Transformation in the Teens Preview: The Walter P. and Laura G. Temple Family’s Extreme Makeover, 1911-1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday at 2 p.m. on Zoom, the Homestead offers the ninth installment of a series of presentations on the history of the Workman and Temple families with Transformation in the Teens: The Workman & Temple Families in 1910s LA. The discussion will cover some pretty broad ground, including the amazing career of silent film star Princess Mona Darkfeather, the stage name for Josephine M. Workman and the stunning change of fortune experienced by her cousin, Walter P. Temple and his family, whose Montebello-area ranch proved to be the site of abundant oil deposits that catapulted them into sudden wealth.

This preview looks at some of the “before and after” history involving Walter, his wife Laura González and their four surviving (of five) children during the Teens, with the bringing in of the first oil well on their lease to Standard Oil Company (California) being the flashpoint of their remarkable transformation or, if you will, an extreme makeover of their situation from farmers and ranchers to capitalists.

The Temple family’s 19th century houses at their 50-acre homestead in the Whittier Narrows community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, on Rancho La Merced in a photo dating from about 1905.

Among the notable twists and turns involved with this story is that, when Walter was born in June 1869, his family owned half of Rancho La Merced, a 2,363-acre tract acquired at the end of 1850 by his grandfather William Workman through the foreclosure of a loan made by him to the property’s grantee, Casilda Soto de Lobo. The other half of La Merced was given to Juan Matias Sánchez, who’d been the foreman for Workman on the Rancho La Puente and who occupied to Soto Adobe on a bluff overlooking, from the west, the San Gabriel River (now the Río Hondo.)

To the northeast, Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple chose a piece of La Merced on which to settle and over nearly two decades enjoyed the successes of the Gold Rush while surviving the difficult days of the 1861-1862 floods and the drought which followed. By the time, Walter, their tenth child (and seventh survivor into adulthood), was born, the Temples were farming at La Merced, but F.P.F. was, with his father-in-law Workman, aggressively pursuing business opportunities in Los Angeles, which was experiencing its first major period of growth.

A 1903 map of the Whittier Narrows area. At the upper right is the 50-acre Temple Homestead with Walter’s name on the 32.20 acre portion, with his brother Charles owing the 16.4 acre northern section, though this was soon sold to Walter. To the left is the Río Hondo and then a 452.2 acre section of the Montebello Hills where it says “OLD MISSION” and part of this was sold to Temple by Baldwin’s estate in 1912. Oil was then found there about a year-and-a-half later and the Temples were vaulted into sudden and surprising wealth.

As has been detailed here previously, the Workman and Temple family fortune, of substantial size by the mid-1870s, was mostly dissipated by the failure of their Los Angeles bank and this occurred when Walter was just six years old. In the aftermath, all that was left of their holdings at La Merced was a 50-acre homestead sold to the Temples by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose foreclosure of his loan to the bank (an irony, naturally, given how Workman acquired the ranch almost three decades prior) involved the rest of the ranch, including the portion allotted to Sánchez, who had to pledge his half towards the bank loan.

A large portion of La Merced included the Montebello Hills, which was likely seen as having little value aside from grazing for livestock. At the Temple Homestead, Margarita Temple, Walter’s mother, retained ownership for a little over a decade, until her death in 1892, after which the property was left to her youngest children, Walter and Charles. The brothers divided the ranch with Charles taking the northern section and Walter the southern part and, on that piece, he built a simple frame house when he married Laura González. She’d grown up near the Temples in what was long known as Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, because the original Mission San Gabriel was situated there next to the Río Hondo for the first years of its existence, but flooding forced a relocation by 1775 to the current mission site.

The Temple family as enumerated in the 1910 federal census when they resided at the 50-acre family homestead.

Laura worked for Walter’s brother, Francis, at the 75-acre Workman Homestead, where the Museum is today, and had a teenage romance with Walter that had to be kept secret and it was not until Thanksgiving Day 1903 that the two, then in their thirties, were wed. Over the next several years, they welcomed their five children—daughter Alvina died within two weeks of birth in 1906, with Thomas (1905-1972), Agnes (1907-1961), Walter, Jr. (1909-1998) and Edgar (1910-1977) living to adulthood.

After Charles P. Temple left the area for Arizona following some serious personal issues, Walter assumed control of the Homestead property, which included the early 1850s adobe house and a circa 1870 brick residence. The former was long rented to winemaker Giovanni Piuma and the latter had been Charles’ La Paloma clubhouse, the scene of some of his more serious brushes with violence and legal woes before he moved away, though these buildings were soon destroyed by fire in the first decade of the 20th century.

Whittier News, 11 April 1911.

So, as the Teens dawned, Walter, Laura and their children were living in the frame house and much of the fifty acres was planted to walnuts and apples. One of the problems experienced by the family and others in the Old Mission area was that the City of Pasadena owned a large tract of land there, purchased from Temple, and conditions on the property, which was long subject to major flooding (as affected the Mission San Gabriel in the early 1770s, for example).

The situation was such that the Whittier News reported in its edition of 11 April 1911 that more than 100 cars were blocked on the “El Monte road” between Old Mission and Pico (Rivera), this likely being what was called Cate Road east of today’s Rosemead Boulevard, because the car of a real estate dealer “was mired in a big mudhole near the Temple ranch.” It was added that the thoroughfare “is almost impassable during the rainy season for machines, as it is flooded by water from the slough opposite [east of] the Temple ranch.”

Reference to the Temple family’s loss of 20 acres to flooding in 1909-1910 with a photo showing damage along the San Gabriel River, Los Angeles Times, 23 July 1911.

Because of this problem, Walter Temple filed suit against Pasadena by which he “hopes to force Pasadena to drain its slough.” The News added that “the sentiment of the ranchers in this district is all with Temple” because the water problem was not just an issue for motorists, “but interferes greatly with hauling and other traffic.” The massive caravan of cars comprised some 500 Pomona residents heading for a beach outing, but they had to wait until the Whittier realtor’s vehicle was pulled from the mud with the paper observing, “Temple pulled the local people out with a team, after working for more than a half an hour.” He and another man then assisted the Pomona party navigate through the muck as they continued their excursion.

In the summer, a trial was held in the Superior Court before Judge Frank G. Finlayson with Temple seeking $10,300 for damage to his 32-acre walnut orchard, impairments to his family’s health and incurred doctor’s bills. He argued that, over a two-year period, Pasadena refused to properly mitigate the swampy conditions on its adjoining property, while he added that the profusion of frogs “disturbed his slumbers” and the tract “bred mosquitoes which bit him.” Despite this purported misery, Finlayson declined to rule against Pasadena or award any damages to Temple.

A photo from the Homestead’s collection of a nearly flooded bridge over the San Gabriel River during the deluge of early 1914.

There was more to worry about than the croaking and the need for calamine lotion, however, as a Los Angeles Times article from 23 July 1911 pointed out when it came to the perennial (or seemingly so) penchant for the San Gabriel River and Río Hondo to flood the Whittier Narrows region. Illustrated by a photo showing sections of the former watercourse as it devoured large tracts of walnut-growing land in the area, the article observed “there has been a thorough awakening to the necessity of adequate protection against the spring floods that transform ordinary calm and placid creeks into swift, destroying currents spreading devastation and damage through territory traversed.” Among those affected was Temple, who lost 20 acres in the floods of 1909-1910.

In the winter of 1914, another terrible deluge hit the region and the flooding at Whittier Narrows included the washout of the Old Mission bridge that passed within just a few hundred feet of the Temple’s family residence on their recently acquired property west of the homestead. The latter was sold when, in October 1912, Walter acquired, for about $75 an acre, 60 acres at the northeast edge of the Montebello Hills and the flat land next to it along the west bank of the Río Hondo, from the estate of Baldwin, who’d died three years before. This new holding was lost by Temple’s father to Baldwin in the bank loan foreclosure more than thirty years prior. Also of note is that the family moved into the Basye Adobe, south of San Gabriel Boulevard and east of Lincoln Avenue, which comes up from Montebello, and this 1869 dwelling, which once contained a store and saloon/billiard parlor, was recently occupied by Temple’s sister Lucinda and her second husband, Manuel M. Zuñiga.

Los Angeles Express, 17 March 1913.

One of the questions is why this transaction was consummated. It has been long thought that the main reason was that Temple and his friend, El Monte merchant and real estate speculator, Milton Kauffman, believed that, with the Montebello Hills lying between the oil fields of Los Angeles and Whittier, there was likely oil in what was long considered barren and generally low-value land. It may also be, however, that the unsuccessful outcome of the Pasadena lawsuit and the damage experienced by flooding were contributory.

The problem with the 1914 flood is that, as reported by the Los Angeles Express in its edition of 23 February, among the $200,000 in damage suffered by ranchers and farmers along the San Gabriel and Río Hondo was that “Forty-five acres of the big Temple walnut ranch, owned by E.W. Temple, were completely washed out” where the San Gabriel and Río Hondo merged together during the deluge “near the Mission bridge.” It has to be that “E.W.” was a misprint, because the other rancher mentioned in this context was “E.W. Furatt,” so it can be assumed that it was Walter Temple who lost the 45 acres. The account went on to note that “Temple’s loss is $50,000,” a substantial sum, “as part of the land was set to 12 year-old walnut trees worth $2,000 an acre.”

Express, 23 February 1914.

Presuming this was Walter’s situation, it is even more striking that the enormous boon that was brought three years later with the discovery of oil on his ranch came not long after he experienced this devastating loss. Interestingly, not long before the 1914 debacle, the Express of 17 March 1913 ran an article the headline of which was “W.B. Temple Plans Picturesque Home.” The piece recorded that this “notable improvement” on the “Temple estate of 60 acres” was to take place “on a high point overlooking the San Gabriel river, having a view embracing 300 out of 360 degrees in scope of an imaginary circle 60 miles in diameter with the Temple place as the center.”

It was observed that Temple recently completed a 12-inch well and that plans included an electric pumping plant

when Mr. Temple is to begin the construction of a seven-room residence in the Spanish mission style. Mr. Temple’s plans for landscape gardening and roads when complete will result in one of the most picturesque homes in Southern California. The place, which is now in grain, will be set to oranges, lemons and subtropical fruits, as this locality was unharmed by frost last winter.

Existing photos of what was grandiosely called Temple Heights show a two-story wooden water tower where the well was dug, but it may well be that the pursuit of the Mission Revival dwelling was scotched due to that $50,000 loss with the walnut orchard in the ensuing deluge. It is interesting to compare this house plan with what was undertaken on a much larger scale about a decade later with the construction of La Casa Nueva at the Workman Homestead.

The Temple family, ca. 1911, just before they moved from the Temple Homestead to their new ranch to the west in a negative from the museum’s holdings. Walter is at the back fourth from right. Laura is at center holding son Edgar. Thomas and Agnes are at the front left, while Walter, Jr. was hiding behind the group, as he liked to point out in his later years!

Yet, just a couple of months after the ravages of the 1914 flood (more than 40 years later the Whittier Narrows Dam was built just a short distance south of where the Temples long resided), Walter and Laura’s eldest child, Thomas, who was just nine years old, made the incredible discovery of oil on that hill where the edifice was contemplated. The following year, a lease was signed with Standard Oil and, early in 1917, after the company completed a successful test well on the Baldwin portion of the Montebello Hills (his daughters, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, reaped huge rewards from the proceeds there and in the Baldwin Hills of Los Angeles, which was also acquired in the bank loan foreclosure), the first Temple well was drilled on the hillside just a short distance to the east of the Baldwin test well.

In late June 1917, the Temple well was successfully brought into production and the family immediately celebrated with a barbeque for 500 family and friends. After considerable struggles amid some grand plans during much of the Teens, the Temples were entering a new and wholly unexpected phase of their life, which we’ll discuss further on Sunday and continue with the 1920s entry of the lecture series this coming spring.

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