Twists and Turns in the Twenties Preview with a Photo of the Montebello Oil Field, April 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Homestead, the tenth in an eleven-part series of presentations on the history of the Workman and Temple family will be given and Twists and Turns in the Twenties takes in the manifold activities of members of the family in regional business, entertainment, politics and other fields during the Roaring Twenties.

Central to the discussion will be the remarkable transformation in the lives of Walter P. Temple and his family, whose fortunes and prospects seemed as bright as could be when the decade began in 1921, but whose situations were almost completely altered by the time it ended in 1930. Flush with significant wealth with revenue from royalties on oil wells on their leased property at the Montebello Oil Field at the onset of that era, the family enjoyed the privileges and perquisites which such a windfall allowed.

The Temple family, 1926. From left to right are Edgar, Walter, Sr., Agnes, Thomas, and Walter, Jr.

For Walter P. Temple and his associates, business manager Milton Kauffman and attorney George H. Woodruff, the money derived from the bonanza in oil led them to pursue opportunities in oil prospecting through the Walter P. Temple Oil Company, with projects throughout greater Los Angeles, including Whittier, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, and Ventura, as well as outside the area, such as in Alaska, Texas and México.

Almost simultaneously, real estate development was undertaken through commercial projects in downtown Los Angeles, Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel, including office buildings, movie theaters, post offices and others. A century ago next month, the trio, along with Alhambra sheep rancher and capitalist Sylvester Dupuy, announced the formation of the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928.

The Temple family, within months of the first deposits of oil leading to deposits in their bank accounts, purchased the Workman Homestead. The acquisition, made at the end of November 1917 when they also bought an expansive Craftsman-style residence in Alhambra, led, after the expiration of a lease to a Japanese farmer named K. Yatsuda, to extensive improvements made on the 92-acre ranch.

These included the renovations of El Campo Santo Cemetery, including the building of the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum; remodeling of the Workman House; makeovers of the 1860s wineries built by William Workman and used as an auditorium, dining hall and garage; the construction of new structures along with a reservoir that doubled as a swimming pool as well as a tennis court; and much else.

A view of La Casa Nueva from the north side of the Workman House, ca. 1926.

After a lengthy and inspiring visit to México in summer 1922, the Temples embarked on the construction of La Casa Nueva, a stunning Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, mostly built of hand-formed and kiln-fired adobe bricks and replete with incredible decorative touches in carved wood and plaster, stained glass, and colorful tile. As will be discussed in Sunday’s talk, the project spanned five years and, while a great deal changed in the financial and familial situation of the family between 1922 and 1927, the house remains as a remarkable laboratory for understanding how the Temples saw themselves in history as well as their transformed fortunes during the decade.

The featured artifact for this post is also reflective of the evolution of the family’s circumstances, roughly halfway through the Twenties. On the face of it, the snapshot taken of the Montebello Oil Field by Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the four children and an avid shutterbug whose surviving images help visually document a great deal of the family’s history at the time, is pretty innocuous looking. Thomas returned home at the time because his uncle, John, who was very close to Walter and the family, died on the 10th and was buried two days later at the mausoleum in El Campo Santo.

From the Standard Oil Bulletin, April 1926.

Taken, it appears, from the west side of Durfee Avenue and looking to the southwest, the view takes us past undeveloped fields toward a forest of wooden oil derricks in the bottomlands of the Whittier Narrows, where the Puente Hills on the east and the Montebello Hills, visible in the distance and on the west were cleaved by flow of the San Gabriel River over time immemorial.

This area, which was a core location for indigenous people because of the presence of abundant water and the resulting plant and animal life, became the original site of Mission San Gabriel, though flooding caused its relocation to the current site a few years after its founding in 1771. Later, the community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, was established around the original mission location and a small, but vibrant community arose, mainly comprised of Latino families, including those from the Alvitre, Bermudez, Manzanares, Morrillo, Sánchez, Valenzuela, Zuñiga families as well as mixed-ethnicity clans such as the Barry, Repetto, and Temple families.

Agnes and Thomas Temple standing in front of the Water Tower. The millstone at the left, which was unearthed on a Rowland family farm in 1924, was later used in the La Casa Nueva fountain.

Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P.F. Temple settled in the Misión Vieja area in 1851 and raised their family on a ranch centered around their houses near what is now the southeast corner of Durfee, where it becomes San Gabriel Boulevard and Rosemead Boulevard. After the failure of the Temple and Workman bank in 1876 and the loss of almost all of the fortune of F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, a 50-acre remnant called the Temple Homestead was acquired from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who loaned the stricken bank a substantial amount of money and then foreclosed on the unpaid loan (the 75-acre Workman Homestead was handled essentially the same way.)

Walter P. Temple was just six years old when the bank failure occurred and grew up on the Temple Homestead, owned by his mother until her death in 1892, at which time the property passed to him and younger brother Charles. By 1905, the ranch was in Walter’s sole possession and he, his wife Laura González, who grew up at Old Mission, and their four surviving children eked out a modest living there. In October 1912, however, represented by Kauffman, Temple acquired 60 acres to the west, comprising the very northeastern corner of the Montebello Hills and land on the west bank of the Río Hondo, the old San Gabriel River.

On the steep slopes of the chaparral-covered hills, young Thomas found oil almost exactly a dozen years before the photo was taken. In summer 1917, Standard Oil Company (California) brought in the first Temple oil well and, along with the inaugural well on the Baldwin heirs portion of the hills, the Montebello Oil Field was established. For several years, it yielded an impressive amount of crude and lined the pockets of the Temples with the funds that enabled what was summarized above.

Yet, by April 1926, the environment was changing considerably. For one, the Montebello field proved to be rather shallow and, after several years, production declined considerably. In 1920, for example, it was said that the field contributed an eighth of all production in the state. By November 1922, the field was the ninth largest in California, though, in April 1926, it was the twelfth even as production was about 10% higher. As some of the “Making a Statement” posts on this blog have shown, revenue from the Temple lease reflected this downward trend.

Walter P. Temple at right leaving the mausoleum at El Campo Santo Cemetery after the 12 April 1926 interment of his brother, John, who died two days earlier.

A July 1919 financial statement for Walter Temple showed royalties of $47,000 for the proceeding month, but this total was at about $34,000 in an April 1921 report. The January 1922 statement recorded $22,500 and in April it was $19,000. Three years later, in July 1925, the royalty amounted to $19,000, but the report for April 1926 showed a total of $12,400. The downward trend would only continue as the decade approached its end.

The April 1926 report showed about $17,000 in receipts, with about three-quarters of it coming from the Standard lease at Montebello, along with about $68 from the lease of Julia Davis de Cruz, who helped raise Walter and his siblings when they were younger and whose mother Venancia Davis, a Luiseño Indian from northern San Diego County, acquired the land across San Gabriel Boulevard from Walter’s father F.P.F. in the 1870s. Most of the remaining quarter came from rentals in commercial buildings owned by the Temple Estate Company in Alhambra, El Monte and San Gabriel.

Expenditures, however, were $28,000 with almost a quarter of that comprised of taxes. A few thousand dollars was transferred to the Walter P. Temple Oil Company as it pursued efforts to duplicate (fruitlessly) the successes experienced at Montebello. Another $2,000 was spent towards the purchase of the “Puente Hotel,” this being the Rowland Hotel, built in 1885 when the town of Puente was established. There were rental payments for property used for commercial building or oil prospecting and salaries for Temple Estate Company officials and employees, like Kauffman, Elmer Potter, Louise Heitzman, and Dolores Bingham

Other payments of note were to La Casa Nueva architect Roy Seldon Price and Puente contractor Henry P. Gerckens for what were shown as “in payment of trade acceptance,” and to craftspeople working on blacksmithing, carpentry, plastering, roofing tile and cement for the residence, as well as expenses like a mirror for the barber shop in the dwelling; ranch and household workers, including siblings Maud Bassity and Frank Romero in oversight of the Homestead, the brothers Francisco and Manuel Higuera for farm work, chauffeur Don Godman, and Eulalia Delgado for domestic services. William Knueven, the husband of one of Walter’s nieces, was also on the payroll and incurred expenses for construction work on La Casa Nueva and other ranch structures.

Historian J. Perry Worden was paid $140 for his monthly retainer, but also $400 in travel expenses as he went to New England to do research for the unfinished Workman and Temple family history book and assist in getting the Temple sons (Thomas, Walter, Jr. and Edgar) enrolled at Harvard Law School and Dummer (uh-huh!) Academy in Massachusetts. Worden did the advance work and the Temples headed east in the summer, so a 25% deposit was paid to a travel company for expenses for that trip.

Walter also paid school and personal expenses for his nephew Charles P. Temple, Jr. and gave advances to his sisters Margarita Rowland and Manuel Zuñiga, the husband of his sister Lucinda, and sister-in-law Nettie Temple, widow of his eldest sibling Thomas. For his children, there were advances and expenses and an expense paid to the Southern Pacific Railroad station master for a ticket to San Francisco may have been for his daughter Agnes, who attended Dominican College, an all-women Catholic school in San Rafael. Life insurance premiums were also paid out for Walter and Thomas Temple as well as for Kauffman, while a Temple family portrait was also on the report.

Obviously, having expenses almost two-thirds higher than income was completely unsustainable, but, with La Casa Nueva’s construction, the private school educations for the Temple children, real estate and oil projects and other expenditures continuing unabated, the situation became increasingly untenable.

On 14 April, Louise Heitzman of the Temple Estate Company forwarded a statement from the firm’s auditor about incurred interest for deposited sums over periods from 20 to 100 years. Why Walter requested this is not known, but earlier in 1926, bonds were taken out for the Temple Estate and Temple Townsite companies, which provided capital for ongoing development projects, but also incurred significant debt with required interest payments, so it may be the request was somehow related to that.

The courtyard of La Casa Nueva, ca. 1926.

Almost exactly four years later, in April 1930, Walter left the Homestead, which was leased to the Golden State Military Academy of Redondo Beach, and resettled at Ensenada, Baja California, México. This was a last-ditch effort as the Roaring Twenties came to a close and months after the onset of the early stages of the Great Depression to save the ranch, but financial conditions continued to worsen and, in July 1932, this last remnant of his once significant fortune was lost to a foreclosure by California Bank.

If this post has whetted your appetite for more on the history of the Workman and Temple family during the 1920s and if you’re free this Sunday at 2 p.m., join us for the “Twists and Turns in the Twenties” presentation!

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