Navigating a New Century Preview: The Workman and Temple Family at the Dawn of the 20th Century

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A series of illustrated talks on the history of the Workman and Temple family in greater Los Angeles has covered a wide range of activities and events through the 19th century and Sunday’s presentation, held via Zoom at 2 p.m., takes us into the 20th century. One of the more remarkable, and hopefully relatable, features of this history is the significant change of fortunes experienced by family members, including rapid ascents to significant wealth and influence in some cases and dramatic descents into financial failure and losses in public presence in others.

During the “oughts” as the first decade of the 20th century was sometimes known, these divergent trends continued, often in strange and tragic ways. While William Henry Workman (1839-1918), whose followed his father’s trade as a saddler, peaked publicly with his two-year as mayor of Los Angeles in 1887 and 1888, when the region was in the midst of what was known as the Boom of the Eighties, he returned to local politics with the onset of the new century.

William H. Workman (1839-1918)

In December 1900, he won election as city treasurer and he and Mayor Meredith P. Snyder were generally exceptions to the rule in what was an era of Republican dominance in Angel City politics. When “Uncle Billy,” as he was commonly known, first came to Los Angeles in the mid-1850s, the Democratic Party ruled the roost and he had no trouble winning seats on the city’s school board and Common [City] Council in the 1860s and 1870s.

The great Boom actually helped turn the tide to the G.O.P., though Workman’s great popularity and his conservatism helped him as he returned to electoral politics with the dawn of the new century. While he was targeted in his 1902 reelection campaign for over-spending while on a trip to New York City to sell bonds for the early stages of the Los Angeles Aqueduct project as well as for nepotism in having his son, Boyle, serve as assistant city treasurer (the younger Workman also assisted his father during the mayoral stint in the Eighties), “Uncle Billy” won a second term by a large margin.

In 1904, the race was closer and it may have been a reflection of political realism, if not the the fact that three terms as guardian of the municipality’s monies came with a good deal of stress for Workman, who was then in his mid-sixties. In any case, after six years as treasurer, he decided to forsake another race and concluded his service with distinction. As for Boyle Workman, his two stints as his father’s right-hand man may well have groomed him for a later role as president of the City Council, which will be part of a future talk.

William H. Workman, center, his son Boyle to his right, and members of the staff at the Los Angeles city treasurer’s office, ca. 1905.

Uncle Billy’s daughter (and, of course, Boyle’s sister) was Mary Julia, who was the only woman in the Workman and Temple family who had a significant public presence, excepting one of her cousins, of whom more below. After completing her teacher training at the Los Angeles Normal School, the site of which is now the Central Public Library and which morphed later into U.C.L.A., Mary Julia began a long career as a kindergarten teacher in the city’s public schools.

She also, however, had a second vocation of sorts, as a volunteer, with a variety of social service causes, most especially settlement houses for immigrants and the poor, including the Catholic-affiliated Brownson House. While our attitudes towards working with such communities has changed a great deal in the last 120 or so years and there was no shortage of paternalism in the “Americanization” elements that guided these efforts, Mary Julia and her colleagues, mostly middle and upper class white women, deserve some credit for the work they did to help those in need.

Los Angeles Express, 14 March 1901.

While this branch of the Workman family continued to be among the elite of the Angel City and would be for some time to come, the other connected limb on the family tree had experienced a quick reversal of fortune during the 1890s. Joseph M. Workman, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was given over 800 acres of Rancho La Puente in 1870 and this tract was not affected by the loss of almost all the rest of the Workman half of the vast ranch following the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, owned by Joseph’s father and his brother-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.

After leasing the tract and moving to Boyle Heights, where he resided next to his cousin, William H., who also founded that Los Angeles neighborhood, Joseph, his wife Josephine Belt and their children enjoyed a comfortable life in a substantial house. With the onset of the 1890s, however, the situation changed and mounting debts from loans contracted with individuals and institutions led to a foreclosure on the La Puente property, acquired by El Paso capitalist Oscar T. Bassett and then long owned by his son George, and loss of the Boyle Heights house. Joseph and Josephine separated and he lived with one of his daughters for several years before his death at the turn of the new century in March 1901.

Josephine, meanwhile, owned a couple of boarding houses downtown and was the target of raids by vice crusaders in city government and the police department. The only of her children to remain with her was the youngest, also named Josephine, who, in the 1900 census, was listed as a “whistler” (more on that in Sunday’s presentation.) Not long afterward, the young woman married professional musician Harry Knoll and the two had a daughter, Josephine.

Recently widowed Josephine Workman Knoll and her 8-year old daughter Josephine, who died soon after this enumeration in the 1910 federal census.

Tragedy struck, however, when Harry died at quite a young age and, within a short time, was followed by the young girl, who, it was reported, had some entertainment talent, as well. Having lost her husband and then her only child within a short span, Josephine Workman Knoll, who was in her late twenties, embarked in a stunning reinvention as the first decade came to an end, but, once more, we will defer discussion for our next family history presentation covering the Teens.

Out in the San Gabriel Valley, members of the Temple family remained in general obscurity in the decades following the devastating debacle involving the family bank, though some property was retained even as Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin foreclosed on a loan he made to the stricken institution and added an enormous amount of land to his growing regional real estate portfolio.

The Temple Homestead, ca 1900s.

The 50-acre Temple Homestead on the Rancho La Merced in Whittier Narrows, situated in a community called Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, because of its proximity to the original site of Mission San Gabriel, passed to Walter and Charles Temple, the two youngest of eight children in their family who lived to adulthood, after the deaths, due to a flu epidemic, in early 1892 of their eldest brother Thomas, their grandmother Nicolasa Workman, and their mother, Margarita.

The brothers rented out some of their property, including to an Italian-born winemaker, Giovanni Piuma, while trying to farm portions of it. In the first years of the 20th century, Charles opened a “club,” basically a bar, in one of the family houses, but got into a true family feud not long after the sudden death in 1898 of his wife, Rafaela Basye. There was a drunken duel with one of her brothers shorty after this—this was covered in the last presentation.

But, not long after the 20th century dawned, another flare-up erupted between Charles and a second Basye brother, but this one led to death and a dramatic trial. We’ll leave the details to Sunday, but, even as Charles escaped conviction, he faced other issues, including rumors that he killed his own son (not true) as his alcoholism worsened. Finally, Charles sold his share of the Temple Homestead to Walter and left for Arizona, where he joined a sister, Lucinda, and her husband Manuel Zuñiga in the copper mining boomtown of Clifton. The other Temple daughter, Margarita Rowland, lived in Los Angeles and then in what was called Puente during this period.

Clockwise in this circa 1906 snapshot are Charles P. Temple holding his namesake son; Walter P. Temple holding his son Thomas; Laura González Temple, mother of Thomas and wife of Walter; Susie Castino, husband of Charles and mother of Charles, Jr.; and Laura’s mother, Francisca Valenzuela.

Another Temple sibling, William, left the region in the early 1880s in disgust after all the stress of trying to manage the legal affairs of his father and grandfather following the bank’s demise. He joined the Army and, after mustering out, decided not to return home, but, instead, spent some time in New Mexico, Texas and, for many years, México. As the first decade came to a close, however, an aging and ill William finally came back, after nearly thirty years, to Los Angeles.

That leaves two other Temples to conclude our preview. Around the time that Joseph Workman experienced his financial downfall and loss of his Rancho La Puente property, John H. Temple, who took possession of the 75-acre Workman Homestead following the summer 1888 death of brother Francis and the acquisition of William’s half-interest, went through a similar situation. The 1890s featured several years of drought, problematic, of course, to regional farmers like John, as well as a major national economic depression that burst forth in 1893.

A circa 1906 cabinet card of the nearly destroyed El Campo Santo Cemetery used as evidence in the court case filed by Walter P. Temple against Homestead owner Lafayette F. Lewis. The iron plot at the center and John Rowland’s tombstone within it survives, as does most of the front wall behind it. In the distance are the Workman House and Walter Tower, also still with us, while the hay-stacker and windmill are long gone.

Having, like his uncle Joseph, borrowed money to try and stave off ruin, John was likewise unable to pay off his debts and lost the Homestead to foreclosure in 1899, as the 19th century came to an end. The ranch was acquired by Pomona rancher and realtor Fred J. Smith, though after just four years, he sold the tract in 1903 to Anaheim resident Lafayette F. Lewis. Likely Smith did well with the sale as the region underwent its next big boom as the century began, but Lewis came to regret his acquisition.

This was largely because of his own making, though, as Lewis tried to completely efface El Campo Santo Cemetery, the burying ground of under an acre established a few hundred yards east of their house by the Workmans in the 1850s. When Walter Temple discovered what Lewis was up to, he immediately filed a civil lawsuit in the county superior court to stop the desecration and seek damages for the destruction wrought on the cemetery. Tune in Sunday to hear more, but, in 1907, Lewis unloaded the Homestead.

The new buyers were Pasadena residents Eugene Bassett, no relation to the owners of the former Joseph Workman ranch, and his son-in-law, Thurston H. Pratt. Bassett, a newspaper printer, and Pratt were also real estate developers in the Crown City and, while the former remained there, the latter moved his young family to the Homestead. When we get to the 1910s presentation, we’ll have a lot more to say and show about the Pratt and Bassett ownership, culminating in the return of the Temples to the property.

A Halloween party through by Thurston H. Pratt and wife in the Workman House, including spooky sounds from the second floor, Los Angeles Times, 1 November 1909.

That leads us, finally, to Walter Temple. In 1903, more than fifteen years after he had a passionate teen romance with Laura González, a neighbor at Misión Vieja who worked for Francis at the Homestead and then lived in Boyle Heights where she was a music teacher, the couple finally married. Walter built a frame house at that time and the couple resided in the southern half of the Temple Homestead, when their first child, Thomas W. II, was born in early 1905.

By the time, the second surviving child (a daughter, Alvina died after living just two weeks in 1906), Agnes, was born in 1907, Walter was full owner of the 50-acre property, as Charles sold his interest and left the areas as noted above. In 1909, Walter, Jr. was born and the family was rounded out at the end of the decade with the arrival of Edgar in December 1910. During this first decade of the century, Walter raised apples and walnuts and went on to try working as a teamster and an insurance agent in efforts to improve his lot in life.

The Temples enumerated in the 1910 federal census at the Homestead at Misión Vieja, including Laura’s mother Francisca Valenzuela, listed incorrectly as her aunt, and a nephew, Antonio Ramirez.

The 1910s, however, brought an astounding and sudden change in fortune—but, again, we’re just going to have to end our preview with an admonition to wait for the next family history presentation. In the meantime, if what you’ve read is intriguing enough; well, join us on Sunday at 2 p.m. for the virtual presentation of Navigating the New Century: The Workman and Temple Family in 1900s Los Angeles to hear a good deal more. We hope to see you then!

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