Sharing History with the San Gabriel Historical Association on the Workman and Temple Family and Their “Mission City Affinity”

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s presentation to the San Gabriel Historical Association on the Workman and Temple family and their “Mission City Affinity,” spanning well over a century from the early 1840s to the early 1870s was at an especially historic location. The room was named for the very old grapevine, from which, it has been said, vines at the Homestead were planted, that is at the northwest corner of Mission Drive and Santa Anita Avenue.

Behind this locale is the Mission Playhouse, to the east across Santa Anita is the old Mission Church, cater corner is the block developed by Walter P. Temple, so, needless to say, we were all immersed in the history of the Mission City, with all of the aforementioned places also very important to the Workman and Temple family and their connection to the community over the period covered in the talk.

The circa 1861 grapevine at San Gabriel next to which is the Grapevine Room where tonight’s talk took place.

It was first noted that, when the Workman family settled on the Rancho La Puente in early 1842, it was on the site of one of the many ranches controlled by the mission, from San Gabriel to San Bernardino for some 65 years. With secularization and the closing of the missions, these lands were made available for private ownership, so John Rowland, who came to the area from New Mexico over the Old Spanish Trail with the Workmans, went to Monterey to petition Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for the grant to La Puente.

Though this did transpire, it was not without vigorous protest from the priests at San Gabriel, who argued that they needed the ranch for pasturing animals and growing grain. Given the realities of secularization, not to mention the eagerness for Los Angeles pueblo officials to have settlers to the east as a barrier against raids on horses and cattle by native people from the interior deserts as far away as modern Nevada and Utah, the governor did not hesitate to discountenance the claims of the Mission fathers.

Los Angeles Times, 19 June 1921.

It was also pointed out that, for reasons that likely had to due with Workman’s purported role in a plot to assassinate New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo, who sent a letter ahead of his migration to California warning the Rowland and Workman were out to “seduce and confuse” the locals, the grant was only made to Rowland. Workman, however, was given a document at the time that conferred all the rights to the land as if he was an owner.

Three years elapsed before, in July 1845, Governor Pío Pico, on a petition from Rowland, who actually submitted a statement that he’d “forgotten” to include Workman on the original grant request, issued a new grant to La Puente, not only adding Workman’s name as an official owner, but also expanding the size of the rancho by nearly three-fold, from just under 18,000 acres to nearly 49,000, the maximum allowable under Mexican land law.

Times, 24 July 1921.

It was likely not an accident that this transpired at the time that it did because, just five months prior, Pico became the chief executive of the “department” of Alta California by confronting Governor Manuel Micheltorena, who was universally disliked, in a battle (of sorts) at Cahuenga Pass. At that engagement, Workman served as captain, with Rowland as lieutenant, of the extranjeros (foreign) volunteers assisting Pico and his Californio supporters, though Pico roundly chastised Workman for communicating and organizing a settlement of the dispute with Americans and Europeans (some of whom came to California with Rowland and Workman) on Micheltorena’s side.

Moreover, it wasn’t just the generous expansion and inclusion of Workman as an owner on the La Puente re-grant that was enacted by Governor Pico. He rewarded his compadre with a grant, along with Pico’s brother Andrés, to San Clemente Island and gave Workman another unoccupied island in the bay next to the pueblo of Yerba Buena (later renamed San Francisco) commonly called Bird Island, or Alcatraces (Alcatraz.) Both of these, however, were seized by American military forces in the impending invasion and seizure of Mexican California.

Times, 12 March 1922.

Another grant from Pico, to Workman and the Scottish-born Hugo Reid, was for the lands of the Mission San Gabriel. This stood to be an enormous boon for the pair, though Reid died within a half-dozen years and his share assumed by others, while Workman continued with an interest in the property. After the American taking of California and the end of the Mexican-American War, Congress enacted, in March 1851, a land claims act that put the burden on holders of Mexican and Spanish era grants to prove their ownership to a commission and then to the federal court system, all the way to the United States Supreme Court, if the government appealed.

This is, in fact, what happened with the San Gabriel lands claim. Workman and the others were able to secure approvals from the commission and the local federal district court in a process that took a baker’s dozen of years (which was actually several years sooner than the average period of adjudication), but, in 1864, the Supreme Court struck down these approvals and ruled that Pico did not have the authority to dispense with mission lands. This was not just a significant loss for Workman and the other claimants, but was an enormous boon to all the settlers who came to reside on those lands in the intervening years.

A pre-1900 wine barrel near the “mother vine” at San Gabriel.

Beyond these links, the Workman and Temple family had decades of personal ties to the Mission church for sacraments of several kinds from baptisms to marriages to funerals. In February 1844, for example, William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, who had a common-law relationship in New Mexico (actually, a very common occurrence given the fees charged by priests for church nuptials), decided to have an official marriage at San Gabriel in a double wedding with Benjamin D. Wilson (another member of the 1841 expedition from New Mexico) and his first wife, Ramona Yorba.

Over the decades that followed, Workman and Temple family members were baptized or stood as sponsors for these sacraments and others like confirmation and marriages and attended funerals at the mission. Even when the Workmans built their own chapel, St. Nicholas’, within the confines of their private El Campo Santo Cemetery and had mission priests out to celebrate masses, they and the Temples maintained close ties with San Gabriel through the rest of the 19th and well into the 20th centuries.

Pasadena Post, 13 May 1922.

The next significant era of family involvement with the Mission City came after the astounding discovery of oil near Montebello in the Misión Vieja (Old Mission) community where Walter and his wife, Laura González grew up, and the fantastic fortune realized from it by the Temples. Not long after the first royalties, which seemed to have peaked at around $40,000 a month, came in when well #1 was brought in during June 1917, Walter began a two-pronged approach to investing his ample capital. The first was establishing his own oil company and prospecting for petroleum throughout greater Los Angeles and, in some cases, outside California.

The other was to move into real estate development, formalized by 1923 with the establishment of the Temple Estate Company, which handled all of his properties outside the newly founded Town of Temple, for which there was the Temple Townsite Company. While Walter’s initial efforts were based in Alhambra, where the family resided full-time, he came to develop intensive investment in San Gabriel by early 1922.

Times, 25 June 1922.

How much of this was spurred by the Temple family’s participation in the July 1921 commemoration of the sesquicentennial (that is, 150th anniversary) of the mission, which included Walter’s commissioning of a plaque marking the mission’s original site at the Old Mission community where he grew up—though the marker’s location is not the actual mission location it being on land Temple happened to own—or was already in contemplation by then is not known. Then, too, greater Los Angeles was then in the midst of another of its fabled booms and movement in the San Gabriel Valley was slowly, but surely, spreading eastward from earlier focal points like Pasadena and Alhambra and into the more rural areas.

Of course, the Temples had the deep personal ties noted above, as well as the fact that the Mission City was long a popular tourist destination, though usually for day trips, because of the mission, some of the old adobe houses in town, and because San Gabriel was one of several location where the immensely popular title character (albeit, fictional) of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1880s romantic novel, Ramona, was said to have lived. In fact, the building in which tonight’s talk took place was within feet of the purported residence.

Post, 21 December 1922.

Walter had other involvement in San Gabriel, including membership in a country club at one end of town, a directorship in a bank and donating the site for a settlement house which aimed to Americanize recently migrants, mostly Mexicans who came in the years after the incredible upheaval and uncertainties of the revolution in that country from 1910 onward. He was, however, mostly concerned with a tract of land he acquired across from the mission on the south.

There, over the course of a couple of years from 1922 to 1924, he embarked on three brick commercial buildings. At the east end, at the southeast corner of Mission and Santa Anita, he built the city’s post office and library, where today an insurance company and an attorney have their offices, respectively. Abutting this to the east was the two-story Temple Building, in which the Temple Estate Company had its offices for a short time. Next to that was the Arcade Building, a set of five stores with an arched portico.

A portion of the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, completed in 1927.

Finally, at the far east end of what was known as the Temple Block, Walter donated the site for a new city hall. The prominent Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, which designed almost all of his commercial edifices as well as provided the original finished drawings for the Temple family’s La Casa Nueva at the Homestead, also drew the plans for the municipal building. A bond issue of $50,000 was approved by the town’s voters and construction was completed early in 1924, with a dedication held on Lincoln’s Birthday.

An ardent admirer of The Mission Play by John Steven McGroarty, whose passion play drew some 2 million attendees over roughly two decades but which was unabashedly pro-missionary while the story of the indigenous people of our region was not given the attention it deserved, Walter Temple not only regarded the performance as essential for the area, but subscribed for $15,000 in stock for the new playhouse, which opened in 1927. His business manager, Milton Kauffman, who was from a Jewish mercantile family long based in El Monte, served on the playhouse board of directors, while Temple’s contribution was matched only by the rail tycoon and books, manuscripts and art collector Henry E. Huntington.

Post, 4 January 1923.

Yet, by the time he made the commitment to support the new venue, his finances were already in serious trouble. As has been noted several times in this blog, Temple’s wealth was almost entirely predicated on production at his Montebello Oil Field lease, but that relatively shallow field experienced a significant decline in production as the Roaring Twenties progressed. Despite his myriad efforts in prospecting elsewhere, Temple never got nearly close to replicating his Montebello experience and, as a small player in the oil industry, often came up empty.

Moreover, his rapid expansion in real estate development in Alhambra, San Gabriel, El Monte, Los Angeles and the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City), which was announced a century ago this month, was coupled with significant expenses in renovating and improving the Homestead, including the ever-accelerating cost of building La Casa Nueva, which dragged on for five years. Expensive trips, fine cars, private schools for the four children and other outlays also added to the difficulty.

Times, 2 September 1923.

In 1926, bonds were taken out to continue financing Temple Estate Company and Temple Townsite Company work and a mortgage was taken out to complete La Casa Nueva. The situation, however, continued to deteriorate rapidly by the end of the Twenties so that, when the Great Depression burst forth in late 1929 and worsened over the next few years, the Temples were unable to overcome the enormous economic obstacles, culminating, in July 1932, with the loss of the Homestead.

With San Gabriel, however, there was another phase, lasting about 40 years, of involvement by the family, specifically with Thomas W. Temple II, who’d made the discovery of oil at Montebello when he was just nine years old. Although a graduate of the prestigious and rigorous program at Harvard Law School, Thomas was, as he often put it, “bitten by the genealogy bug,” though this also involved the fever of local history.

Long Beach Press, 7 February 1924.

San Gabriel became the focal point of his efforts because, after his family vacated the Homestead in spring 1930 to lease it to a military academy in hopes of saving the ranch, Thomas moved into with his mother’s sister, Luz Vigare and her family (who were also very involved in the Mission Play, with her daughter Lupe and the latter’s husband Juan Zorraquinos the principal dancers and choreographers), who resided in a historic adobe house on Ramona Street just a short distance south of the mission and the Temple Block.

Over the ensuing years, he undertook groundbreaking work in transcribing and translating mission records for genealogical research (though some of this later proved questionable in the light of the onrush of professional genealogy) as well as work on mission, city and regional history. For the City of Los Angeles’ sesquicentennial in 1931, for example, he fixed the founding date as 4 September, which it remains (though there have been questions about that date subsequently.)

Times, 11 July 1926.

With his wife, Gabriela Quiroz, who had deep ties to her native San Gabriel and who earned distinction as the first women police officer in town, Thomas hosted annual Pioneer Reception events for the September fiestas that marked the founding of the mission. He served as the official mission historian and wrote articles on its history for the parish bulletin and the served, at the end of his life, as the official San Gabriel city historian.

Despite the ravages of throat cancer, which should have ended his life far sooner, Thomas seems to have willed himself to stay alive long enough to take part in the mission’s bicentennial celebration in September 1971. He threw himself into the planning and execution and then, just several months later, the following February, he died at age 65. When he was interred in the graveyard next to old stone church, he was the first layperson to receive the honor, though a second person has since been given this distinction since.

A view at dusk as I was leaving San Gabriel after the presentation.

It was quite an experience being in the Grapevine Room and sharing this history with members of the San Gabriel Historical Association and there’ll be two other such opportunities to spread the good word about local history this week, including tomorrow for the Orange County Civil War Roundtable (about Charles M. Jenkins, the only Los Angeles resident to serve on the battlefield for the Union Army during the Civil War) and Thursday for the Ontario Public Library (a review of regional wine history, sharing artifacts from the Homestead’s collection), so blog posts will summarize those, as well.

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