‘Pomona A to Z’: S is for Spadra

[Spadra was a natural choice for the letter S when I was writing this series. Not only is Spadra a crucial part of Pomona’s origins, but people remain fascinated by the place, mostly because of its cemetery and the legends about frontier life and mysterious deaths. I’ve been in the library’s special collections room more than once when some young person has come in to inquire politely about Spadra.

Mickey Gallivan of the Historical Society will be the first to tell you she plays up the drama because that’s what people want to hear about Spadra. Too bad people persist in trespassing in the cemetery, which is private, and trashing the place. Not very respectful.

This column was first published Jan. 23, 2005.]

Suddenly, ‘Pomona A to Z’ spotlights Spadra

Salaam, sahibs! “Pomona A to Z” today surveys the letter S for a symbol to sum up the city. There’s such a surfeit, we won’t have to scrounge.

So silence, please, as we sequester ourselves in our shacks and shanties, there to solemnly scan the scads of specimens:

* Sugar Shane Mosley, the boxer, and Suga Free, the rapper, who hail from Pomona. Sweet!

* The stylish stables built in 1909 for City Hall’s horses in those pre-car days. They still stand at White and Monterey.

* Sacred Heart, St. Madeleine’s and St. Joseph’s, three churches serving the Catholic population.

* Special Collections, the room at the Public Library where you can research Pomona’s past.

* Soap Opera Laundry, whose sign bears the image of a washing machine with TV-style rabbit ears.


As you’d suspect, those only scratch the surface. We should also stop to salute Stan Selby, who led the Pomona Concert Band for an astounding 47 years until his death last November.

But our S is something different: Spadra.

Now absorbed into west Pomona, Spadra lay roughly between today’s Valley and Mission boulevards on either side of the 57 Freeway.

The village sprung up in 1866 along a stagecoach line, then began crumbling a decade later as the railroad passed it by. All that’s left is the stately Phillips Mansion, which was built in 1875 and looks a lot like the house in “Psycho,” and a rather sad cemetery.

Residents never saw the end coming. When the upstart settlement of Pomona began in 1875, Spadra’s oldtimers derided it as “Monkey Town,” for reasons that remain obscure.

“They just thought Pomona would never be anything,” said Mickey Gallivan, president of the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley.

But it wasn’t just Spadra that had a short life. So did an alarming number of people who lived there.

As “The Village That Died,” a Historical Society booklet, puts it darkly: “The village of Spadra was characterized by murder, suicide and mysterious deaths.”

Maybe S should be for s-s-s-spooky.

Many Spadra stories start at Billy Rubottom’s inn, which is also where Spadra began. He’d bought 100 acres from Louis Phillips and set up shop along the Butterfield stage line.

To call Rubottom a colorful figure is like saying Shakespeare was a fair writer.

A rough frontiersman, he was wanted in his native Arkansas for killing two men with a knife. (I’m referring to Rubottom, not Shakespeare.)

And in El Monte, Rubottom shot his own son-in-law to death. Even more destructively, he’s been blamed for importing California’s first opossums.

Rubottom may have been the meanest man in Spadra, but he had competition — even from a man of the cloth.

In 1872, the Rev. William Standifer, a farmer, angrily confronted the town constable, knocking him down twice. A bullet in the shoulder from the constable’s gun only made Standifer madder. So the next bullet found the minister’s heart.

Spadra also saw a murder-suicide between two lovers and an ex-con stabbed to death by his brother-in-law, among other untimely demises. As recently as this month, January 2005, a ghostly figure has been reported in the Phillips Mansion.

The cemetery in Spadra has 212 graves, officially.

If you were killed in a barfight at Rubottom’s for, say, cheating at cards, “the rumor is they just dragged you off to the cemetery and buried you,” Gallivan said. “So there are probably more than 212 people buried there.”

The name Spadra, by the way, was stolen by Rubottom from his hometown in Arkansas. According to Gloria Ricci Lathrop’s “Pomona: A Centennial,” though, it was his second choice.

The valley was already known as San Jose from its days under Spanish rule. But Rubottom’s application for a post office by that name was rejected, because California already had a San Jose.

He succeeded with the name Spadra. We know it as Spah-dra, although the Arkansas pronunciation is said to be Spay-dra.

Opened in 1868, the Spadra post office was among the first half-dozen in California. The village was off to a good start.

Settled mostly by poor families fleeing the South, bustling Spadra soon had a school, a major road, warehouses for trade goods, three stores and two blacksmiths. All it lacked was a Starbucks.

Unfortunately, it soon lacked more than that. While Southern Pacific extended its line eastward to Spadra in 1874, by the next year the line went as far as Colton.

The train didn’t stop in Spadra anymore, and almost no one else did, either.

So long, Spadra.

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, sentimentally.)

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  • http://www.myspace.com/photomosaic pamylla

    I love these articles about early Pomona and Spadra. I have some photos of the Spadra cemetery on my blog…check it out at the URL above. ~ Pamylla

  • Jeff

    I commuted to Cal Poly, which meant driving by the cemetery every weekday for 5 years (including summers) without knowing it was there. Then one day I happened to break down on the shoulder of the 57 and spotted the cemetery. Of course, I had to go for a look. Lots of old grave markers. From the 1800s to some that were recent (1950s I believe?). It’s a creepy place because it’s so isolated; no parking and a longish walk to get there. I’m still amazed that I’d never noticed it for so long.

  • mike kerr

    i know where one of the missing head stone might be found the name on is ester? it was stolen 20 years or more ago by some one i still have contact with if intersted contact me

    [How about contacting the Historical Society, Mike? They oversee the cemetery. — DA]

  • Theresa Masters

    W.W. Rubottom’s grandfather is my 5th great-grandfather. (We’re cousins.) It’s fun to read about him and all the crazy things that went on in Spadra. Guess I need to visit the cemetery.

    [I guess you do! Thanks for the comment. — DA]

  • Lbrce

    This is an interesting article. I live in the original Spadra, Ark. (Spah-dra), by the way.

    [Greetings from our Spadra! — DA]

  • Jon Ponedel

    Ursula Ponedel, the big end of the trail marker in the Cemetery, is my Grandmother. My Dad Robert Ponedel says Meyer Ursula, last husband, murdered her, any history on that? Visited the Cemetery today 6-10-10.

    [You should check with the Historical Society, which caretakes the cemetery. — DA]

  • Cristina Flores

    Great article! Went 2 weeks ago with my kids and about 25 other people to do a community service project to clean up the place. I lived in Pomona all my life and this was the first time I have been here. It’s a great little place that needed a lot of cleaning up. We worked cleaning up the place for about 4 hours and made a big difference.

    You can get a little creeped out when you first get there but after a while you learn about the cemetery and you get a sense of calm. My kids loved helping out and cleaning the place up but were sad and upset for all the trash, empty bottles and vandalism done to the place. Almost all the headstones are missing or cracked.

    It will be opened on Halloween by the Historical Society and they will give tours. If you should go respect it and learn about it. It’s real neat! Thanks again for the extra history on it!!

    [It’s unfortunate that people trespass for the spook factor and leave their trash, but kudos to the Historical Society and its volunteers for maintaining the grounds. Glad to hear you and your family were part of that and learned about the history. — DA]

  • Truman Parker

    I lived in front of the cemetery back in 1960, in an old house with a barn. The barn, I was told, was the first church in the area. Just before I moved in, some vandals burned down the barn.

    I was in the midst of cleaning out all the broken glass in the house from vandals one night, when I heard a small crowd coming towards the house. I shouted that the place was occupied now, so get out of here. Well they kept coming, so I fired off my 30-30, and my German Shepherd gave a growling compliment.

    They took off, and I went back to cleaning, when I heard car noise in the front of the house. Well I jumped out there just like the “Rifleman”, and suddenly all was red. Police light red.

    I was warned no shooting in the city limits, ya, ya, ya. But they were polite and said they would keep an eye out, and they did.

    I was out burning tumble weeds one Sunday, and went into the house for some water. There was a knock on the door- Jehovah’s Witmess. There I was bare chested wearing chaps and boots and sweat. Boy what a determined couple. They followed me back to field praying away as I burned away. Really smokin’.

    We had a great time for a couple years, and a few run-ins with vandals until they realized we were to stay. I had tried to find it since, so glad to hear it is doing well and being cared for.

  • bflaska

    When I was young, Pacific State Hospital in Pomona was commonly known just as Spadra. A mental facility, Pacific State Hospital now five decades later is duly recognized as “an historic asylum.”

  • Emily (Quirrin) Pappadakis

    My family and I have been searching for our mother’s family for some time. I have just met my mother’s family (two sisters and lots of cousins). We have learned about the history of my mother and three of her siblings.

    My mother said it sadly in one of the notes she left us, “My life of terror began…no child should ever have to go through.” This terror she speaks of began in 1930 when she was taken from her mother with two sisters and one brother. Upon her return to her mother in 1936, the children were hospitalized due to their ill treatment and abuse while in “captivity” with the unkind Aunt in Tucson, AZ.

    Soon after my mother came home, she was brutally attacked and left for dead. She survived. While attending school, my mother was called by her “male teacher” for undisclosed reason and she began screaming, hitting, and kicking the teacher. The police were called and she was taken away. We learned from her sister, my Aunt, that my mother was sent several times to an institution called “Spadra.”

    NOW, I am looking for any type of archival information/records on the conditions and/or treatment given at that facility. She excaped from Spadra in a bloody and tattered condition, according to my Aunt who gave her money and clothes. She left and found her way to raise a family of her own.

  • barbara f

    Here’s a first hand account of treatment at Spadra (c. 1930s) from a famous actress institutionalized for cocaine addiction (a lifelong addiction which she said was initially medically-induced):


  • barbara f

    For Emily, good luck in your research.

    Here’s an article on Spadra from this publisher:


    and another on the history of the facility as it developed through time:


  • barbara f

    And for the true history buff, here is an article by Edwin Black about California’s shameful history in eugenics theory and practices (he mentions a sterilization program carried out at Pacific State Hospital)in the 1930’s:


    This just was on the major network news again last night due to some lawsuits trying to make their way into court.