Mother’s Day Reflections on Laura Gonzalez Temple

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

According to History.com, the Mother’s Day holiday, which is today, came about because of the efforts of Anna Jarvis, an unmarried, childless West Virginia resident whose mother, Anne, organized Mother’s Day work clubs and then, in 1868, a Mother’s Friendship Day to help bring together Union and Confederate soldiers to heal the wounds of the recently concluded Civil War.

Other women, including Julia Ward Howe, the noted abolitionist and suffrage advocate, and temperance leader Juliet Blakely, promoted Mother’s Peace and Mother’s Day concepts in the 1870s, while Mary Sasseen and Frank Hering promoted their Mother’s Day ideas at the end of the century and into the new one.

After her mother’s death, Anna Jarvis launched her idea based on commemorating the sacrifices mothers make for their children.  She found a financial supporter in the powerful Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, so that, while she had a Mother’s Day celebration in 1908 at a church in her hometown in West Virginia, thousands attended an event the same day at Wanamaker’s famed department store in the City of Brotherly Love.

Laura Gonzalez Temple portrait ca. 1920
A portrait of Laura Gonzalez Temple, ca. 1920.

Jarvis lobbied hard for a national holiday, with one of her main arguments being that most of them were created by and, often, for men, so that women deserved one of their own honoring motherhood.  Her efforts came to fruition when President Woodrow Wilson declared, in 1914, that the second Sunday in May would be a national Mother’s Day holiday.

The idea Jarvis had of the holiday being one focused on families, including the wearing of a white carnation, visits with mothers, and attendance at church, was quickly overshadowed by the efforts of merchants, florists, greeting card companies, and candy manufacturers, among others, to commercialize the holiday.

Within just a few years of succeeding in getting Mother’s Day declared a national holiday, Jarvis railed against the profiteering motive of commercial interests and waged a long, unsuccessful campaign to reverse the idea she’d worked so hard to bring to bear.  By her death in 1948, Jarvis publicly disowned the Mother’s Day concept.

Walter Charles families 1906
Walter, Laura and their first-born child, Thomas W. II, on the right, with Walter’s brother Charles, his wife Susie Castino and their son, Charles, Jr., along with an unidentified woman (perhaps Julia Davis Cruz, who lived with the Temple brothers when they were young) in a circa 1906 tintype portrait.

On this Mother’s Day, we highlight Laura Gonzalez Temple, whose remarkable story is becoming a more significant part of the Homestead’s interpretation.  For years, our discussions of the Temple family focused largely on her husband, Walter, including his business interests and the completion of La Casa Nueva, albeit in honor of Laura after her untimely death at the end of 1922.

Research and the donation of artifacts by family members, however, have shown that Laura’s story is of note for many reasons.  First, she grew up in Old Mission or Misión Vieja, a community in the Whittier Narrows south of El Monte, near the Temples.   It was learned not long ago that Laura was born out of wedlock to Feliz Gonzalez, a musician, and Francisca Valenzuela, whose family were among the first settlers of the Old Mission area being co-grantees of the Rancho Potrero Chico, near where the original site of Mission San Gabriel was situated.

Nearly thirty years ago, it was found that, in the 1880 census, her father, his wife Ramona Alvitre, and their several children were living at Old Mission, but Laura, who was about 9 years old, was conspicuously absent from the household.  Shortly afterwards, she attended a Catholic girls’ school in Los Angeles and lived on campus.  Receipts were later donated that showed the bills were sent to Francisca Valenzuela.

1910 census Temples
The Temples as listed in the 1910 census when they lived on the Temple Homestead in the community of Misión Vieja, south of El Monte in the Whittier Narrows.  Note: Francisca Valenzuela, Laura’s mother, is listed as an aunt.  When she died a few years later, an obituary said Francisca died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Walter P. Temple.

By the mid-1880s, Laura was a household employee of Walter’s brother, Francis W. Temple, owner of the 75-acre Workman Homestead.  She was so trusted and valued that she kept accounts and appears to have helped manage the ranch when Francis had to leave for extended periods to go to Arizona because of tuberculosis.

During her years at the Homestead, she and Walter developed a teenage romance that is documented by a few surviving letters in Spanish and English, also donated to the museum, that are characterized by Walter’s soaring prose and passionate declarations of love for his “dear Laurenza.”  The romance, however, had to be kept strictly secret because of the disapproval of Walter’s family, although his aged grandmother, Nicolasa Workman, in her mid-80s, apparently acted as a surreptitious go-between for the two teen lovers.

When Francis died in summer 1888, both Laura and Francisca Valenzuela were mentioned in his will, but with Francis’ brother John, his wife Anita Davoust, and their children taking possession of the Homestead, Laura left and spent some years during the 1890s living in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, where she taught piano.

Temples 1919
Beneficiaries of newfound wealth from oil wells on their Montebello Hills lease, the Temples were flush with financial fortune when this October 1919 portrait was taken.

Whether there was a break in her relationship with Walter, the two finally married on Thanksgiving Day 1903, well over fifteen years after their teen romance.  In early 1905, they welcomed their first child, Thomas W. Temple II, named for Walter’s oldest brother.  About a year later, their first daughter Alvina Mercedes was born, but she lived just two weeks.  In summer 1907, another daughter, Agnes Evelyn was welcomed.  Two years later, Walter P., Jr. joined the family and was followed in late 1910 by the last of the five children, Edgar Allan, named for the famed American writer Edgar Allan Poe.

The Temples resided on the 50-acre family homestead at Old Mission that Walter and his brother Charles (who sold his interest to Walter shortly after the latter married Laura) inherited from their mother, Antonia Margarita Workman de Temple.  A modest wood-frame house was built on the ranch, where crops were raised, while Walter worked as a teamster among other endeavors.  Notably, in the 1910 federal census, the family included Francisca Valenzuela, identified as an “aunt-in-law” of Walter by the enumerator.  When she died a few years later, however, Francisca’s obituary stated she died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Walter P. Temple.

In 1912, not long after the estate of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin was settled, Walter made a deal with the estate executor, Baldwin’s nephew and business manager Hiram A. Unruh, to acquire about 60 acres west of the Temple homestead.  The land was owned by Walter’s father, F.P.F., prior to the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank in Los Angeles in 1876.  When Baldwin loaned the stricken institution money to keep operating, a mortgage covering most of the landholdings of F.P.F. Temple and his father-in-law, William Workman, was included.  Upon the bank’s demise, Baldwin foreclosed and added immensely to his growing portfolio in greater Los Angeles real estate.

Laura And Thomas Temple ca 1922 80.19.79.1
Laura and Thomas Temple, ca. 1922.

The Temples moved to an adobe house long owned by the Basye family and once used as a saloon and store that was operated by Manuel Zuñiga, second husband of Walter’s sister Lucinda.  Much of the property was at the northeastern extremity of the Montebello Hills and this section was christened “Temple Heights.”

Whether or not there was any hint of the possibility, the height of luck was reached in the spring of 1914 when 9-year old Thomas, Laura and Walter’s eldest child, stumbled upon indications of oil while playing in the hills.  A lease was soon arranged with Standard Oil Company of California and a test well, nearby on the portion left to Baldwin’s daughters Anita and Clara, came in successfully at the end of 1916.

The first Temple well was quickly drilled and it, too, hit paydirt and was brought into production in late June 1917.  Suddenly, the Temples were propelled into wealth through their one-eighth take of the proceeds.  Within several years, some two dozen wells were opened up on the Temple lease with many producing and a few being major gushers.

Temples on trip ca. 1922
The Temples with others aboard a ship on a trip to Mexico, summer 1922.  Second from left is Thomas W. Temple II.  His brothers Edgar and Walter, Jr. stand in front.  Laura is between the boys and Agnes and Walter, Sr. are at the front far right.

Within five months of the first well bringing in its crude, the Temples bought a house in Alhambra and purchased the Workman Homestead, where Walter and Laura fell in love thirty years before.  They lived full-time in the former and used the latter as a weekend retreat and second home, spending lavishly on the Homestead, renovating existing buildings and the nearly destroyed El Campo Santo Cemetery and adding many new features.

After a lengthy vacation in Mexico in summer 1922, Walter and Laura were inspired to build a new house (literally, La Casa Nueva) working with their own basic design formed into finished plans by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, which was designing commercial buildings for Walter in Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and El Monte.

A crew of adobe makers, led by master stone mason Pablo Urzua, was brought up from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and work started on the basic form of the house.  Then, tragedy struck when Laura was diagnosed with colon cancer, which spread quickly.  On 28 December 1922, she died at Angelus Hospital in Los Angeles, leaving a devastated family.  I can well remember her son, Walter, Jr., welling up with tears talking about his mother’s passing some seventy years later.

Laura death card of thanks Times_Dec_31__1922_ (1)
Los Angeles Times, 31 December 1922.

It is hard to overestimate the effect Laura’s death had on the Temples.  She was interred in the newly completed mausoleum at El Campo Santo cemetery at the Homestead.  A granite plaque was placed at La Casa Nueva and a blessing by Roman Catholic Bishop John J. Cantwell took place on the first anniversary of her death.  Construction resumed under a new architect, Roy Seldon Price, and much of what Laura wanted for the house was done.

But, with her passing and the four surviving children away at boarding schools, its completion in late 1927, more than five years after the project was started, left Laura’s dream home largely empty most of the short time the Temples occupied it.  Surviving letters by Thomas give us some idea of the ongoing pain felt by her death—he even wrote a powerful letter in Spanish to his mother in 1924 lamenting her loss.

A striking visual reminder of Laura is a 1926 family portrait that shows a space left next to Walter indicating where she should have been standing.  We have a copy of this photo in the living room of La Casa Nueva as a poignant reminder of Laura in the house that she worked hard on planning and which was dedicated and blessed in her memory.

Temples 1926
Nearly four years after Laura’s passing, her widow and four surviving children posed for this 1926 portrait, but left space next to Walter by which to remember her.

Sadly, the worsening financial condition of the Temples, due to continuing problems in Walter’s real estate and oil investments, led to their vacating the Homestead in May 1930 and the property was leased to a boys’ military school.  Two years later, the Bank of California foreclosed on a loan and the ranch was lost.

Fortunately, thanks to the City of Industry, the Homestead was acquired and developed into the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum and we have the opportunity to share Laura’s story as one of many about the families and greater Los Angeles from 1830-1930.  On this Mother’s Day, we remember her and look to continue to explore her importance to the history of our historic site.

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