by Emily J. Sullivan
photography by Kayla Salas
When the massive medieval front gate of Glendora’s Rubel Castle slowly swings open, a quirky wonderland confuses and excites the senses. There is a barn made of river rock, a stable, horses and a pony to the right, and just up ahead there is a massive 1940s-era red train caboose, complete with a train crossing signal that glows red and raises when a lever is pulled. To the left is the Castle, made mostly of stones and partly of booze bottles, toasters, engines, railroad ties and bedsprings. Cannons that once shot oranges from the pre-existing groves and a tarnished metal portcullis guard the entrance. A large clock up ahead starts signaling it is 10 a.m. with 10 booming bell tolls. And this is all before you make your way into the Castle.
Michael Rubel, king of the Rubel Castle, started constructing forts as a child. He and his neighborhood cohorts gathered together rubbish and junk from a nearby junkyard and piled it high with hammers and nails holding it barely together. The mothers would look on apprehensively, grimacing whenever something would unexpectedly shake. That is when Michael Rubel caught the fort-building bug. As Michael grew, the bug progressed into an obsession, and the forts of his youth transformed into castles; the Rubel Castle, located in a typical suburban neighborhood of Glendora at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, was Michael’s masterpiece. Built both from discarded knick-knacks and sought-after oddities, Rubelia is a kingdom created by its own rules where nothing is normal and anything goes.
Michael acquired the Castle grounds, which were previously the Albourne Citrus Ranch, in 1959 when he was still a teenager. The ranch was near his childhood home, and he played there as an adventurous youngster, taking dips in the reservoir in the summer heat. Arthur K. Bourne, Singer Sewing Machine mogul, owned the ranch and gifted it to the Episcopal Church with the condition that Michael would be able to purchase it when he was 20 years old. When Michael returned to Glendora after hitchhiking through Europe, Asia and Africa and working as a paint chipper and purser on a ship, he was 19. The Church agreed to sign it over to him for a down payment of $200 and a monthly payment, which he ultimately could not make. Bourne, who had gifted the property to the Church years prior, knew Michael had his heart set on owning the land that held the citrus packing house and reservoir he frequented as a child, so the mogul paid six-months of Michael’s payments to get him on his feet.
With the help of friends, some of whom he persuaded with the promise of parties, and volunteers referred to as “pharm hands” or “Rubelians,” Michael was able to embark on what began as an adolescent fixation, but transpired into his life’s work. Michael’s peers and acquaintances found his passion for the project inspiring, contagious even. He received grand donations—from the 1890 weight-driven, hand-wound Seth Thomas clock that towers 74 feet high over the castle grounds to the Santa Fe 1940s-era red train caboose, doubling as a guest-house, that sits just inside the gates. A ship captain named C.J. Boggs, who caught wind of the project while Rubel worked random summers on the captain’s freight ship, left him all of his money when he died so he could invest it toward furthering the Castle’s completion.
Once Michael acquired the land, he moved into the packing house. His 91-year-old grandfather Deuel and his mother Dorothy Rubel moved into the packing house shortly after. Dorothy, a previous New York chorus girl, restored the packing house with elegant antiques and tapestry rugs, and the building was rebirthed as the “Tin Palace.” Dorothy invited her Hollywood friends, including fan dancer Sally Rand to the Tin Palace to hobnob at lavish cocktail parties and black-tie dinners.
While Dorothy was a socialite and loved getting dressed to the nines and surrounding herself with martini-sipping friends, Michael preferred overalls and straw hats to formal attire and pined for an escape from the posh parties. Inventive and industrious per usual, Michael and a few friends dug a tunnel from the tin palace to the drained and cleaned water reservoir. With wine bottles and cement, he constructed a 10 by 10 foot house with a ladder that led to a second story that looks more like a large shelf and fits a small bed perfectly. Michael moved from the tin palace to the tiny dwelling and lived there for seven years while he built the Castle.
Today the 100 square foot bottle house sits just inside the Castle gates, surrounding it is technically a castle but more of a small community. The King’s Quarters, where Michael ultimately lived once that portion of the Castle was completed, is on top of the Castle’s tunnel entrance. It is a two-story, two-bedroom quarters with a living room, bathroom and full-kitchen. Inside, the walls are made of river rock and cement just like the outside of the Castle. Outside of the King’s Quarters is a rickety elevator, a small chamber encompassed by rusty metal. There are similar apartments throughout the Castle with kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms. At Castle center is a fully operational blacksmith’s shop. Today, blacksmiths still work there and train their apprentices. There is a large communal kitchen on the grounds as well, where the residents gather and celebrate holidays and share community meals. A community garden is planted behind the train caboose and adjacent to the towering windmill; residents of the Castle maintain the garden and prepare meals in the spirit of self-sustaining and living as people did long ago.
Over the years, the Castle has garnered attention from various news networks, celebrities who popped in to take a tour, and production companies looking for a medieval aesthetic to shoot their projects. In 1990, Huell Howser toured the Castle and interviewed Michael as cameras followed behind. Comedy Central shot a “Game of Thrones” spoof at the Castle, and NBC’s hit series “Heroes” was also shot on the Castle grounds. Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope and Prince Phillip are among the prominent visitors who stopped by to see what was hidden behind Wonka’s gates.
After 26 years of ongoing construction, the Castle was finally completed, and Michael could rest. In 1996, he married a neighbor, Kaia, and moved her into the King’s Quarters, finally having found his queen. The years of manual labor, lugging river rocks and digging tunnels took a toll on Michael’s physical health, and his ability to care for the Castle dwindled. In 2005, Michael gave the Castle to the Glendora Historical Society. Many of his friends, several of whom actually helped construct the Castle, now serve as docents and provide tours for the Castle visitors. The Glendora school children take field trips to the Castle each year, and tradework, like metal work, is taught there on the weekends.
Michael passed away on Oct. 15, 2007; he was 67 years old. The tour of the Castle comes to a close just behind the Santa Fe train caboose where a memorial graveyard covers that portion of the Castle grounds. A bottle of wine sits perched atop the largest headstone that is decorated with a Rubel Farms placard. Displayed across the front, it reads, “Michael Clarke Rubel, Builder.”