by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we gear up for this Sunday’s in-person presentation at the Homestead on the early history of Temple City from 1923-1930 and having previously covered some of the background of the Rancho San Francisquito, on which the city was established by Walter P. Temple, including its history prior to 1875 as well as the unrealized precursor to Temple City called Sunny Slope Acres, this post looks at the roughly thirty-five years of ownership of most of the ranch by the colorful and controversial capitalist Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin.
For a bit of a recap, the San Francisquito, covering two square leagues of not quite 9,000 acres, was granted on 26 May 1845 by Governor Pío Pico, the last chief executive of California in the Mexican era, to Henry Dalton, a native of England who lived for years in Peru before migrating to Los Angeles not long before the grant was made. Dalton amassed a substantial portfolio, also comprising the ranchos Azusa and Santa Anita during the waning years of the Mexican period, but also got into significant financial and legal trouble in subsequent years.
One solution was to deed the western two-thirds, or about 6,000 acres, of San Francisquito to his son-in-law, Luis (Lewis) Wolfskill, whose father William was a friend of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, including allowing them and John Rowland to send their cattle, during the horrible drought years of 1863 and 1864, with his to the lower Mojave Desert, where, of all places, he found adequate water and grass for the combined herds of cattle of the four men.
In return for Wolfskill’s assistance in trying (largely unsuccessfully, it should be noted) to extricate his father-in-law from mounting debts, Dalton, in March 1873, conveyed “all the unsold portion” of San Francisquito to Wolfskill. At some subsequent unknown date, Wolfskill sold one-third interests in the tract to Workman and Temple. It may be that the trio, only too well aware of the rising interest in subdivided ranch land in greater Los Angeles as the region underwent its first significant and sustained period of growth, contemplated a future subdivision and townsite for the area.
The boom dramatically and starkly went bust in late August 1875 when the Bank of California, burdened with debts after stock bubble burst relating to silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada, collapsed and a panic erupted in the Golden State which, until then, seemed largely immune from the effects of the national depression that began two years earlier. A fortunate beneficiary of the turmoil with Virginia City and San Francisco was Baldwin, who was heavily invested in silver mine stock at the Comstock Lode, but earned his nickname of “Lucky” from the fact that he sold his shares at the most opportune time and walked away with several millions of dollars.
In spring 1875, laden with his newfound fortune, Baldwin came to Los Angeles to look for opportunities to invest money in regional real estate. A prime piece of property in the San Gabriel Valley was the Rancho Santa Anita. which Wolfskill inherited from his father and then sold in 1872 to Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark for $85,000, which the young man of about 25 probably considered a princely sum. Yet, with the rapid rise in land prices, Newmark was able to to sell the ranch to Baldwin for $200,000 and there were rumors then that Wolfskill contemplated selling the portion of San Francisquito he owned with his partners to the capitalist.
Several months later came the panic and Workman and Temple, widely considered the largest landowners and wealthiest individuals in Los Angeles County, found themselves in a dire predicament as their bank of Temple and Workman, facing a rush of depositors seeking withdrawals of large sums from the institution, lacked sufficient cash reserves to meet the burgeoning demand. The bank closed for a month while Temple sought loans in San Francisco, but capital was largely unavailable.
Baldwin did wind up purchasing, on 13 October 1875, the western two-thirds of San Francisquito from Wolfskill (who happened to be a member of the Los Angeles Common [City] Council at the time) and Temple and Workman for $60,000. Temple, however, needed much more money if he was to save his bank, so, after protracted negotiations, a $210,000 loan was arranged in late November 1875 with the capitalist, who, however, insisted on “rather hard terms” as Temple wrote to Workman on the 20th when he informed his partner of the deal.
Still, the bank reopened on 6 December with a banquet at the Pico House hotel held to lionize Baldwin and Temple for their collaboration. Yet, depositor confidence was irrevocably shaken and the borrowed funds were quickly withdraw as the year moved to a close. Baldwin provided another $130,000 and then refused any further advances, so, on 13 January 1876, the bank closed. After three years, with interest accumulating such that the balance of the loan leapt from just north of $340,000 to about $576,000, Baldwin foreclosed and took possession of tens of thousands of acres of Temple and Workman land, including several ranches in the San Gabriel Valley, what became the Baldwin Hills near modern Inglewood, and choice downtown Los Angeles property. Ruined, Workman killed himself in May 1876 and Temple, who insisted on serving his two-term as county treasurer from 1876 to 1878, suffered a series of strokes and died from this in April 1880.
Baldwin, meanwhile, managed his princely domain largely intact through the end of the 19th century and most of the first decade of the 20th. Santa Anita was his focus and his local headquarters and residence, but he farmed and ran stock on much of the rest as well as leased tracts to farmers and ranchers. Increasingly, he sold tracts, as well. At the end of November 1875, just after the bank loan was finalized and within six weeks of acquiring the portion of San Francisquito, Baldwin was said to be planning a broad avenue through it and Santa Anita—this was likely what became Baldwin Avenue—while also considering subdividing tracts of 40 and 80 acres and “erecting model houses” to sell with the property. This last may not have been done as anticipated because of the ongoing economic malaise that continued into the 1880s.
Even when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad completed a direct transcontinental line to Los Angeles with the route passing just north of San Francisquito and the great Boom of the Eighties followed, there was not a great deal of change with the ranch, aside from occasional sales of small tracts. In early 1889, as the boom had largely ended, the Los Angeles Herald commented that the time had come for small farmers to come to the San Gabriel Valley and noted,
Mr. E.J. Baldwin possesses, in the Santa Anita, Puente and San Francisquito ranchos, large bodies of the finest lands in the State of California, and on application to his business representative [and nephew], Mr. [Hiram A.] Unruh, at Arcadia, thousands of acres of these lands can be had on the shares, for one-third of the crop, the lessor furnishing the seed and feed for the teams, the latter to be deducted from the lessee’s two-thirds of the crop.
Workman’s former holdings of around 18,000 acres on La Puente were said to generate 80 bushes of corn per acre without irrigation, while at San Francisquito, bordered on the east by the San Gabriel River (the old course, now the Río Hondo, of which was more in the center of the property before a flood in 1867-1868 created the new channel), it was said that 150 bushels to the acre was realized in 1888.
At the end of 1890, it was claimed that good times were soon to be returning and the Herald reported that Baldwin “is about to place several thousand acres of the Santa Anita ranch on the market, and on very liberal terms to the buyer,” while “lands in the Puente, the San Francisquito, the San Felipe Lugo [Potrero de Felipe Lugo], and other rich and attractive ranchos, can be bought on very easy terms, and at prices that are more than moderate.”
In early 1893, there was a decided push to Baldwin to offer much of his vast domains for sale with Unruh taking out advertisements promoting “California’s Choicest Locality” in the San Gabriel Valley and featuring a bird’s eye drawing, clean and sanitized , of Arcadia and the Rancho Santa Anita, though San Francisquito was mentioned, as well.
In its 6 February edition, the Herald proclaimed that “Los Angeles needs farmers” and pointed out that “for years Mr. E.J. Baldwin stood ready to lease lands on his San Francisquito ranch” with the potential for fantastic crop yields noted, but, while “under such circumstances one would think that such an offer would be quickly accepted . . . the tenants were not forthcoming,.”
Still there were some sales during the early part of the decade, with one from May 1891 mentioning 49 acres on Rancho La Merced sold to the 21-year old Walter P. Temple, though this was probably a redemption of a mortgage of the family homestead sold by Baldwin to Walter’s mother, Margarita, in 1880 following his foreclosure. In February 1893, a half-dozen sales of 20-acre lots and a single transaction for 145 acres on San Francisquito were mentioned by the Herald and this was argued as indicative of a positive trend in local real estate sales, even as a crushing national depression loomed.
The 28 September 1895 issue of the Los Angeles Express ran a lengthy feature on Baldwin and, amid the description of the life of luxury, his young wife (of which there were a few in his lifetime), and his daughters, not to mention the princely domain, centered on Santa Anita, which he owned in the San Gabriel Valley, it was recorded that “much of this property is now for sale, 8,000 acres of the San Francisquito and [Potrero de] Felipe Lugo ranches being now in the market at prices ranging from $150 to $400 an acre.” It was added that citrus raising could be lucrative, with one farmer earning about $1,800 an acre from the growing of oranges.
The stifling depression, compounded locally by several years of drought during the so-called “Gay Nineties,” was also marked by Baldwin’s mounting debts. The Express of 21 April 1897 reported that he had a blanket mortgage on his San Francisco holdings, presumably including his namesake hotel, and that there were also mortgages on some of his greater Los Angeles property, including over 2,100 acres of San Francisquito (and just shy of 18,000 acres at La Puente.)
Yet, Baldwin weathered the financial storms at the end of the century and maintained much of his fabulous wealth until his death at Arcadia on 1 March 1909. While it was estimated that his fortune was around $25 million, a trio of appraisers, including Johnstone Jones, who was later hired by Walter Temple to write a never completed history of the Workman and Temple families, determined that the estate was just south of $11 million.
There were the usual legal wranglings, including alleged out-of-wedlock children and suits by many, including Walter Temple and his siblings, regarding the estate, but Unruh shepherded the settlement so successfully that it reaped a significant financial bonanza for the two principal heirs, Baldwin’s daughters, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker. Among the more interesting of the court battles was one filed by Frederick Lummer, who leased 80 acres of the western two-thirds of San Francisquito from November 1887, and was one of the few who worked under the one-third crop arrangement with Baldwin.
While the estate claimed that rent was not paid after twenty years so Lummer was served a notice to vacate, leading him to claim that he was actually a holder of legal title since 1896. The court disagreed, but some of the history of the ranch was provided in the published proceedings for the appeal, including the report that Dalton sold the ranch to Wolfskill in 1873. Notably, in 1912 while the case was still being heard, Unruh observed that 90% of the many squatters on Baldwin lands over the years had done well financially, except for Lummer “because he has made no improvements on the land.”
Another suit was filed in May 1913 by Ellen Dalton Plummer, a daughter of Henry Dalton and María Zamorano de Dalton and who claimed that her father never transferred title to San Francisquito, averring that “it was a transfer of the property to Wolfskill to secure a loan of $10,000” with the ranch to be returned when the debt was satisfied. Unruh and the Baldwin daughters asserted that there was an authorization by Dalton to Wolfskill to sell the land and that testimony from a suit filed in 1880 by the former against the latter demonstrated that Dalton was fully aware of the 1875 sale to Baldwin. Plummer demanded the current value of the land sold to Baldwin and five years’ back rent, but her claim was decisively rejected by the court.
Meanwhile, as the Sunny Slope Acres post noted, the real estate promoter Joseph Burkhard began purchasing sections of San Francisquito and nearby areas from just before Baldwin’s death until he launched the townsite project in 1921. When it failed to get much beyond the planning stages, the Burkhard Investment Company sold 285 acres of the ranch to Walter P. Temple and he, in turn, announced in spring 1923 the creation of his Town of Temple.
We’ll pick up the story at Sunday’s talk and, if those of you reading this are intrigued enough and are available, please join us at the Homestead at 2 p.m. to hear more about the early history of Temple City from its founding a century ago until Temple sold out his interests in the town in 1930.