by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For four-and-half years between 1993 and 1997, early in my museum career, I was the caretaker of the Phillips Mansion, owned by the City of Pomona and managed by the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley and also served on the Board of Directors of the Society for three of those years, including the last as treasurer.
There are a lot of great memories being part of the historical society in those years, whether it was helping with school tours at the Palomares Adobe; building, staffing and removing display booths at the Los Angeles County Fair; assisting with interpretive information for the Phillips Mansion, Palomares Adobe and La Casa Primera; guarding the Spadra Cemetery on Halloween; and in other ways.
There were some tough times, too. Finances were never what we wanted them to be, support from the City was low given its many financial issues, and there were times when the isolation of living at the Phillips Mansion site meant the occasional vulnerability to intruders. Still, it was overall an experience that I learned a lot from and not having to pay rent, while maintaining the grounds and being there to watch the mansion, was helpful, too!
I left when I married and moved to nearby Chino Hills and I’ve occasionally been to some of the Society’s events, mostly at the Phillips Mansion, so today’s visit to the Society’s Fiesta del Rancho San José at La Casa Primera, where the Homestead had a table, was fun and a trip back to the last millennium!
My wife and older son accompanied me and we parked nearby, taking a few minutes to walk down an alley known as Old Settlers Lane behind the Casa Primera to take a look at the Casa Alvarado. This 1840 adobe was built by Ygnacio Alvarado, a cousin of Ygnacio Palomares, one of the two grantees in 1837 of Rancho San José, embracing Pomona and all or part of San Dimas, La Verne, Claremont. The building, though designated a local landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, remains privately owned and not accessible to the public.
The Casa Primera is so named because the adobe, constructed just after Palomares and Ricardo Vejar, who built his adobe near the Phillips Mansion site, received the grant to San José. It is a three-room structure, much like the Workman House was in its original configuration, though there are a couple of rooms added on at the back, or west, side of the residence.
The house remained the Palomares family residence for about seventeen years. In 1854, the family grew and so did their wealth due to the lucrative trade of beef from cattle during the Gold Rush, they moved to a new and much larger residence along the Upper San Bernardino Road, now Arrow Highway, leading from Los Angeles to San Bernardino. The Palomares Adobe eventually decayed so much that it had to be almost completely rebuilt in the 1930s and opened as a historic site, operated by the Historical Society, in 1940.
Casa Primera continued to be used by the Palomares family, principally by Ygnacio’s son Francisco until his death in the early 1880s. Dr. Benjamin Nichols then acquired the house along with the Casa Alvarado, though the two were later sold to others. For example, Alfonso and Isabel Fages owned the latter for many years after they acquired it in 1951, while the former was owned by Clyde Hart for a quarter century from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.
Hart sold the Casa Primera at auction and the Historical Society acquired it for $85,000, a competing bidder dropping out when she heard the Society was her competition. The Society then worked on a restoration and refurnishing of the house, which was opened to the public in 1973. Later, the Barbara Greenwood Kindergarten building, a distinctive 1908 Craftsman-style bungalow, was moved from its nearby site and a smaller bungalow was brought in for a caretaker’s residence.
Today’s event featured self-guided tours of the Casa and the Greenwood building, which was not open to the public back in the Nineties but was opened two years ago. There were booths/tables from many other groups, including Claremont Heritage, Fairplex, the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, the Lopez-Manazanares family, and more. Music and dance demonstrations were also held and food and drink were available, as well.
Though the day started off gloomy and dark, sunshine broke through by late morning and mostly remained until at the very end of the event, which concluded a little before 5:00. Talking with representatives of the Society, they expressed overall satisfaction with the turnout.
As for the Homestead’s table, it was staffed by my colleagues Alexandra Rasic, our director of public programs, and Gennie Truelock, our programs manager. Gennie worked the first part of the day but had to head out for the results of a pie contest she’d entered and, it turned out, won! My son, Julian, who has done some volunteer work for the Homestead and is in the final stages of training to be a tour guide, jumped in and helped with the booth, too.
We learned about the event from officials with the City of Industry, who were contacted by the Historical Society, and then I met the Society’s president, Ion Puschilla, and vice-president, Jennifer Williams, at a recent talk I did in Ontario. My colleague Michelle Muro consulted recently with Jennifer concerning care of the Society’s collection of historic artifacts. The Homestead and the Society will look to continue collaborating.
After all, the organizations have some shared history. Rancho San José was an eastern neighbor of Rancho La Puente, granted to John Rowland not quite five years after Palomares and Vejar got their land grant. In 1846, when Rowland and others were captured by Californios at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino headquarters in what is now Chino Hills, they were imprisoned in what became Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. According to another prisoner, Benjamin D. Wilson, Palomares and Workman were instrumental in securing the freedom of the group.
Unfortunately, misfortune struck Palomares and Vejar, as it did for many, during the dire years of the early to mid 1860s. The end of the Gold Rush and decline of the beef trade, a ferocious flood followed by a devastating drought, and other calamities afflicted the region. Palomares died in 1864 during the drought and his family gradually sold off most of their portion of San José.
Vejar lost his share of the ranch, comprising the southern (or “abajo” meaning lower) part of the ranch and moved to an adobe house in what is now Walnut. The new owners of the Vejar portion sold it in 1866 to Louis Phillips, born Louis Galefsky in Poland. Phillips owned large section of Rancho San Antonio, southeast of Los Angeles, and adding San José de Abajo greatly expanded his landholdings.
Phillips lived in a two-story adobe house built by a son of Ricardo Vejar and razed it to build a three-story brick French Second Empire home, the Phillips Mansion in 1875. Phillips, who built substantial business blocks in Los Angeles, also sold land on this ranch to Thomas A. Garey, Luther Holt, Milton Thomas and others who developed the townsite of Pomona.
Funds for the building and development of the new town came from the bank of Temple and Workman, which, however, suspended business, reopened with a loan from “Lucky” Baldwin, and then failed shortly afterward. Pomona was stricken by the bank’s collapse, but managed to survive until the Boom of the Eighties a decade later brought a revival to its fortunes.
The Historical Society is looking to have a presentation in May or June from me about Louis Phillips so much of this shared history will be featured. Look for more on the webpage of the Historical Society. or the Society’s Facebook page.