by Paul R. Spitzzeri
While the state of the oil industry in greater Los Angeles continues to indicate a rapid reduction in production as the emphasis continues to accelerate towards electric and renewable sources for energy and fuel (though it will certainly be interesting to see where this all goes in upcoming years,) a century or so ago, it was a dominant part of the regional economy, along with real estate, film and a few others.
For the Temple family, its involvement in petroleum prospecting dates back to the 1870s, when F.P.F. Temple drilled some of the earliest wells in the area in what is now Santa Clarita and may have been on the cusp of some success when the failure of his Temple and Workman bank quickly put a halt to his endeavors.
One of the properties he lost to an 1879 foreclosure on a loan to the institution made by mining magnate Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin was his half of the Rancho La Merced, including portions of the Montebello Hills that (as with what became the Baldwin Hills west of Los Angeles and also part-owned by Temple and his father-in-law William Workman) were likely considered good for little except grazing livestock.
So, it was with no small irony that F.P.F.’s son Walter, who inherited part of the 50-acre Temple Homestead on La Merced, just a short distance from the hills, approached the Baldwin estate (Baldwin having died in 1909) and, in October 1912, engineered a deal to acquire about 60 acres, mostly on the steep slopes of the range with some land in the flats between the hills and the Río Hondo (the old channel of the San Gabriel River) from the estate.
Temple, his wife Laura González and their four surviving children (of five) moved into the 1869 adobe house built by Rafael Basye and which was used in the 1890s as a store, billiard parlor and saloon by Temple’s sister, Lucinda, and her husband, Manuel M. Zuñiga. As for the steep slopes near the residence, the family grandiosely called it Temple Heights, though no one could realize what the apex of what that seemingly barren land would be.
In April 1914, after some rain, the Temples’ eldest child, Thomas W. II, rushed down the hill and home to excitedly tell his father than he’d found oil for him. We’ll have to tell that story here in a few months, but the gist was that the 9-year-old and some friends stumbled upon a pool of water that was black and bubbling—a sure sign of oil.
The following year, a lease was executed with Standard Oil Company (California) and drilling on a test well was conducted on the portion of the hills owned by Anita M. Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, the capitalist’s daughters. When that was successfully brought into production at the end of 1916, Standard turned to the Temple property just a short distance to the east and, at the end of June 1917, completed the first of many wells that brought in a significant amount of wealth for a family that had struggled economically over the years.
Flush with a large income, Walter turned to real estate development and oil prospecting, with the latter taking him to many areas outside California, including Texas, Alaska and México, while local endeavors included fields in Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill (Long Beach) and Ventura. Among those he worked with on these projects were his business manager, Milton Kauffman, attorney George H. Woodruff, friend Sylvester Dupuy and William Harmon Taylor (1877-1941,) who grew up just several miles south of Walter in what was known as Los Nietos and then the townsite of Rivera (now part of Pico Rivera.)
Taylor’s father was Kentucky-born Eli Taylor (1833-1900,) who was a carpenter and builder after he arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1850s. In 1862, Eli married Martha Hunter, who’d come to California in 1847 when her father, Jesse Hunter, was captain of a company of the Mormon Battalion, sent by LDS President Brigham Young to assist in the capture of Mexican California by the United States. The Battalion arrived after the conflict ended, but Hunter and his family stayed, with his wife dying shortly after in April.
Hunter, who remarried to Keziah Brown, was the Indian agent for Mission San Luis Rey for several years and then moved his family to Los Angeles, where he had the distinction of making the first bricks in the Angel City. Another Hunter daughter, Mary, was wedded to Joseph H. Burke, another early settler of Rivera who also had financial dealings with the Temples. Eli and Martha Taylor were long-time residents of that community and that was where William was born.
As a young man, he worked on the family farm and was, from 1906-1909, superintendent of the state reform school for boys at Whittier (a job held before him by Woodruff, who resigned to become Whittier city attorney and who was also a member of its board of trustees). Taylor, however, was involved in real estate and, perhaps as the national depression of 1907 hit, was hit with heavy losses and declared bankruptcy in 1909.
He rebounded, however, and, for several years at the end of the Teens, was the superintendent of the Santa Anita Rancho run by Anita Baldwin. In 1920, he left her employ to become the manager of the Argonaut Oil Company, which counted Walter Temple as one of the investors, and which had drilling operations in Whittier and Huntington Beach, among other locales. It may well be that Temple and Taylor knew each other from their younger years, but they certainly became business associated as middle-aged gents looking to hit it big together in oil.
By 1926, one area in which Temple, Kauffman, Woodruff and Dupuy became interested was what was called the Ventura Avenue Oil Field. This area was largely centered in and around the thoroughfare of that name that led north to Ojai and which still exists, though most drivers use the modern Highway 33 that runs to the west. The field was established around 1915 and its main figure was Ralph B. Lloyd, whose father purchased a ranch in the area in the late 19th century, though no one knew what was lying in abundance under the surface.
A 1928 oil industry journal article by a Ventura man, F.W. Hertel, observed that “this field has the reputation of bring the most difficult field in California in which to complete a deep well.” By then, there six zones, with the vast majority of production coming in the Lloyd portion of the field. Notably, he and his father had disagreements about operating the ranch and so Ralph moved to Portland, Oregon, where he acquired some substantial real estate east of the Willamette River, including where the well-known Lloyd Center shopping mall is now. His bonanza, however, was in the large deposits of crude under the family ranch.
The Los Angeles Times of 9 February 1926 reported that,
A syndicate of Los Angeles men, known as the Temple Estate Company has leased the Percy property in the Ventura-avenue field, according to reports from the field. The lease includes eighteen acres, and adjoins the avenue school house, and is only about 300 yards from the wildcat well which the E.L. Doheny interests are drilling on Gosnell Knoll.
It was added that the Percy brothers structured the deal so that the Company had to drill within a year or, if the Doheny well struck oil, within 30 days of that event. The article concluded that “the area in which the tract is located is conceded to have a good chance for production.” The Temple Estate Company consisted of Temple, Kauffman, Woodruff, Dupuy and secretary Dolores Bingham (though her one share of stock was a formality so that there could be five directors).
Meanwhile, in August 1926, the Walter P. Temple Oil Company was incorporated in Los Angeles and this preceded by several months the news that this firm, which had its headquarters in the Great Republic Life Building in Los Angeles, in which Temple and his aforementioned partners (save Bingham) were investors, took a lease on the W.W. Smith ranch further north and east adjacent to Ventura Avenue.
The Ventura County Star of 30 November reported that work was to begin the following day to build a road to the well site and that the rig was to be commenced quickly, though no confirmation could be provided by Temple or Smith. It was said that, once these efforts were launched, “the Temple interests will be first to drill north of the barranca [a steep-walled gully—such as the Big Dalton Wash locally that gives its name to Barranca Avenue in Azusa, Covina and West Covina] on the north end of the present Avenue field.”
In early January 1927, the Times reported that, with the significant success of the Doheny well on the Orton lease, west of the avenue and not far east of the river, the terms of the Percy lease to the Walter P. Temple Oil company were such that the firm was required to get drilling started there within a month. A month later, the Star reported that the Temple firm was “to begin drilling soon on the Percy and Foster properties,” this latter being the land of Eugene P. Foster, a major Ventura figure, between the Percy tract and the Orton place where Doheny hit oil, and the paper added that the 30-day drilling requirement applied to the Foster lease, as well.
On 23 February, the Star noted that a driller was ready “to begin spudding in a well on the Percy property . . . for the Walter P. Temple interests of Los Angeles” and that recent rains (the winter of 1926-1927 included some major flooding, such as that which damaged many crops at Temple’s Homestead where the Museum is today) caused delays in getting work going.
A couple of weeks later, on 9 March, the Oxnard Press-Courier that “the Walter Temple oil company began working on their first well in the Ventura avenue field yesterday when work was begun on the Foster lease near the Avenue school,” this campus being near the Foster house, which was lost to a fire in 2010 (there is an E.P. Foster Elementary further south). It was added that the siting of the well close to the Orton one was based on “the opinion of the geologists [that] the trouble from water” at the latter was “a localized condition and would not affect a nearby hole.”
On 6 May, however, the Ventura Free Press‘ listings of real estate transactions included the recording that the Temple Estate Company assigned its lease of several parcels in the field to Kauffman and Taylor, who then turned over the leases to their newly created M.K. & T. [get it?] Oil Company. Kauffman and Taylor, through their nascent firm, also acquired leases that were held by Sylvester Dupuy and his wife, as well as the McKeon Drilling Company, which did the work mentioned above for the Temple Estate Company. Moreover, later that month and in mid-June, Temple, Kauffman and his wife and the Taylors issued quit claims to W.H. and Emma Marriott for a lease on their property south of the Percy and Foster places and to the Ventura Finance Company for part of another parcel nearby.
While it appears that Temple, Woodruff and Dupuy were withdrawing completely from these leases, it may be that the affairs of estate company, which had just completed the three-story Edison Building in Alhambra that was the last real estate project carried out by the firm, were such that it was deemed better to turn over the leases to Kauffman and Taylor while still maintaining some level of investment in M.K. & T.
Another possibility is that reassigning these leases would buy time to raise funds and then inaugurate more work in the field, though, in early October, Eugene Foster filed suit against the Temple Estate Company and the M.K. & T. Oil Company concerning the four parcels of land comprising his lease. There were rumors that, should Foster prevail in his suit, Shell Oil Company was ready to effect a new lease and drill on the lease because there was a belief that a large pool of oil existed there.
An arrangement appears to have been made as, by early 1928, the M.K. & T. was ready to begin operations. On 7 January, the Post reported that Sylvester and Anna Dupuy leased eight lots in two parcels to the company, which was to drill within a year and go at least 6,000 feet with the first well, unless oil was found higher up, with the couple to get a 1-7th royalty.
Two weeks later, the paper announced that the company finally began operations on Foster’s property and a representative told the journal that “a systematic drilling program will be carried out . . . should the initial project reveal that the Foster ranch is in the productive area of the field.” The owner was also entitled to a one-sixth royalty. A new partner in the enterprise was William “Rhoades”, said to be a Hollywood multi-millionaire, but who appears instead to have been William Rhoads, who was an oil driller and operator in northern California until he came to Los Angeles about 1920. He had a company that got into litigation mid-decade concerning funding issues and he was represented by Will P. Brady, a former El Paso judge and district attorney who became secretary of the M.K. & T.
Rhoads was specifically placed in charge of drilling and there was talk of another 160 acres to be leased by the firm in the field. By late April, the wildcat (meaning in an unproven area with regard to known oil deposits) was said to be well within oil sands at nearly 5,000 feet and it was reported that the site was thought to be outside the deposit area of the field, while company officials expressed the belief it would be a 2,000-barrel per day producer. Rhoads played up another lease of nearly 200 acres in the Sulphur Mountain region between Santa Paula and Ojai and the idea of pursuing drilling there if the Foster lease performed well.
On 18 May, the Star had a large headline that blared “FOSTER WELL COMES IN TODAY” with the article stating that a 1,500-barrel (some believed it would become a 2,000 barrel one) producer was brought it the previous afternoon and that it portended that it “will move the Avenue oil field many millions of dollars closer to the city of Ventura.” Already there was talk of a second well being drilled nearby, while a list of shareholders, most from Oakland, was provided, though there was no mention of Temple.
Within several days, however, Howard C. Kegley in his Times column, “Oil News,” reported that the well “was showing less ‘pep’ than on the first day of the production test” and that this was “considerable of a disappointment” despite a good deal of “swabbing” mud and water from the hole. Yet, further work did bring in a producer after all on Independence Day and at 2,400 barrels per day with 25,000 unearthed over the next two weeks, and, just a day after this, Doheny’s Orton #6 came in at well over 5,000 barrels at a deeper location of over 6,800 feet. The two wells spurred frenzied activity on this southern edge, with the M.K. & T. directors voting to drill four more wells, instead of two, and Rhoads was hailed for his faith and tenacity.
By 23 July, it was noted that the Ventura Avenue field rose to be the third highest producer in the state, while the following month it was announced that the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had a line going through the field and the Foster and other leases, partnered with the M.K. & T. in pushing work on other wells. The arrangement was that the railroad company was to hire Associated Oil Company to conduct the drilling and any proceeds would be split evenly after Foster’s royalties were paid out. Confusingly, two wells were on the Percy lease and one on the Foster, though the former was generally not mentioned in previous coverage. It was also noted that the M.K. & T. moved its officers from Hollywood to the lease.
For all the excitement generated in summer 1928, however, the following year proved to be less fulfilling. In mid-February 1929, Rhoads met with a Star reporter and predicted a big well was imminent and he added that “some of these days you’ll see oil wells” throughout the southern edge of the field. He acknowledged that it would take a proven producer on the Percy lease to convince skeptics, who, he claimed, said he was crazy when it came to Foster #1, while it was noted that the southern end of the wildcat area was another M.K. & T. lease on the ranch of Edith Mercer Neel.
The Times of 11 March reported that Percy #1 “may not develop into a commercial producer,” however, while Foster #2 looked promising with the third well there moving along. About two weeks later, the Star reported that expectations for Foster #2 were for a 2,000-barrel producer, with #3 there and the Percy well purportedly in good oil sands. By the end of June, Foster #2 was down over 7,300 feet and expectations were still high, yet, while there was a year-end report from the Whittier News of 19 December that Foster #1 was being cleaned out to remove excess water, things got very quiet from there on out.
The Dupuys received a quit claim and release on their lease property at the start of 1931 and four years later, in February 1935, the Foster Lease was sold to the Victory Oil Company, headed by a Beverly Hills man. Eight months later, Rhoads, who was 55, was discussing with his wife and a friend an ongoing lawsuit in Orange County over title to an oil well when he suddenly walked out of his house and into a garage, where he he shot himself.
As has been stated here before, Walter Temple was in dire financial straits as the Roaring Twenties closed with the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. He sold off most of his property by summer 1930 and leased the Homestead to the Golden State Military Academy, while moving to Baja California to save money. He lost the ranch in July 1932 as the Depression hit a new low, returned to Los Angeles shortly afterward and died in 1938.
William Harmon Taylor resided in South Pasadena during the late 20s and afterward and was a broker, though, by 1940, he had no occupation and he died the following year at 64 years of age. Milton Kauffman proved to have the most remarkable comeback after years of struggle during the Depression and World War II years, as he, in his late sixties, became an incredibly successful developer of tract homes throughout much of the South Bay and La Puente areas in the boom years of the 1950s prior to his death in 1957 at age 74.
The oil industry is highly speculative encumbering a great deal of risk and Walter Temple and his associates found that, despite some successes as somewhat small-time operators, the losses from unsuccessful endeavors were too numerous. The Ventura Avenue projects were something of last ditch efforts for Temple, Kauffman, Dupuy and Woodruff and the map highlighted here shows the several tracts in the field that were leased to the Temple Estate Company, Walter P. Temple Oil Company and, lastly, the M.K. & T., which is represented on the document because of its dates of 1927, when the initial work was done, through the last updates in 1930.