“We Are Not Broke Yet! Thank God, But Affairs Don’t Seem to be Getting Better”: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Thomas W. Temple II to Walter P. Temple, 20 February 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We at the Homestead are fortunate that there is not only a remarkable history involving the Workman and Temple family and their experiences through about a century of greater Los Angeles’ broader history, but that, thanks to donations from descendants, we have a set of artifacts to help bring this to life.

What transpired between 1830 and 1930 included some notable economic successes but also some dramatic financial reversals, including the loss of the Homestead on three occasions, but this is representative of the peaks and valleys many individuals and families experience over generations, especially during boom and bust cycles.

Last Sunday’s presentation about the early history of Temple City, along with previous posts on this blog, have focused on the inherent risk embodied in speculative enterprises such as real estate and oil development, work conducted by Walter P. Temple after he came into a small fortune with royalties from oil wells on his Montebello-area ranch starting in 1917.

Posed at the Homestead, perhaps after returning home from their Massachusetts schools are Walter, Jr., far left, Edgar, second from right, and Thomas, at far right, with their father.

Over the next thirteen years, he poured a great deal of money into projects in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and other areas of the region and beyond, with Temple City being the biggest of them. By the time the Great Depression burst forth in late 1929, he was at the end of his financial rope, but was hardly unusual in that respect.

Notably, it as almost a half-century after his father, F.P.F., went through a somewhat similar situation when a boom that took place over several years in the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s went bust in 1875-1876 and among the biggest local casualties was the bank of Temple and Workman. Among the many projects in which the bank and its owners (William Workman was essentially a silent partner, investing his money and having his son-in-law, F.P.F. , manage his affairs) were involved were oil and real estate ventures.

What we have for the 1920s that we don’t for the 1870s is a cache of documents that helps us better understand and interpret what took place for the Temples. These include financial reports, letters and others and tonight’s post makes use of one of the many pieces of correspondence that are in the collection, thanks to descendant Ruth Ann Temple Michaelis, and which was written by her uncle, Thomas W. Temple II, who was not only a consistent and diligent letter-writer, but also a historian and genealogist who preserved a great deal of materials like this.

The letter was written on the evening of 20 February 1928 and mailed the following day to his father, Walter, and it has content that is both personal and business-related. It also ties in to the Temple City talk in that the real estate development project was struggling at the time including debts from the issuing of bonds a couple of years ago to pay for ongoing work by the Temple Townsite Company as well as with the Temple Estate Company, which managed the other properties.

At the time, Thomas was attending the demanding and prestigious Harvard Law School, not far from the Temple family’s ancestral hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, and he was nearing completion of the second of three years in the program from which he earned his law degree in spring 1929. His younger brothers, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, were nearby at Dummer Academy (now Governor’s Academy) in South Byfield, while their sister, Agnes, remained in California, where she was a junior at Dominican College, then an all-girls school in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.

From the time to oil royalties began rolling in, the four Temple children were sent to boarding schools. At first, this was local with the quartet in Los Angeles and Pasadena, but this soon expanded to northern California with Thomas going first and then followed by his brothers and then his sister. In 1926, the three sons were enrolled in their schools in Massachusetts and this was just after the bonds were taken out to handle financing of their father’s various real estate projects.

It appears that the children knew little about the worsening financial circumstances of the family at that time, but, by 1928, that was no longer the case, especially as the eldest were at an age to better understand what was happening, even if the information they received was sparse and incomplete. Thomas’ missive begins with the acknowledgment of receiving the usual weekly telegram his father, though, notably, letters would occasionally be sent not long afterward. Given that it was winter, it was hardly surprising that Thomas was nursing a cold and he told his father that a few days spent with their cousins in the Bancroft family meant that “they took very good care of me” before he returned to Cambridge and his studies.

Walter, Jr., Thomas, and Edgar bundled up in the New England winter during their three-year residence there.

Thomas then expressed his satisfaction that Walter, Jr. wrote their father while visiting from Dummer, as he related that “I had a long talk with him about his studies,” adding that when he talked to Dr. Charles Ingham, the headmaster at his brother’s school, he was told that Walter, Jr. was doing better and “his daily work shows a decided improvement” over the fall term and much better than in the 1926-1927 school year. When it came to exams, however, there remained a struggle, which led Thomas to write,

I can’t quite understand it. Agnes & I seem to grasp ideas and thoughts fast enough. We’ve always tried to keep up in our scholarship. I can’t see why the younger boys find it so hard to follow the rest.

In any family, there can be significant disparities in the academic achievement of children and, as Thomas wrote, he and his sister always had good grades. Their younger siblings, on the other hand, were much more interested in sports than study, though Thomas adjudged that Edgar was more likely to do better with his studies if his work ethic was stronger—it is interesting to see how the 23-year old Thomas saw his role with respect to his brothers and their performance at school.

This included his observation “they seem to be very interested in their athletics” and followed by “I wish they would devote as much time to books” as their Bancroft cousins, though he also noted that their father was an honor student at Amherst College and Harvard Law School, while their mother was an alumnus of Wellesley College.

With his brothers soon to finish high school at Dummer, Thomas told his father he’d spoken to Walter, Jr. about college and he added “it makes me mad in way” to get a response of uncertainty from his siblings, though he acknowledged “when I was their age . . . altho[ugh in my] second year in college, I wasn’t sure what to do.” Once he figured out his path, however, Thomas explained that “I went out and did it,” before continuing that “no doubt after next year we shall all be back in California.”

Despite the concern about the younger boys’ motivations and classroom performance, Thomas added that “I’d like to see them to go to Harvard or Yale or better Princeton,” though he wondered if “they might just as well go home” and speculating that having “college connections among Californians” might be a good idea for their future before noting that the three years spent in New England will “have done them a world of Good & I wish they could stay longer.”

Then comes the last half of the letter and where we can see reflections on the economic environment for the family, but with some interesting plans in the works. Thomas began by informing his father that his monthly allowance had not yet been received and stated, “it affairs are so low financially why make them any worse by this proposed trip abroad.” Previous letters concerned Walter, Sr.’s thought of taking his family to Europe and he had his son send him brochures and pamphlets on that topic.

Thomas continued that “it’s going to take a good deal of money to get the six of us [this included Walter’s companion, Maud Bassity] over, let alone take a machine & a driver, which I think is not very economical at a time from all appearances we need every penny.” Having noted this last point, he went on,

We are not broke yet! Thank God, but affairs don’t seem to be getting any better. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not good business. I know that you for one do need a trip, and Agnes also, but as far as the rest of us, in case that affairs are in such a state that it would be inadvisable to go, we would gladly forego the trip.

If his father was determined to make the trip that summer, Thomas noted that everyone would, of course, go, but he advised foregoing taking a car and driver as they did in 1926, shipping the vehicle by sea, though he felt it was “more or less useless.” Better would be renting a car and driver and he mentioned the Leet family of San Francisco, who traveled through North Africa and France that way.

Walter, Jr. and Thomas with an unidentified young man, likely at the Dummer Academy dorm room where the younger Temples lived when they attended the school from 1926-1929.

The letter concluded with the report that J. Perry Worden, the historian hired to write the Workman and Temple family’s history, but who was asked to take on other tasks, as well, and then never got very far with the biography, sent some copes “of the Security Bank booklet,” which Thomas enjoyed. This was El Pueblo: Los Angeles Before the Railroads, issued by the publicity department of Security Trust and Savings Bank, which published La Reina: Los Angeles in Three Centuries, the following year.

Thomas also reported that, while at the Bancrofts’ house, he met a relative of Abel Stearns, one of the earliest American residents of Los Angeles along with Thomas’ great-uncle, Jonathan. Stearns was from Lunenberg, a town a little more than 40 miles west of Reading, though Thomas told his father that the Stearns family members he encountered, “had never heard o him, but I traced the genealogy & found it for them.” This was an early example of the kind of work that he forsook the law for when he became a historian and genealogist soon after his return to California after graduating from Harvard.

Also of note was that Worden “is going to take some pictures of the Tepee soon,” this structure being completed late in 1927 about the time that La Casa Nueva, the family’s remarkable residence was finally, after five years, finished. In addition to awaiting those photos, Thomas noted that he did receive some oranges from home, “but the pictures of Prince & his chums,” these being the family’s three dogs, including Duke and Maxie—all represented, along with Thomas’ cat Tonchy, on wood carvings on beam ends in the courtyard of the newly finished house, did not yet arrive.

After a final statement that he would write his brothers “exhorting them to devote more time to study than they have” and that he would soon visit them at Dummer, Thomas closed by asking his father to have Maud Bassity send a box of food and other items. With respect to the financial situation of the Temple family, Walter, Sr. may have been banking on success at what was his last gasp in trying to reap further riches in oil prospecting, as he, his business manager Milton Kauffman and others were actively pursuing drilling in Ventura. In turn, he may have planned the European jaunt on the assumption that the wells would be successful.

Edgar and Walter, Jr. while in Massachusetts.

As it turned out, however, the venture proved to be another disappointment by the end of spring 1929, not long before the Temple children returned home as graduates of their respective schools and before Walter, Sr. began selling off large portions of his estate to satisfy what he could of those mounting debts. In late October, the stock market crash in New York City ushered in the early stages of the Great Depression and, in spring 1930, the Temples vacated the Homestead, which was leased to a military academy, before losing this last part of the once-expansive family holdings in summer 1932.

This letter is one of many objects in the Homestead’s collection to help us better understand and discuss the family’s history and we’ll certainly continuing sharing more of Thomas’ missives as part of the “Reading Between the Lines” series, so check back for more installments.

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