[The letter R proved a good excuse to recount how Pomona got its name. As for the runnerups, Robbie’s, Red Hill Pizza and Randy’s Records have all closed. Sob! Oh, and the “Jane Eyre” quote referred to below is actually “Readers, I married him.” I had recently read the book and couldn’t resist mentioning it.
This column was originally published Jan. 9, 2005, as “A to Z,” which began back in July 2004, entered its second calendar year with a roar.]
R is for Roman goddess, who brings classic touch to Pomona
To paraphrase “Jane Eyre”: Readers, I’m at the letter R. OK, it’s a loose paraphrase.
“Pomona A to Z,” my recondite review of that city’s raptures, today rests between Q and S. Which R should we recommend?
Let’s reconnoiter in your ready room for a referendum:
* Rainbird Rainforest, a learning center at Cal Poly Pomona mimicking a rain forest and funded by the sprinkler company.
* Randy’s Records, a vinyl album store on East Second Street, visited by many an out-of-town band at the Glass House.
* Red Hill Pizza, the eatery that spent 30 years in an old red barn on Holt before moving downtown. Try the lasagna.
* Robbie’s, the downtown nightspot that in 1968 hosted a luncheon for Robert F. Kennedy, just days before his assassination.
* Reference department at the Library, always ready to respond to your research requests.
Well, I could go on and on — what about Repo Man Recovery? Rockwell Collins? the Donahoo’s rooster? — but that might get repetitive.
Instead, let’s stop roamin’ and start Roman. Because our R is for Roman goddess, the deity for whom Pomona is named.
Until Los Angeles County redesigned its official seal in fall 2004, few realized its dominant image was the goddess Pomona in her flowing robes — a design created in 1957 by a Pomona native, artist Millard Sheets.
Tragically, Pomona got the heave-ho along with the seal’s cross. County supervisors decided scrapping the cross but leaving the pagan goddess might send a weird message.
But who was Pomona, and how did a Los Angeles suburb come to be named for a figure from Roman mythology?
“Not much is known about her,” says Richard McKirahan, a professor of classics at — where else? — Pomona College.
She was a goddess, “but a minor one, not in the league of Jupiter or Venus,” says McKirahan, noting that mentions of Pomona in myths are scant and sometimes contradictory.
Her sphere of influence was fruits, especially those that grow on trees. I forgot to ask whether that includes tomatoes.
“Her priest was the lowest ranking priest in the Roman hierarchy, which may mean that she was considered the humblest of the gods and goddesses,” McKirahan says.
So Pomona’s namesake is a goddess, but one with a public relations problem. Somehow that seems fitting.
The name came about like this. In 1875, real-estate investors from L.A. bought 2,500 acres out here for $10,000, then subdivided the land into lots for public auction.
They sponsored a contest to name the town.
Citrus nurseryman Solomon Gates, a Pennsylvania native who loved Greek and Roman mythology, decided his entry would play off hopes that the town would become a horticultural paradise.
He feared the name would be too fancy, his son, Superior Court Judge Walter S. Gates, told the Historical Society in 1963.
But at a community meeting, contest judges declared: “Henceforth, our new settlement will be known as Pomona.”
That’s certainly better than the derisive nickname by which the settlement had been known: Monkey Town.
When the city incorporated on Jan. 6, 1888, Pomona was official. And catchy: At least eight other U.S. cities adopted the name.
Local images of the goddess abound. She was depicted on fruit crate labels. She’s on the city seal, affixed to city vehicles, buildings and letterhead.
There are even modern twists. A wall-sized mural downtown features a Latino-tinged goddess.
More traditional is the version on display in the Pomona Library: a 5-foot-3 statue of Pomona carved from marble and shipped here from Italy more than a century ago.
As the Pomona Progress described the figure upon its arrival:
“It represents the goddess in the act of returning from the fruit harvest, the folds of her gown being filled with fruits, while in the hair about the brow are tastefully arranged small clusters of grapes.”
An exact replica of a statue from antiquity, it was commissioned by the Rev. Charles F. Loop, a wealthy Episcopalian from Pomona. He saw the original while in Florence and thought a copy would make a dandy icon for his hometown.
It was presented on July 4, 1889, and has always been housed in the Library. Today, from inside her glass case, she keeps a watchful eye on the main floor.
“Most people just come by and look,” library staffer Camilla Berger says. “But (a former staffer) told me that years ago, some people came in who worship Pomona.”
Well, California is the land of fruits — and nuts.
(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, religiously.)