by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The community of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, comprises the earliest European settlement in greater Los Angeles. The area within the Whittier Narrows, between the Montebello and Puente hill ranges, through which the San Gabriel River flows, was where the Mission San Gabriel was founded in early September 1771.
With a few years, however, the mission moved to its current location and the original site was divided into several ranchos, including La Merced, Potrero Grande, Potrero de Felipe Lugo, and Potrero Chico, all under the supervision of the mission fathers. When the missions were secularized by the Mexican government in the 1830s, these ranches became available for grants to private citizens.
Grants to the Whittier Narrows ranchos took place in the first few years of the 1840s, though some private settlement occurred before that, almost certainly with the approval of the mission fathers. By the early American era, the community was growing rapidly and included the arrival of Antonia Margarita Workman and her husband F.P. F. Temple, who were given half of Rancho La Merced in 1851, after Margarita’s father, William Workman took possesion of the ranch by foreclosing on a loan he made to its grantee, María Casilda Soto de Lobo.
A little over a decade later, F.P.F. Temple provided an acre of land for a school in the newly formed La Puente School District, which was given that name although it was a few miles west of the Rancho La Puente, co-owned by William Workman. A frame school house was built to serve the children of the small, rural district, which did not grow all that much in succeeding decades.
One of the school’s students for a period was Margarita and F.P.F.’s tenth child, Walter, who was born in 1869 and would have started at La Puente about the time of the failure of the Los Angeles bank owned by his father and grandfather. Walter, who inherited land nearby from his mother, married Laura Gonzalez, a native of Misión Vieja, in 1903 and their four surviving children all attended the school.
When the Temples started to receive their substantial royalties from their wells at the Montebello oil field, starting in summer 1917, they moved to Monterey Park and then Alhambra. Walter Temple, however, did not forget his old school, donating some land and money for a new building that, in March 1921, was named for him. The Temple School was built next to the old La Puente School and remained in operation for many years.
After the district and school were found to be within a major floorplain and became the local headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the campus moved to what is now New Temple Elementary in South El Monte and the Valle Lindo School District, successor to La Puente School District and which also includes a middle school, holds claim to being the third oldest in California.
On this day in 1930, Trent Steele, a student majoring in education at U.C.L.A. submitted a final examination for a course in the form of a paper titled “A Rural Life Survey of the La Puente School District, 1930.” The 32-page report, which is in the Homestead’s collection, is an rare and interesting document of a little-known and largely forgotten community.
Steele was born in Pennsylvania, not far from where America’s oil industry started in 1859. Not surprisingly, his father was an oil worker there and then in greater Los Angeles, first at Olinda in northeastern Orange County and then at Montebello. Because Steele was raised near Misión Vieja and was well-aware of the La Puente School District, he wrote his paper aware that La Puente “is one of the oldest districts in California” and “on account of its historical value.”
Steele wrote in his introduction that “the chief sources of information for the study have been the inhabitants of this community, [with] special menion belonging to W.P. Temple” and James D. Durfee, whose Mormon family settled near the Temples about 1860, along with others. It also helped that the sister of his course’s professor was the principal at the Temple School.
In a section on “Physical Conditions,” Steele wrote that the district covered 4.7 square miles, though it was once much larger, and had two rivers, the Rio Hondo (Old San Gabriel) and San Gabriel (created in 1867-68 floods), run through the district. He observed, though, that the rivers were largely dry due to irrigation except during rainy seasons and the sandy loam was well drained.
What had, for about a dozen years, provided tremendous resources for this little school district, though, was the oil industry, something he elaborated on in a section tited “The History of the Community.” Here, Steele outlined the story of the founding of Mission San Gabriel, but attributed its move to the current location to “trouble with the Indians,” rather than flooding from the river. Not only that, but he repeated a variation of the time-old story of buried treasure by claiming that the padres hid their “jewels, trinkets and treasures in the La Puente hills,” but that the location was, of course, lost.
Steele then turned to the history of old residents, writing that
the Temple family affords us the best information in regard to the early history of this community for theirs is the only history of ntoe that can be obtained for such a study. The early Temples once owned the entire community which I have surveyed and therefore their history offers us the most valuable information.
This was obtained through “a personal interview with Walter P. Temple,” which, notably, took place just before Walter Temple vacated the Homestead due to financial problems and moved to Baja California. Two years later, Temple lost the ranch. Steele provided background on Temple’s uncle, Jonathan, the second American or European to live in Los Angeles and its first store owner, and his father, F.P.F.
Yet, when Steele talked about the Temples building an adobe house on their portion of Rancho La Merced, he confused that structure with the home of Juan Matias Sánchez, Workman’s foreman at Rancho La Puente, who was given the other half of La Merced. This is especially ironic because Steele wrote that he grew up just a quarter mile from what is known as the Soto-Sanchez Adobe in Montebello on a bluff overlooking the La Puente School District area.
Steele described F.P.F. Temple’s cattle enterprise, his large vineyard and fruit orchard, his raising of purebred trotting horses. When it came to his entering into the banking business with his father-in-law Workman, however, Steele wrote that “Temple and Workman are said to have lost everything but their honor.” Given that Workman committed suicide and Temple had a series of strokes and died young, this is a curious assessment, though not surprising given his source.
Then came the remarkable discovery of oil by Walter Temple’s son, Thomas, stated as having taken place in 1912, when it was two years later. The story, however, is in line with versions told elsewhere, in that young Thomas, who was nine years old, was picking poppies when he saw a pool of water bubbling and emitting a strong smell. He alerted his father, who hurried to the spot and lit a match to the gas “and fried an egg over it.”
The drilling of the first Temple well, by Standard Oil of California, began in April 1917 and was “brought in June 1, 1917” producing 500 barrels of oil a day. Steele reported that “since then the Standard Oil Company has drilled some forty-odd wells on the Temple property and have brought in some huge gushers.”
Steele then turned to community information, including noting that the population in the district was between 600 and 700 persons, two thirds of whom were white and the remainder “Mexicans and Japanese.” Interestingly, he wrote that there was no illiteracy in the district, although these latter groups did not speak English, and that this condition did not imply illiteracy “just because they do not know the English language.”
A particularly remarkable assertion in the paper is that
As for racial displacement, there is a great tendency, for the Mexican government has requested the Mexican population to return to Mexico, many of whom have left within the last two years. This factor can very easily be seen that the Mexican are being displaced for a a few years ago this district was entirely a Mexican one.
Steele also wrote that the Japanese were either moving to Los Angeles or going back to Japan and stated the Temple School principal told him “some of the best Japanese students returned to Japan last year.” Consequently, he continued, at the rate of
“displacement,” with a dozen Mexican and five Japanese families leaving, the district would soon be entirely white. All of this is in the context of the Great Depression’s onset and the forced deportations of Mexicans that took place in the region.
Further sections dealt with the occupations of residents, the agricultural economy in the district, the overall economic situation (Steele found it hard to locate much information, aside from material found in a tax-payers guide on land valuation and tax rates), housing types, transportation, and communications. With respect to housing, Steele wrote that the Japanese and Mexicans “live in small shacks with poor ventilation and very little plumbing, if any” and then aded that
the Mexicans are not destitute for the average Mexican earns three dollars per day, which will support the Mexican famkly easily for they live so cheaply.
As to education, Steele wrote that the La Puente School District was established on 15 August 1863 and large portions of its territory were taken by newly formed districts surrounding the community, including at Montebello, El Monte, and the Rowland township in the Puente area.
The change in name to Temple School on 14 March 1921 was “the reslt of Walter P. Temple donating the school two hundred and ten square feet of land and sufficient funds with which to erect a better building on the site where it was said three previous structures served as the school building. Steele wrote that, in 1929, the value of the school was $165,000, including grounds, buildings and equipment, though that would plummet during the depression.
Whereas, in 1883, when there was one teacher and ten students, one being Walter P. Temple, in 1929, there were ten teachers, all receiving higher salaries than in neighboring rural districts because of the oil bonanza. There were 289 students in the district, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade, nearly half being in the first three grades and these being more comprised of “foreign speaking children,” meaning Mexican and Japanese, while older students were largely white, “because so many of the Mexican children are taken out of school and put to work.” Obviously, if Latinos were largely laborers on ranches and farms, their children were needed to work, too.
Also significant is the statement that were two parent-teacher associations (PTAs) “one for the white people and another for the Mexicans,” though Steele added that the former held a rummage sale to raise funds for seven or eight free lunches per day for those (Mexicans, presumably) who couldn’t afford them.
A table of graduates over the period 1922-1929 shows that there were 104 who moved to El Monte High School and 79% of them completed their secondary education and Steele gave a few examples of some from the area who went on to college, but this was anecdotal rather than statistical.
The report ended with talking generally about the rural nature of the community, in that there were no churches or clubs, no sidewalks, no street lights, few street signs and only one public building, the Temple School. As to political affiliation, Steele reported that 65% of voters were Republicans, 21% Democrats with a few Prohibitionists and 12% declining to state. This probably changed dramatically by the 1932 elections when the depression was considerably worse.
Steele’s brief conclusion stated that he’d learned a great deal about his neighbors from the study and observed that “this is an up and going [coming?] growing community, which is united in public opinion and has highly socialized ideals which go to make any rural community rise in prosperity.” Yet, this was apparently true for whites far more than for Latinos or Asians based on what was stated elsewhere in the document.
Steele went on to become a teacher and administrator and died in November 1993 at age 87. His report, along with what was described as “a vast collection,” was being distributed to organizations by someone who was apparently his executor, whose letter to an unnamed group accompanied this report when I purchased it for the Homestead’s collection. While the letter writer averred that “I expect the data enclosed is quite historically accurate,” it is significant to note Steele’s characterizations of minority populations as reflective of the dominant majority’s paternalistic views and opinions.
Still, the report is a rare look at the Misión Vieja community, of which so little is known about that era. This is also true of a half-dozen original photos taken by Steele of the current and older school buildings, an older adobe house in the oil field, the Durfee residence, one of the several dairies in the community, and a palm tree said to have been planted in 1852 and towering and over 150 feet in height, as well as a hand-drawn map of the area.