In 1908 David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, wrote to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about the little building known today as the Alpine Inn. “The Wunder is unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the university, and a disgrace to San Mateo County,” he said.
Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that that same rough little structure at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California Registered Landmark? It is considered to be the oldest surviving roadhouse in California and the longest continual business operation in San Mateo County. How has it managed to survive and thrive despite such prestigious opposition?
Its story begins in the tumultuous 1850s. California was a new state, and Anglos were pouring into our area from the gold fields, bringing with them the English language and American laws and customs. San Jose became the state capital, and many Mexican Californios of pueblo and rancho days retreated to more outlying areas such as Portola Valley. Felix Buelna was one of them.
He had served as alcalde [mayor] of San Jose and later in a group of Californios appointed to help ease the transition to the new government. He left, perhaps in disillusionment after being told to enforce the laws only against his ‘own kind’.
After a brief stay on a ranch near Skyline and Page Mill, he opened a roadhouse and casa de tableta [house of cards] on his friend Maximo Martinez’ rancho about 1852. He chose his site well. At the intersection of the old Arrastradero leading to Mission Santa Clara and points south and the Old Spanish Trail [Alpine Road] extending over the mountains to the coast, it was a convenient spot for thirsty men and horses to stop. It was also a respite for his countrymen away from the Anglos.
In 1868, the property passed into the possession of a Scotch-Irishman, William Stanton. According to a Buelna grandson, it was to pay a gambling debt. County recorder’s records show that the 95 acres which include today’s Alpine Hills subdivision sold for just under $1200 gold coin. Although Stanton was killed in a train-buggy collision twenty years later, the land and the roadhouse remained in his family’s ownership until 1940.
The list of proprietors who leased the roadhouse from the Stanton family reflects the early ethnic heritage of the region: Mexican, Portuguese, Italian, German, and a Croatian in the person of Walter Jelich, Sr. His is probably the only name known to residents today. The names of the place changed during these years to reflect the lessee’s origins: Fernando’s, Philpot’s, Stanton’s Saloon, Chapete’s Place, The Wunder, and Schenkel’s Picnic Park.
The most infamous lessee was Rodriguez Crovello, familiarly known as “Black Chapete”. He held forth at the bar in the decades around the turn of the century. He was short and plump with a big handlebar mustache. Considered easy-going and likable, he was known to like his liquor and to be unlucky at cards. He was fined for operating without a license, accused regularly [but never convicted] of running a house of ill-repute, and known for serving minors. He ended up at the poor farm in 1911.
The opening of Stanford University in 1891 immediately brought a boost to business. Throngs of students loved the place that was described in an alumnae magazine as “a miserable, low-class saloon of the San Francisco waterfront type.” Its unsavory reputation added to its appeal in the minds of many students
Mayfield’s 23 saloons closed in 1905, and in 1909 the mile-and-a-half law [no liquor sales within 1 ½ miles of the campus] took effect, closing Menlo Park’s 14. The Wunder escaped. Business remained good, even after forty Stanford students were expelled for drunkenness.
Not even the five mile dry zone imposed around Menlo Park’s Camp Fremont during World War I reached The Wunder. Its location continued to be an advantage, if for a new reason.
During prohibition, Julius Schenkel opened the adjacent field for camping. City folks came down for a few days or a week to enjoy the country creekside ambiance. He painted out the name of the establishment and added a dance pavilion. Stories of its role in bootleg operations in an area renown for its stills are as varied as they are impossible to confirm.
In 1938, Mrs. Stanton, who had received rental income from the roadhouse since the death of her husband in 1887, died at the age of 84. Enter the most famous proprietor, Enrico Rossotti. He took over the lease and purchased the property in 1940. Although he only owned his beer garden for eight years, the old place is still affectionately known by his name, or by the even more familiar “Zot’s.”
Don Horther and John Alexander and their wives leased and then purchased Rossotti’s Beer Garden in 1959 and gave it its current name, Alpine Inn. For the last year and a half, for the first time in 140 years, a woman has been the sole owner and proprietor, Molly Alexander, the widow of John. She plans to stay on indefinitely.
And so the rude little building, so well situated along important early roads, just distant enough from the arm of the law, and always tended by genial barkeepers, has become an institution.