by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A period of several years during the late 1910s and early 1920s can certainly be called the “salad days” for Walter P. Temple and his family. The stunning change in fortune that came to them when oil was discovered in 1914 by eldest child Thomas W. II on their ranch near South El Monte and Montebello and which yielded royalties, starting three years later, in the tens of thousands of dollars per month was one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” examples that makes the interpretation we undertake at the Museum truly fascinating.
One of the core questions for Temple and his business manager Milton Kauffman and attorney George H. Woodruff was what to do with the capital available and the answer was to branch out into their own oil prospecting and real estate development businesses. The reasoning made sense. Greater Los Angeles emerged from the First World War and a recession that followed into another of its fabled booms and the time seemed right to invest in these areas.
As deeply speculative enterprises, requiring significant advance capital to acquire land by purchase or lease and expend funds on drilling and building, the hope, naturally, was that there’d be enough crude oil to turn a significant profit on the first, while rentals and leases in completed buildings, including stable, long-term deals with federal post offices and a pair of movie theaters which, with explosive growth in the film industry, portended high profits on an ongoing bases, were anticipated to herald success long-term.
In these highly competitive fields of endeavor there was the same broad mantra of “location, location, location.” With oil, the considerable challenge was being able to find geographically proven, or likely to be so, properties that were not dominated by the larger players, such as Standard Oil Company of California (which leased the Temple oil property), Union Oil, Associated and others, while mid-level players like George Getty, Alphonzo Bell and others were able, through whatever levels of luck and talent, to make substantial fortunes. How the Walter P. Temple Oil Company, though, would fare in this environment was very much an open question.
With real estate, the situation was perhaps not quite as daunting. When it came to investing in downtown Los Angeles, the way to go was though a syndicate, so that more monied investors could pool their funds and purchase valuable commercial property. For Temple, Kauffman and Woodruff, working with such figures as oilman and furniture store owner A. Otis Birch, architects Percy Eisen and Albert H. Walker and others was also predicated on finding land that was in an underdeveloped area, but with the potential for growth. This was certainly the case when parcels on either side of 8th Street, between Spring and Main streets, were acquired and two height-limit (eleven stories) structures were built. Spring was the financial thoroughfare in the Angel City and the extension of that section in that area was realized.
In the San Gabriel Valley, there was more risk, partially because Temple was more on his own in terms of investment of funds, but also because suburban expansion, while definitely occurring in a major way in the first half of the Twenties, tended to be more concentrated on the west end of the valley. Older and larger communities like Pasadena were harder to crack at the level of Temple’s financial position, but he made a big move in nearby Alhambra, where he and his family resided from 1918 to 1923. That city grew dramatically at the time and his aggressive move to purchase or lease a full block and a little beyond on Main Street between 3rd and just beyond 4th streets involved a major investment in six building projects, including a movie theater, post office/hotel, mortuary and others, between 1921 and 1927.
In more far-flung communities, however, there was less growth and more uncertainty about whether intensive investment in development would be as successful. The mission town of San Gabriel was one that had deep personal meaning to Temple and his family, dating to their settlement in the region in the 1840s. His purchase of a full block south and across Mission Drive from the historic mission entailed the construction of three commercial buildings as well as the donation of a lot for a new city hall. At El Monte, the work was more limited, with a post office and movie theater constructed on its Main Street and investments in real estate in Monterey Park and Puente were either undeveloped or very minor.
Then came, a century ago this spring, the acquisition of 285 acres previously earmarked for a townsite called Sunny Slope Acres and which was refashioned into the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928. It was one thing to buy or rent lots and build a post office, movie theater, or commercial structure on them, but it was entirely another matter to develop your own town, modest even as Temple City was. One of the obvious differences is that a townsite mostly consists of residential lots and the gap between purchasers who buy for settlement and those who hope to turn a quick profit on speculation can be a glaring one. It also became an issue when the Mattoon Act, a mechanism for assessing property owners to pay for infrastructure, mandated that delinquent assessments had to be paid by adjoining owners of lots.
Lastly, there was the rather sudden decision, in summer 1922 after the Temples returned from a vacation in México, to build a house next to the Workman House at the Homestead. Moreover, they weren’t just building a substantial country home, they were constructing a remarkable custom adobe mansion that was filled with incredible artisanship, as well as amazing historical references to family and region. There’d already been a significant outlay in funds to modernize the Workman House, rebuild the ravaged El Campo Santo Cemetery, repurpose 1860s winery buildings, renovate a late 19th century water tower and add new structures, a large reservoir/swimming pool to irrigate crops, such as walnuts, that were planted on the ranch, build houses for two of Walter’s sisters, and more.
This description of the varied activities in which Walter and his family were engaged is beyond the sending of the four Temple children to private schools, the purchase and use of expensive automobiles, the expenses of fine furniture and jewelry, nice vacations, and more. The increased spending, however, mainly came towards the middle and end of the decade rather than its outset, when the income, principally derived from the ample royalties paid out by Standard Oil from the flowing wells at the Temple lease, was still substantial.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this latest “Making a Statement” series of posts is a “Report of receipts and expenditures February 18th to March 17th, 1921,” which was prepared and issued to Walter Temple just as he was preparing his first real estate development project, the construction of the Temple Theatre in Alhambra, while his independent oil endeavors were not yet a problem and before he and his wife, Laura González, undertook the building of La Casa Nueva at the Homestead.
The receipts for the month totaled more than $73,000, which, if that level of income remained consistent for the year would mean earnings of some $875,000 and, according to one online inflation calculator, that month’s returns would equal about $1.2 million in today’s dollars and that yearly amount translated to almost $15 million. The proceeds included more than $38,000 of cash on hand, a little more than half of the total, so that this level of cash reserves was pretty healthy. Royalties from oil and gas from the Temple lease was not far under $34,000 for the month ($570,000 in today’s dollars) and the remainder consisted of small amounts of interest, rental income, payments of a loan and sale of a property.
Expenditures amounted to about 85% of the total of the receipts and cash on hand, however, which is something that had to worry an accountant or whoever it was that prepared these reports. Almost 40% of the total came from two expenses, one being $12,500 for income taxes for the 1920 year and the other being $12,210 on what was stated to be the “Glenn Loan,” though what this is for is unknown—Charles L. Glenn was a North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights orchardist who lived near the Homestead off Hacienda Boulevard (then Hudson Road) and then got into real estate in Long Beach in 1922 and his wife Thisba was a member of the Burdick family of El Monte.
The next largest amounts were $4,500 and $4,000, respectively, paid to the Los Angeles Title Insurance Company and the Title Insurance and Trust Company with the names of Peter P. Peters, who was an El Monte orchardist so the payment may have been for the aforementioned property that became the post office and theater, and Puente realtor George E. Cross, who may have handled the sale of the Homestead to the Temples.
Just over $2,000 was paid out to National Life Insurance Company for a policy, while $2,000 was a loan to William Rowland Hudson, a grandson of Rancho La Puente co-grantee John Rowland and who had a ranch near the Homestead. In fact, Walter had a great many loans he made to the family and friends who tended to “come out of the woodwork” when someone ends up with a pile of money.
There were fifteen of these on the report, including some $2,000 to building contractor Joseph L. Worthington of Monterey Park, where Walter had some real estate interests and $500 to the sisters Lucy Poyorena and Leonor Hartnell, who were the step-daughters of Walter’s sister Lucinda Temple Zuñiga. Another loan was made, through Daniel M. Hunsaker, to “Akely & Buehler” and which totaled $1,000. This was part of a fascinating legal matter that we’ll cover in a future post on this blog, in which Josephine M. Akley, a cousin of Walter Temple in that she was a daughter of Joseph M. Workman, the son of Rancho La Puente co-owners William Workman and Nicolasa Workman, sued in June 1918 for her one-ninth interest in her father’s ranch on La Puente.
The property was lost in foreclosure to El Paso, Texas capitalist Oscar T. Bassett and remains known by his name and Josephine, who was a minor, claimed she was not properly notified of the transfer of the property and so was entitled to compensation for her share. When she filed the suit, she’d recently ended her successful career as silent movie star Princess Mona Darkfeather. At the end of January 1921, there was a stunning verdict in the trial, which would have given Walter Temple assurance that his loan would be repaid, but more on that when that post gets written!
Tuition and expenses for the youngest Temple children, Walter, Jr. and Edgar, and amounting to over $1,200 were paid out to the Pasadena Military Academy and there were three $1,000 expenses to the First National Bank of Puente credited to “Workman Homestead,” perhaps for continuing payments for the purchase of the Homestead a little more than three years prior. A $1,000 payment to the prominent Los Angeles furniture store, Barker Brothers, is also listed as are amounts listed under “Sundry Persons & Concerns” and totaling more than $2,400 that were mostly “personal expenses” and $1,000 paid to Luther Ingersoll, a researcher associated with the Los Angeles Public Library and who was hired to write an unfinished history of the Workman and Temple family.
Some $2,200 were denoted as “transfer of funds” during the month, while most of the rest of the expenditures comprised “personal expenses” for utilities, medical care, automotive needs (including large amounts to Alhambra Ford dealer T. Lyell Puckett), insurance and clothing. $500 was spent at the Feagans and Company jewelry store, while there were also salaries and other payments paid to Kauffman; Woodruff; ; Everett G. Seely, who was the Temple family’s chauffeur; and office manager Elmer A. Potter, who likely prepared these reports. There was also money expended for stock in the Townsend Mine and Stockwell Gold Mining companies.
In early 1921, the Temple family was, and had been for a few years, reaping rich rewards in passive income from the fabulous yields of the oil wells on their Montebello lease property and could well afford the many expenses incurred and documented on reports like these. Yet, in subsequent years, escalating spending on oil and real estate projects, the building of La Casa Nueva, and personal expenses took place precisely as the revenue from those wells declined very rapidly—Montebello proving to be a shallow field.
The result was a growing financial problem that was not mitigated by taking out bonds to continue the financing of Temple City and the varied real estate projects undertaken by the Temple Estate Company. Despite stark warnings by Woodruff about what needed to be done to avoid disaster, a reckoning came by the end of the Roaring Twenties and the Temple fortune, as so many were at the time, was dissipated by the time the Great Depression ensued. Documents like this better help us interpret this history which is not just pertinent to the family, but broadly, as well.