Pomona houses are representation of colonial history
by Cody Luk
photography by Kendra Craighead
Thirty years ago, Hesperia resident Debby Benton drove to Pomona with a man she had just started dating. When they passed by a particular house on Arrow Highway, it caught their attention. “He said, ‘That’s my family’s house,’ and I said, ‘That’s my family’s house too,’ and it was why we couldn’t date anymore,” Debby, 59, says. The house — Ygancio Palomares Adobe — was built between 1850 and 1855 by Don Ygnacio Palomares, the first European settler in the Pomona Valley, and Debby is his great-great-great-great-granddaughter who unknowingly dated another Palomares descendant. “His mom told me I was ‘the other side of the family’ — I didn’t even ask what that means,” Debby says, remembering how she broke up with him because the idea of dating a relative, no matter how distant, was too strange to her.
Long before sitting through congested freeways for hours to get across town was the norm, there was practically nothing in the Los Angeles County but vacant land, a small amount of tribal Native Americans and a few Spanish settlers. The history of Pomona Valley and the reason why Pomona has its own water department can all tie back to two houses in the residential neighborhood — La Casa Primera de Rancho San José (meaning “The First House of Rancho San José”) and Ygancio Palomares Adobe. La Casa Primera is the oldest house in the Pomona Valley. It dates back to 1837 when it was built on vacant land called Rancho San José, granted to Ygnacio, who later became the last Los Angeles mayor under Mexican rule, and Don Nepomuceno Ricardo Vejar, who eventually became a Los Angeles “juez de campo,” or countryside judge. Even though the houses were initially built on Mexican-ruled land, they are now on American soil. And the once completely vacant land the houses were constructed on is now Pomona, a city with a population of over 149,000 people. Nevertheless, after more than a century and a half, La Casa Primera de Rancho San José and Ygancio Palomares Adobe are still standing strong. They are important representations of the colonial history of the Pomona Valley.
The pride of the family
Ygnacio built the five-room, Mexican adobe-style La Casa Primera for himself and his wife Doña Maria Concepcion “Doña China” López de Palomares in 1837. Adobe means “mud brick” in Spanish, and this construction method results in reliable and durable buildings. Although stable and steady to this day, the house is simple and modest, perhaps different than what someone would expect the owner of over 1,000 acres of land to have lived in. There is a long porch at the front of the house, and several long, narrow columns act as support from the roof to the ground. There are many large windows around the house to allow natural light. After acquiring La Casa Primera (and the Adobe as well), the Historical Society of Pomona Valley, to the best of its ability, remodeled it to its earliest state. Because there were photographs and written descriptions of the house from the 1870s, the society was able to renovate it close to how the house appeared at that time. Inside, there is furniture from the 19th century and many photographs of the Palomares family. As someone drives down Park Avenue in Pomona today, it is not obvious that a 179-year-old house is located on an otherwise typically residential street, because La Casa Primera is built further down the lot than the houses next to it. Thus, it is easy to miss the house since it is somewhat hidden. At the area adjacent to the house, there is a garden with many roses. There is also a “zanja,” an irrigation ditch, on the land. It is said to be the original irrigation ditch which brought water from the nearby mountains to the Adobe.
Ygnacio later built the 13-room Adobe with a 20-foot by 30-foot living room and a 12-foot high ceiling in 1855 for his family. They took pride in the house. Back then, the bedrooms were used only for sleeping, so they are not very big except for the master bedroom, which is more luxurious and equipped with a fireplace. The living rooms in the middle of the house are spacious for the Palomares family and also their relatives and friends when they visit. Outside, there is a covered long porch connected to the rooms, and several chairs where the family could sit outside in the shade. The Palomareses grew herbs in the garden on the Adobe land for seasoning and medical purposes. Outside the house, there is a well and a sign displaying the name of the house. Inside, items such as beaded necklaces, Spanish laced dresses and kitchen utensils donated by descendants of the Palomares family are displayed, showing glimpses of how the early settlers lived. Leaning against a wall inside one of the rooms is Ygnacio’s tombstone, which used to be located at his grave at the Palomares Memorial Park across the street. The tombstone was relocated because people continuously trespass and vandalize the tombstones at the park. A few decades ago, a passerby reported finding Ygnacio’s tombstone lying in the middle of San Antonio Boulevard in Pomona when it fell out of a person’s car while he or she was fleeing the scene with the tombstone. Vandalizations and robberies are still problems today. The Historical Society of Pomona Valley is trying to prevent the crimes from happening, but there is a lack of funding because the society mainly runs on donations.
From Mexican to American
Alta California, meaning “Upper California,” was the area that is now California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. It was previously part of the Spanish Empire before becoming a Mexican province in 1822 after the Mexican War of Independence against Spain. Rancho San José includes the present day Pomona, La Verne, San Dimas, Glendora, Azusa, Claremont, Walnut, Covina and Diamond Bar, and it was originally a part of the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. The land was removed from the mission when the Mexican government mandated the 1833 Mexican secularization act. Mexico did not want Spain to continue influencing and controlling California due to the 21 Roman Catholic missions in the state. But the Mission San Gabriel, built and founded in 1771 by early Spanish settlers, would continue to be a major part of the community, especially the Palomares family.
In 1837, Ygnacio and Ricardo asked Alta California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for the 15,000-acre Rancho San José, and the pair of Spanish friends were granted the land in honor of their contributions in the Mexican War of Independence against Spain. When Ygnacio and Ricardo arrived in Alta California, there were mostly only Native Americans, Tongvas, who were living in the area, and Ygnacio and Ricardo operated sheep and cattle ranches and grew crops on the Rancho San José land. Ygnacio was a juez del campo (“judge of the plains”) of the Rancho San José at the time, and his job was to settle disputes on rodeos and harvests.
California became the 31st state of the United States in 1850 after the country’s victory in the Mexican-American War. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the peace treaty between the U.S. and Mexico to end the war, and it stated the land grants would be honored. However, the 1851 Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California required Spanish and Mexican landowners to file for claims through the Public Land Commission and the U.S. District Court. It was a lengthy process that took many years, but Ygnacio and Ricardo were eventually able to claim their land.
La Casa Primera was the family residence for about 17 years until Ygnacio finished building the Adobe in 1855. The house is also built on an accessible location facing the road, now known as Arrow Highway. It was convenient for the Palomareses to travel to the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, approximately 20 miles away, and the family often visits the mission for a special mass. The women of the household would sleep at the relatives’ houses in San Gabriel for a night, because traveling by wagon from Pomona to San Gabriel would take almost all day. However, the men would arrive the next day on horseback, which took only two or three hours. Sometimes, a priest would travel through the same route from the mission to the Adobe for religious functions. Although it was a long journey for the Palomares family, the route is only an approximately 45-minute drive by present-day side streets.
The house is also located at the crossroads next to the highway to San Bernardino. The Adobe is close to the mountains, with Mount Baldy not too far away. Life inside the thick walls of the Adobe was often lively and exciting, since Ygnacio had eight children and many more grandchildren. Many important life events, from births to marriages to deaths, happened in the Adobe. Ygnacio’s friendship with Ricardo was also strengthened over the years when their children started marrying one another. The Palomares family owned the upper part of Rancho San José, while the Vejar family owned the lower part. Together, they formed a community and had traditions such as baptizing infants at the Mission San Gabriel or visiting Pueblo de Los Ángeles (present-day Los Angeles) during their free time, and some of these traditions are still upheld by their descendants today, over 100 years later. Ygnacio also gave land to his family and friends as the community continued to grow.
As more travelers started passing through the Pomona Valley, the Adobe was gaining more prominence in the area as the “House of Hospitality” due to the family’s welcoming hospitality. Instead of making pit stops at gas stations or fast food restaurants, travelers back then stopped at the Adobe, where they could stay for a few days in the bedrooms and purchase food and necessities before continuing their journeys. While the Palomares family was doing well for years, a drought in the early 1860s caused the ranches and the crops to die out. Fearing the lack of water, Ygnacio asked Native Americans to help him dig a water ditch. However, three Palomares children soon died from smallpox, and Ygnacio died in 1864. After her husband’s death, China started selling the Rancho San José land in 1865, and eventually, thousands of acres of the land grant were left the hands of the Palomares family.
The water companies and establishing Pomona
One of Ygnacio’s son, Don Francisco, moved into La Casa Primera with his wife Doña Lujardo Alvarado in 1867. Soon, Francisco discovered the first artesian well in the area, and it provided water for him to plant orange trees. An artesian well is different from other wells because the water can flow up to the surface, making it more convenient to obtain water. Parts of the old stone-lined ditch remains on the La Casa Primera land to this day. In 1874, with the rights to the land and the water to the area now known as Pomona Valley, Francisco formed the Old Settlement Water Company with Cyrus Burdick and P.C. Tonner. Even though the water rights were later sold to different hands, Francisco’s efforts in securing the water rights are the reason why to this day, Pomona has its own water resources and its own agency, the Pomona Department of Water. The City of Pomona 2014 Annual Water Quality Report states that 70 percent of the city’s water was produced from city-owned wells at three groundwater aquifers located in Pomona and Claremont. According to Mickey Gallivan, president of the Historical Society of Pomona Valley, Pomona’s water tastes better because most of the water is well water. “A lot of the other areas use the water from the Colorado River, and it doesn’t taste as good. (The Pomona water) definitely tastes a lot better than bottled waters,” Mickey says.
By the late 1800s, due to the lush land and the thriving plants and trees, Pomona attracted almost 4,000 people to the area before it even became a city, according to Mickey. “You can plant a tree here and if you’re not careful, in 10 or 20 years, it’s 80 feet tall,” Mickey says. “Things grow really well, as opposed to Upland and Ontario, which has more rocks. There was a lot of water — San José Creek and all the artesian wells.”
As technology advanced and railroads were built, more people were moving to the Pomona Valley and buying more blocks and building houses, but the area was still known as Rancho San José until there was a contest to name the city. Solomon Gates, a horticulturist, won the contest with “Pomona,” named after the ancient Roman goddess of fruit. Locals also gathered at the Adobe to participate in Spanish festivities and dances. In 1888, Pomona was established as a city officially.
History preserved through generations
With 15,000 acres of land, it is ironic Ygnacio Palomares built only two houses, but his legacy lives on as an important part of local history. The houses remain in Pomona as sites where his descendants would visit to learn about their ancestors and to experience how they lived back then. Having been a volunteer at the Historical Society of Pomona Valley for over 20 years, Mickey has met hundreds of Palomares or Vejar descendants. “A lot of them come in here and say they’re descendants,” Mickey says. “Oh, there’s hundreds of them, some from out of state and some in state. Palomares had eight kids and Vejar had nine kids. The Palomereses married the Vejars because you only got a couple of families and they didn’t have a lot of choice to marry.” For people who live in the Los Angeles area, there are high chances that they know a Palomares descendant.
In “Windows in an Old Adobe,” a 1939 book written by Bess Adams Garner about the Palomares family and early Pomona Valley history, there is a family tree that shows that many marriages were in fact within the family. “It’s just like a tree, I think there’s thousands of them,” says E. Guy Talbott, 74, great-great-great-grandson of Ygnacio and Debby’s first cousin once removed. Guy says besides marrying the Vejars, the Palomareses often married within the family because they wanted to keep the lineage Spanish. However, to Guy’s surprise, he says a DNA test indicated he has 15 percent Native American blood. Somewhere down the family line, there was at least one ancestor who was a Native American, and it was like a broken rule of the family since the Palomareses tried to keep their ethnicity purely Spanish.
Keeping the family Spanish was important to the Palomares, at least back in Ygnacio’s days, because the family has “sangre azul,” or “blue blood.” The López family from China’s side has a coat of arms with five crosses of honor and was the first family to reside in California and build a house in present-day San Diego in 1770. One of the family members, Maria Facunda Zamora de López, was a descendant of the Dukes of Medina with “blue blood.” Ygnacio’s side of the family is also connected with the Spanish royalty through an earlier ancestor, Don Francisco de Palomares, governor of the St. Gregory castle at Oran, Spain. Don and Doña are also honorific Spanish titles reserved for royalty members and people related to the royalty.
One of the Palomares family’s favorite pastimes was traditional Spanish dances. As descendants of the Palomareses, Debby’s grandparents were also passionate about dancing. They were part of a Spanish dance group and formed a club with other relatives in the San Gabriel, Pomona and Azusa area. However, Debby was not too interested in the traditions nor the family history until her mother and grandfather passed away, but now, she wants to learn more about her family history and tries to pass the knowledge to her children and grandchildren.
Debby, like her ancestors, is proud of her heritage and family background. “It makes me very proud to be a part of the family. I just wish my family would keep me in more of it but it was more of an everyday thing to them. The older you get, the more you’re interested in,” Debby says. The older relatives of Guy and Debby used to gather in a group, but as the years went by, more relatives passed away, and traditions were halted. “We used to be really into it, but then all of a sudden, it all went away,” Guy says.
Debby and Guy hope their family members would be interested in the family history and continue telling the stories of Don Ygnacio Palomares for generations to come. While a century has passed by, some traditions of the Palomares family are still upheld. For example, Guy was baptized in Mission San Gabriel, while one of Debby’s childhood memories was attending special masses that were only for the Palomares family at the Mission San Gabriel. Although Guy lives in Hesperia, he also makes day trips to Los Angeles every once in a while, just like Ygnacio and his family. Regarding the “sangre azul,” Guy believes it is a part of him. “When I cut myself, blue blood comes out. I’m royal blood,” Guy says.
Rain or shine, La Casa Primera de Rancho San José and Ygnacio Palomares Adobe are here to stay in Pomona. Generations of descendants have visited the houses to imagine how life was like for the family that lived in the house, from the time when the land was Mexican to American.
Currently, both houses are opened from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. They also serve as sites for traditional Mexican and Spanish folklorico festivities and celebrations. The Adobe currently operates as an early California ranchos museum. On some days, children from local schools can be seen crowding around the Adobe to learn how to build adobe bricks from Mickey.
No matter how much of the surroundings have evolved, and how much the society has advanced technologically and scientifically, the houses are still standing strong to continue being solid representations of the past, the present and the future.