “[I] have made many acquaintances with the prominent men of the city and it will stand me in good stead in the future” and related that well-known lawyer and banker Orra Monette, as well as members of the Dockweiler and Mott families asked how Walter was faring.

After discussing some other early families, including the Morenos, descendants of Pío Pico, who asked about a photo of the ex-governor and Workman and Temple compadre that “we had in the old [Workman] house at the ranch . . . [and] at Alhambra also,” Thomas mentioned that “Plummer and I have recommended to the [Fiesta] committee on Barbecues to hire José Romero, the chief himself, and to accept no substitutes, like Ramirez, who has been taking a lot of Jose’s trade.”

Times, 4 September 1931.

Joe Romero, who died in 1932, was long known as the Barbecue King in greater Los Angeles for the often-massive meals he created for large-scale events and was the father of Frank, the Homestead’s foreman just before the Temples moved, and Maud Bassity, Walter’s paramour, who lived with him in Ensenada. Fred Ramirez, meanwhile, was the proprietor of the well-known Spanish Kitchen, which operated for years on Broadway between First and Temple and was, according to a 1970s Times article, the first Mexican restaurant to open in Los Angeles.

Thomas continued his missive, but expressing the wish that his father “can be up here to take part in the doings in September” and then addressed his research on the Angel City’s date of establishment:

[I] have been having much correspondence with the famous Franciscan historian, Fr. Zephyrin Englehardt [who wrote voluminously on the California missions], on the date of [the] founding. That Census[,] a copy of which I am sending you to translate for me, states definitely that the Pueblo was founded September 4th. I also have the accounts of the Pobladores, showing that they were outfitted from shoes to hair-ribbons and am sending you copies soon.

Thomas then let Walter know that, “about the translation of the [probably José María, general during the American invasion amid the Mexican-American War] Flores letter, [I] would like to send you the original so that you can work on it and get your fine knowledge of Spanish on the job. He further reported that “the best printer in the State, a Mr. Grabhorn[,] is going to publish my translation in San Francisco next month and [I] shall send you the fruit of my first labors in the field of documentary research.”

Robert Grabhorn operated a press that constituted some of the best fine printing in the country and, while Thomas was a co-author of a 1934 publication by Grabhorn and which concerned Spanish settlement of California before the establishment of Los Angeles, Thomas’ translation did wind up being published in the Historical Society of Southern California annual instead. Thomas then discussed news of family friends, including Vic Torres whose family operated San Gabriel’s well-known El Poche Cafe for many years, before having to stop and return to the letter the next day.

He began this second part by informing his father that “the wake [for Inocencia Duarte] was a great success” as many relatives and friends were in attendance, though her daughter-in-law and Walter’s sister, Maggie, die not attend “as she had to stay at the Puente [the Homestead] with the kids [her grandchildren.]”. Thomas added that “Manuel Duarte took it pretty hard as he felt Alphonso’s loss keenly not long ago.” Alfonso, the son of Manuel Duarte and Teresa Rowland, resided with his mother and grandmother (Walter’s sister) in the home built for her at the western edge of the Workman Homestead along Turnbull Canyon Road, was an employee of the Stafford Feed Mill in Puente.

Times, 5 September 1931.

On 19 March, he was a passenger in a Stafford truck driven by a co-worker and as they came to a curve along Hacienda Boulevard south of Valley Boulevard and very close to the Homestead, the brakes failed and the vehicle overturned, killing the young man. He was interred in the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum in a crypt that had a shutter marked for Laura Temple but which was replaced on her crypt by another—so Alfonso’s resting place continues to be unidentified over 90 years later.

Another interesting portion of the letter was Thomas discussing a reenactment of an early California wedding for the Los Angeles Fiesta and he wrote,

About your uncle Don Juan Temple’s clothes, I did wear a vest that The Bancroft [Library] gave me which he is supposed to have worn. Also I wore your grandfather William Workman’s linen shirt, which the girls [presumably his Vigare cousins] washed and starched for me. It is in very good condition and none the worse for these many years.

The Museum has a shirt in its collection that is purported to have been Workman’s and this could very well be the one Thomas mentioned in his missive. The rest of the letter concerned more references to family and friends, as well as Thomas’ visit to see his father’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, who, however, was out of the office.

Thomas then added, “tomorrow is Father’s Day and I wish we could be together on it,” and followed by sending love from himself and his brothers as well as “kind regards to Maude.” Reflective of the straitened economic situation with the Temples and the jarring losses they felt at the time, Thomas asked, “has she succeeded in disposing of that jewelry yet?” He continued, “[I] have traced some of it and it seems a pity that you could not have divided those heirlooms and things of sentiment as well as value with your children.”

Moreover, Thomas warned, “some day you’ll realize perhaps too late that your children have always stuck by you and if meddling persons [who were not named] out for their own gain had not interfered we may all have been very happy together instead of separated like a lot of sheep.” He concluded by telling his father, “I pray that you may see the light before it is too late.” Whether this was a reference to Bassity or Kauffman or both and others, was left unstated here, but it does show a stark bitterness, understandable under the circumstances, that Thomas felt while he wounds of financial collapse and loss of the Homestead were still very much fresh.

4 thoughts

  1. I read these posts and my family comes back to me. Thank you

  2. Hi Ruth Ann, thanks for the comment and we’re very glad that you enjoy revisiting these artifacts, many of which you donated, and reliving your connections to your father, aunt and uncles. We appreciate your ongoing support!

  3. Very nice to see these family letters and items being reviewed and shared.
    During the early years of the museum, the story was that Walter lost his fortune “In the Depression” and since that started with the 1929 stock market crash, the implication is that Walter’s money disappeared in the markets.

    It is interesting to see how much more complex and detailed Walter’s economic fall was. It doesn’t appear as if Walter was much invested in stocks, and it seems as if the October drop really didn’t affect him as much as casual history would imply. It seems that his declining oil revenues were his number one problem. (or perhaps was spending part of the situation?)

    In a hindsight revisionist situation, what could Walter have done differently?
    Wild catting searches for more oil wells is about as risky as casino activity.
    His buildings and land development should have given him a solid base for continued revenues. But vacancies in the 1930s would likely have been a drain.
    The town of Temple was doomed by the Mattoon act. But maybe those revenues would have ended after 1929 also.

    Perhaps if he realized that the Montebello oil fields would not go on forever, he could have entrenched and invested more with an eye to keeping his debt lower. (no bonds, mortgages, etc.)

    Thomas’ comments about those who failed his father makes one consider whether his advisors and managers “failed” him (they didn’t seem to go broke like he did) or whether Walter was going his own way and being less fiscally conservative than he should.
    I don’t believe that Walter had any formal business education, if he had (MBA?) would he have made the same decisions?

    History is about learning lessons so that we dont have to repeat them.
    Interesting to explore what lessons there are to be learned from watching a fortune dissipate and what people could do to prepare for the inevitable business cycles.

  4. Hi Jim, thanks for the comment and we’re glad you find the posts on family letters interesting. Donations from descendants of documents like these, allow us to better interpret the family history, including Walter Temple’s financial situation, which was hardly a unique one. Concerning his partners and advisors, there is no evidence so far of anything other than making unsuccessful choices in highly speculative endeavors, while Temple’s decisions with building La Casa Nueva and others involving personal spending were, of course, his own. Booms and busts are filled with stories like these, varied in detail, but common in general, and, as you said, we should try to learn from the lessons history offers, especially if it happened before, as with Walter’s father and grandfather a half-century earlier.

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