Transformation in the Teens Postview, “In This Lucky Incident There Was a Degree of Poetic Justice”: An Account of the Discovery of Oil at the Temple Lease, Montebello Oil Field, 28 January 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s presentation, the ninth in a series of eleven, on the history of the Workman and Temple families of greater Los Angeles and focusing on the 1910s, included discussion of the amazing turn of fortune that came to the family of Walter P. Temple and Laura González when, in summer 1917, the first oil well on their 60-acre lease was brought into production by Standard Oil Company (California).

The first step towards his stunning transformation was in October 1912 when Walter sold the 50-acre Temple Homestead, on which his family had resided for some sixty years, and acquired his new landholding from the estate of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who’d died thee years before. At the time, the tract, most of which was at the northeastern corner of the Montebello Hills, was chaparral covered land that likely was viewed as having little value other than for grazing livestock.

A 1923 Automobile Club of Southern California map detail showing the Montebello Oil Fields.

Adding to the interest of this acquisition was that the property was part of the one-half of the 2,363-acre Rancho La Merced, granted to Casilda Soto de Lobo, one of the few women to receive Spanish or Mexican era land grants, in 1844. When she ran into financial problems, she borrowed money from William Workman, Temple’s grandfather and the owner of half of the nearby Rancho La Puente, but couldn’t repay the loan, so, in late 1850, Workman foreclosed and took possession of La Merced.

Early the following year, Workman gave half the ranch to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, and the other portion to his daughter Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P.F. Temple. The couple built an adobe house, followed by a two-story French Second Empire dwelling, a few hundred yards east of the San Gabriel River, which became the Río Hondo during floods in the winter of 1867-1868, and raised their large family of eleven children, eight living to adulthood, including Walter, born in June 1869.

An early reference to the first Temple lease well, Whittier News, 5 April 1917.

He arrived as his father was rising to great prominence in business in a growing Los Angeles, then in the early stages of its first growth boom, modest as it was in comparison with the series of later ones. With William Workman, F.P.F. Temple also became a banker, first with their partner, the brilliant merchant Isaias W. Hellman, and then, after a split, on their own. Unfortunately, the bank of Temple and Workman was badly mismanaged and failed in early 1876, despite almost $350,000 in loans from Baldwin, who then foreclosed three years later and took possession, among tens of thousands of some of the best land in greater Los Angeles, of the Rancho La Merced, including the half owned by Sánchez, who was forced to pledge his portion for the loan.

Walter was just six years old when the bank failed and ten when his father died in 1880. The following year, Baldwin sold the family homestead to Margarita Temple, but the finances were seemingly always precarious during the ensuing decade. After she died in January 1892, the fifty-acre tract was left to Walter and his younger brother Charles, the latter taking a smaller portion of 17 acres, but including the two houses, at the north end, while the former owned the rest. The two leased out the adobe dwelling for a winery run by Giovanni Piuma while farming on the tract.

Early indications of oil from the drilling of the first Temple well, News, 26 May 1917.

Charles, however, had a series of personal and legal troubles at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries involving his first wife’s death after just several months of marriage and then a feud with her brothers, who blamed him for her passing. A duel was fought with one and then another was killed by Charles in the barroom of his La Paloma Club, operated in one of the residences on the Homestead. While he was acquitted in a criminal trial, Charles left the area for Arizona, where a sister, Lucinda Zuñiga resided, and he sold his 17 acres (the two houses burned sometime in the latter part of the 20th century’s first decade) to Walter.

Just prior to this, Walter and Laura were married and, settling into a new frame dwelling built on the 33-acres, began raising their family, including four surviving children (a fifth died shortly after birth): Thomas W. II, Agnes, Walter, Jr., and Edgar. As noted in a post a couple of days ago, the Temples raised walnuts and apples, while Walter also worked as a teamster and as an insurance agent, and they endured some major flooding between 1909 and 1914, some of which caused significant damage to their walnut orchard, with events occurring both on the Temple Homestead and then the 60-acres ranch just a short distance to the west.

News, 21 November 1917, with a report on the second well on production and two others in construction at the Temple lease.

Yet, just after the floodwaters receded in 1914, a remarkable stroke of luck occurred that led to their leasing their land to Standard. The largest oil company in the state and formerly part of the massive Rockefeller owned firm that was broken up by anti-trust legislation passed by Congress just a few years prior, Standard had a much bigger lease with Baldwin’s daughters and heirs, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, and successfully brought in the first well on their portion of the Montebello Hills in March 1917.

A short distance to the east, the company began work on Temple well #1 and, in June, brought that in successfully as a modest 500-barrel per day producer. The second Temple well was reported to have been completed as a producer in mid-August at levels comparable to the first, while well number 3, finished on 19 January 1918, was a true gusher, yielding an impressive 2,200 barrels per day, though it was initially capped because of the enormous levels of gas encountered—this having the clear threat of an explosion. Wells 4 and 5 were in process of development and a sixth was being readied.

A 1920s view of some of wells, tanks and associated elements at Montebello, with the Temple lease at left across San Gabriel Boulevard. The photographer appeared to be standing at the lease of the estate of Julia Davis de Cruz, long associated with the Temples and whose heirs’ interests in royalties were administered by Walter P. Temple.

In its brief report, the Los Angeles Times of the 20th stated that “as Walter P. Temple, owner of the property, receives one-eighth of the product of the wells, he is already enjoying an income of at least $150,000 to $175,000 a year as his share.” At some $12,000 to $14,500 per month, some perspective can be found when we note that the average household income in the United States in 1918 was, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, just over $1,500 or roughly one-tenth of what the Temples were getting in passive income!

With the incredible success of what was a relatively small property, the Times of 28 January ran a lengthy feature written by Johnstone Jones and titled “Montebello Oil Field Is Alluring Prospect.” As discussed in a previous post on this blog, Jones was an attorney who was also one of the Baldwin estate appraisers, while he’d represented Temple in litigation involving El Campo Santo Cemetery and its desecration more than a decade prior and would, in 1920, be hired to write a history of the Workman and Temple families that he only began to work on before health issues sidelined him.

News, 6 December 1917.

Jones began the piece by observing that the rapid development of oil in the Montebello field was “perhaps the biggest, richest and most alluring” such areas in California. He added,

Nature at least, in this field, is yielding to the magical touch of capital and labor and giving up freely and bountifully the previous treasure that hitherto for untold centuries has lain hidden and unknown. A marvelous transformation has quickly taken place. Those rugged, grassy hills of La Merced, which from the time of the Spanish conquest until now have been used principally for the pasturing of sheep, cattle and horses, are now covered with a forest of oil derricks. The silence of the hills is broken day and night by the roar of furnaces and engines, the hammering of drills, the whirring of wheels and the creaking of busy machinery. Wonderful has been the sudden development and progress!

To date, nine producing wells, a half-dozen for the Baldwins and three for the Temples, were generating up to 14,000 barrels a day at about a dollar a barrel and inching towards $400,000 in revenue monthly. There were thirty more wells in the process of construction and pumping and Jones added that “it staggers the imagination to conceive of the vast possible” production of the field with some estimates suggesting that up to a billion dollars annually could be realized. Ultimately, Montebello proved to be a fairly shallow and short-lived field, especially compared to fields of much greater capacity that soon emerged at such places as Huntington Beach, Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill.

News, 16 January 1918.

The extent of the field was not known, but Jones latched onto the historical significance of the Whittier Narrows area such as the original site of Mission San Gabriel being there and giving the name of Misión Vieja or Old Mission, especially the La Merced ranch, and he discussed some its history when it was possessed by Sánchez and Temple. This included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank (erroneously said to have occurred in 1872) and the fact that “the magnificent fortunes of these families were swept away” by the foreclosure of Baldwin, accounted to be “the luckiest pioneer that ever put a sickle in the harvests of the Golden State” and who was “a keen, far-sighted investor with a remarkable knowledge of land values” as well as “an eye for the beautiful and a passionate love for nature.” This was clearly the estate appraiser and friend of the Baldwins musing here!

In any case, Jones claimed that there was potential for thousands of oil wells in a district spanning as far as the Workman Mill tract on the La Puente ranch, but, at the least, it was to be expected that millions of barrels of crude would be extracted “and add immensely to the riches of Los Angeles.” He queried, “How did it escape the trained eye of the prospector, the skill of the engineer and the greed of the capitalist?” and added that there had been geological surveys of the area, yet “there seemed to be nothing of value in those rugged bare brown hills that, Sphinx-like, gave out no signs whatever of the precious secret which they held.

Times, 20 January 1918.

Instead, the author continued,

It remained for a little boy to make the discovery. As the story goes, Thomas Workman Temple, then aged 9 years, son of Walter P. Temple, and his wife Laura G. Temple, and great-grandson of William Workman, one day in the spring of 1912 [1914], just after a gentle shower of rain, went upon one of the La Merced [Montebello] hills, the one farthest eastward at the end of the rancho, overlooking the valley, to gather wild flowers. Stooping down to pick a bunch of golden poppies he chanced to see a tiny pool of rainwater standing among the rocks. He noticed that its surface was bubbling and he smelt gas. He hurried home to his father and told him what he had seen and guided him to the spot. Mr. Temple struck a match and lit the gas which burned brilliantly until extinguished. Afterwards, Mr. Temple repeatedly lighted it and had his wife to fry an egg upon the blaze, and showed the phenomenon to friends and visitors.

After recording that Temple acquired the 60 acres for $6,000 and that the tract was worth probably $600,000, Jones added that Milton Kauffman, acting as agent for Temple, had a clause in the purchase contract removed that would have reserved mineral rights for the Baldwins. The result, the author went on, was that “in this lucky incident there was a degree of poetic justice” for the Temple family, whose fifty-acre homestead included “the melancholy ruins of the old hacienda” and what was asserted to be the tallest and, perhaps, the oldest palm tree in the state, a 100-foot tall specimen planted by F.P.F. Temple in 1854.

The Temple lease to the left or south of San Gabriel Boulevard, at right, and including the Basye Adobe near foreground, where the Temples resided from fall 1912 until they left at the end of 1917 (see below).

Jones recorded that the homestead was sold for $25,000 and that Temple used the proceeds to buy the 60-acre tract from the Baldwin estate, as well as remodel the Basye Adobe, an 1869 structure that was previously used by his sister Lucinda and brother-in-law Manuel M. Zuñiga for their store, saloon and billiard parlor, put in a water pumping plant and make other improvements. This apparently also meant planting the walnut orchard that was badly damaged in the 1914 flood. Previously, it was thought that Temple did not have the funds to purchase the new tract outright and had to finance with the Baldwin estate, but Jones’ account looks to belie this.

The writer than embarked on a short summary of the Workman and Temple family history, including the suggestion that the Temples may have been related to some eminent personages of that surname in England, though there is no evidence to date of any firm connection even to a given location or family members in that country. Jones did wrap up this section by noting that “into the lap of an American-born Temple is pouring a goodly portion of the riches from this new oil field; and, as if by magic, restoring the family name to its old-time place among the opulent men of the Golden State.”

Times, 23 December 1917, with a short note at the bottom about the Temples renting a house at “Ramona [Acres],” now Monterey Park, prior to their relocation to a full-time residence at Alhambra. Incidentally, the other “W.P. Temple” family at Montebello were not related.

Following was Jones’ summation of the development of the nine wells so far brought into production, with the recording that the first Temple well was begun the previous April and “put on the pump” two months later. The second well, 500 feet from the first, delivered in mid-August with a similar level of production of 500 barrels daily, and, after an electrical fire reduced the wooden derrick to ashes, it was rebuilt and was back into operation the following month. Well 3, however, situated close to the very successful Baldwin #3 and brought in just nine days prior, was five times more productive and also had the best gravity of crude so far located in the field.

As to the fourth through sixth wells, one was placed on the banks of the Río Hondo just east of the Basye Adobe, while the other two were on the hill “at the spot where gas was discovered” by Thomas close to four years before. Jones added that four more well sites (7-10) were chosen by Standard and construction to begin soon. It turned out that #9, brought into production, in April 1919 was touted, for a short time, anyway, as the biggest well in the United States at some 30,000 barrels daily.

A circa 1918 snapshot of the “Temple Oil Station” built by Walter P. Temple on his oil lease at the southeast corner of San Gabriel Boulevard (note the bridge for the road crossing the Río Hondo) right of center) and Lincoln Avenue. The station was managed by his brother, John, who was also briefly foreman at the Workman Homestead during the late teens.

The success of Standard at the Baldwin and Temple leases brought a rush of companies to the area, including one headed by Edward L. Doheny, the mogul who, with Charles Canfield, opened the Los Angeles field a quarter century before and who had extensive operations in California, Mexico and elsewhere. One of the wells in progress, dug by the Red Star company, found oil “at the old Piuma winery,” situated where the Temple Homestead ruins were situated, but this was apparently not a complete well.

In his review of the field’s operations, Jones recorded that Standard was readying pipelines to take Montebello field crude to firm’s refinery at El Segundo (literally, “The Second,” as in the company’s second refinery, the first being at Richmond—Chevron still operates these today, though, for how long, is the question for the future). There were, beyond the nine producing wells, more than three-dozen in construction with an average cost of from $30,000 to $40,000 for each, and production averaging 500 barrels daily for seven of the producers, excepting the much larger production of Baldwin #3 and Temple #3. There were some 500 workers earning from $4 to $9 a day under Standard’s employment.

A cartoon by Whittier rancher Albert R. Rideout, on whose land northwest of downtown Whittier oil was extensively drilled, including by Walter P. Temple, who first efforts as an independent operator took place there in 1919-1920. Note the barrels as crude gushing from the well and the “wildcat” at the top is a play on words for geologically unproven wells. News, 19 November 1919.

Finally, amid other discussion of the historical importance of the area (the Mission San Gabriel as “the foundation stone of the Christian civilization that today blesses and beautifies Los Angeles” with the only mention of the indigenous people being that they were converted under this beneficence, while the Battle of San Gabriel River, fought nearby, early in 1847, was also noted), Jones turned to a newly realized result for the Temples.

This was that they were “enabled to buy back from the hands of strangers the well-known old ranch at La Puente which was the home of [Walter’s] grandfather, William Workman, a seventy-five acre walnut ranch and vineyard with a commodious dwelling [the Workman House] thereon,” the purchase price of which was $40,000. It was added that the Workman House “is to become the permanent residence of W.P. Temple and family,” though a substantial Craftsman-style house was purchased in Alhambra the same week as the Homestead’s acquisition and that became their full-time dwelling, while the ranch was their “country home.”

Times, 28 January 1918.

Jones went on that “another gratifying result will be the rebuilding of the Catholic chapel, which William Workman erected within the walls of a cemetery . . . and was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1903.” While this did not take place, as the Temples decided instead to build a mausoleum, completed in April 1921, on the site of St. Nicolas’ Chapel, it was added that “it is now the avowed purpose of Mr. Temple to do this laudable work at his own expense” and he did complete a renovation of El Campo Santo Cemetery while also remodeling the Workman House, converting 1860s winery buildings into an auditorium, dining hall and nine-car garage and improvements to the walnut orchard, among other projects.

The next family history presentation is slated for Sunday, 16 April as the story of the Workman and Temple families will be carried into the Roaring Twenties. Given that we are now in the 2020s, there’ll be plenty of centennial commemorations to continue covering, as well, including the upcoming talk on Sunday, 19 February on the early years of Temple City, which was established a century ago this coming May. So, we hope you’ll return to this blog and attend some of our events as we mark these landmarks in our regional history.

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