Category Archives: Portola Valley History

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

Portola Road, 1874 and 1854

In June of 1874, the editor of the Telegram and Gazette took a drive along Portola Road.  This excerpt from his report is a reminder of how quickly the loggers passed through the valley and how rich their harvest must have been.

Moving towards Searsville we pass through the farm of Supervisor [Hugh] Kelly. It puts us in mind of the early days. Here and there through the grain are redwood stumps, of large size, but black and blistered from the effects of the many fires to which they have been exposed. Hardly a score of years ago this very spot was a forest of giant trees, and nearby was a sawmill manufacturing lumber [probably the Mastic mill on Bull Run Creek near Wyndham Drive]. The ravines were full of men and teams, and the yell of the bullwhacker and the pop of his whip rang upon the air with the roar of going artillery. How changed! The timber is gone, as are the bachelor axmen and their cabins, and in their place is the permanent home, the orchard, the wife and the little ones…

An excerpt from the June 6, 1874 issue

Portola Road vicinity, 2003
Portola Road vicinity, 2003

The Incorporation Of Portola Valley – Part 2

August 14, 1945.Thirty million persons had died, but World War II was over, and the world began to revert slowly to normalcy. Boom time lay ahead. The war had had a powerful effect on San Mateo County. Thousands of workers had moved into the area to staff the military installations created in the war effort. Tens of thousands of members of the armed forced had passed through on the way to the Pacific theater. Many liked what they saw here and planned to return once the war ended. By 1950, more than 20,000 people a year were pouring into San Mateo County, looking for homes and jobs. The county population had increased by 110% between 1940 and 1950, and the 1950s saw another 89% increase. Subdivisions popped up everywhere. Assembly-line construction produced apartments, single-family dwellings and other necessary facilities at a rapid clip. The open land that once made San Mateo County the immense garden of San Francisco began to disappear. Eminent County Historian Frank Sanger summed up the situation in 1954: “Today the word most characteristic of the times is ‘subdivision.’ Divide and subdivide is the order of the day, driven on by the pressure of increased land values.” Little Portola Valley, a quiet hamlet of estates, small farms and summer cottages, wasn’t immune to the pressure. Two of the large landowners or their heirs put their properties on the market. In 1948, the Fitzhugh heirs sold their estate, Catoctin, today’s Grove and Stonegate neighborhoods, to the real estate firm of Cornish and Carey for 41 building sites that ranged in size from one to two and a half acres.

In 1946, Dent Macdonough sold the first portion of his Ormondale Ranch to a cooperative, the Peninsula Housing Association, that began the development of Ladera.     Old Ladera Brochure

Old Ladera Brochure

At first Macdonough was horrified at the thought of 400 houses rising on those 260 acres.

Dent Macdonough
Dent Macdonough

But he realized that civilization was closing in, and he was ready to move on. In 1947 he sold 209 acres to the Westridge Company, which eventually increased its holdings to 750 acres. Respecting the beauty of the land, these developers restricted lot size to 2 ½ acres. In 1955, Macdonough sold another 125 acres that became the Oak Hills development with two acre minimums.  Between 1957 and 1963, he sold the flat land around today’s Ormondale School, the heart of his immense ranch, thereby creating Arrowhead Meadows. These were very tempting properties to young families. Although many buyers and their friends thought Portola Valley was too far out in the country, prices were less than those in Palo Alto. And the land was beautiful. 

A look at the school population from 1944 to 1957, thirteen years, reveals how rapidly the young families were arriving:  1944: 24 students; 1949: 62; 1951: 149; 1953: 230; 1957: 464!

SCHM-087d PVSD 48, 57 smallThe two one-room schoolhouses weren’t sufficient for the young students. One was divided into two classrooms;  the other was dismantled to make room for Portola Valley School which was built in sections in the 1950s but not fast enough to accommodate the increasing enrollment.

 For a time kindergarteners met at Our Lady of the Wayside. Some classes went into double sessions.  Fruit picker shacks and dormitories were revamped for classrooms. The superintendent held parent conferences in his car.

SCHM-091d PVSD Bond DrThe band practiced in the redwood grove.  During one election, a class was held in the school bus because the room was needed for the voters.

Classes held in School Bus
Classes held in School Bus

Thanks to regular bond issues, Corte Madera opened in 1958, the last wings of PVS were finished in 1959, and Ormondale was ready in 1961.

At last every child has a regular classroom, but growth was predicted to continue.  In 1956 a survey conducted by the San Mateo County School Board and Stanford’s School of Education predicted that the population would double from 2800 within 5 years, eventually reaching 2637 to 4000 families with a school population that would reach 1900.  In 1959 the county planning commission projected a population of 17,000 by 1990.  It was not only families that were tempted by the open spaces in Portola Valley.

California Cabana Clubs planned a country club at Portola and Westridge with a 9-hole golf course among other sporting amenities, just one of three such plans being proposed.

Proposed Arrowhead Country Club
Proposed Arrowhead Country Club

“Mama” Garcia, proprietor of the popular restaurant bearing her name, applied to open a rest home.  A 75-bed hospital at Nathhorst was in the works as was a convalescent hospital on Hillbrook. Apartments were being considered. Thoughts of a new state college on the Bovet property arose.  Multiple plans were broached for extending Willow Road [now called Sand Hill] along Alpine Road which would become a four lane parkway astride Los Trancos Creek. It could then extend over Coal Mine Ridge to connect with Page Mill Road. Or Willowbrook could become that extension. It gradually became apparent to the new residents that the ambiance of their new hometown could change drastically. They loved the quiet rural quality, the wildlife, the views, the pleasure of riding horses over open space. They worried about decisions that the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission might make for their little corner at the very southern tip of the county, so far away from the seat of government. Realizing that the post-war boom was reaching the valley, on January 13, 1955, a group of 75 residents met at Portola School to discuss how to protect the character of the area, to defend it against intensive development, the population boom and urbanization. This group, originally led by Robert Paul, Ray Garrasino, Tony Rose and Jeffrey Smith eventually became the Portola Valley Association. The drive for incorporation had begun.

by Nancy Lund, February 7, 2014

The Incorporation of Portola Valley – Part 1

 

Portola Valley's 50th Anniversarty
Portola Valley’s 50th Anniversary

For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Portola Valley (or Portola as it was first known) was a sleepy little place at the end of the road. A few immigrants from many countries operated small farms.  Los Trancos Woods, Woodside Highlands and Brookside were neighborhoods of small cottages to which San Franciscans of humble means came in the summer to escape the cold, dreary fogs of the city. For the most part, there was no heat and only rudimentary water systems. Phone service was late in coming. But it was peaceful and beautiful. Most of the rest of the land was held in large parcels owned by individuals.

All this began to change, however, after World War II. The population of San Mateo County exploded as people began to arrive in huge numbers. Portola Valley began to grow so rapidly that residents worried about losing the rural qualities that they loved in their quiet little town. They began to talk about incorporation so that they could make decisions about local land use rather than relying on decisions by a distant county Board of Supervisors. Beginning in 1955, nine long years of study, discussion and debate were to pass before residents could make local decisions about local issues.

A quick survey of those large land owners and their lifestyles can help to explain the dynamics and the changes that would occur in those years immediately after the war when some of those owners began to sell their properties. Here’s how it was until the post war years.

A San Francisco hardware merchant, Stephen Mariani, owned the Mariani Ranch, known as Blue Oaks today, for most of the twentieth century. The little brown house still standing by the neighborhood swimming pool was their summer place.  A barrel of sturdy sticks stood by the front door; the Mariani children would take one when they went out to play for protection against rattlesnakes.

Portola Valley Ranch was known as the Bovet place.  Anthony Bovet was a nephew of Antone Borel, a wealthy banker of some local fame, for whom Anthony worked. But he really wanted to be a cattle rancher, so he kept a herd on his ranch in Portola Valley.

The Bovets in their garden
The Bovets in their garden

The Bovets brought several fine pieces from the Borel mansion in San Mateo to furnish their house. Their house still stands although it can’t be seen from any public roadway.

The eighty acres between Portola Valley Ranch and Los Trancos and Alpine roads have been in the hands of only two families since rancho times.  In the 1880s, Judge James Allen and his family bought eighty acres from Antonio Martinez, son of the ranchero.

Allen-Woods Home
Allen-Woods Home

The Woods family purchased the property in 1915; members of the family occupied the 1885 main house off Los Trancos Road and a 1950s house above Roberts Market until 2008 when Fred Woods III bequeathed the land to POST, the private land trust.

For some seventy years, the hills that give Alpine Hills its subdivision name were the possession of Mary Ann Stanton, as was the building we call today Alpine Inn (or affectionately, Rosotti’s or “Zot’s.)Aline Inn

Alpine Inn, a sketch by local artist Jean Groberg

 


A widow, whose young husband died in a tragic buggy/train accident on Christmas Eve, 1887, she lived in Menlo Park and hired genial barkeepers to run her roadhouse establishment. She leased the hills for cattle.

Mary Serres Stanton
Mary Serres Stanton

The vast Ormondale Ranch, home to Ormonde, the most famous race horse of the nineteenth century (and his less illustrious son Ormondale,) occupied today’s subdivisions of Westridge, Oak Hills and Ladera. The Macdonough family, first Joseph and then Dent, had as many as two hundred horses and several barns. Horses eventually gave way to sheep, tended by a Basque shepherd.

William and Mary Fitzhugh, San Franciscans, kept a rustic vacation place on what we call Grove Drive, Grove Court and Stonegate Road. Their two main houses, which still stand, were once connected by a structure used as a dormitory for guests.

William Fitzhugh
William Fitzhugh

They also had colorful tents on platforms for overflow company.  The area around Tintern was their farm. Strawberries, tended by Chinese workers, was a big crop.

The Morshead family owned El Mirador Farm, first home to Andrew Hallidie of cable car fame, for most of the twentieth century. Rising to the west (actually the south) above Portola Road, it is still in private hands. In the Morshead days, the first town picnics were held there, and children enjoyed the lakes and the model train on which they could ride. When Stanley Morshead rang the bell on non-picnic days, children knew it was in invitation to come and ride.

The most famous of these large landowners was John Francis Neylan.

John Francis Neylan
John Francis Neylan

The lawyer for William Randolph Hearst, twenty-eight year member of the University of California Board of Regents, State Controller, he owned 1500 acres in the hills that form the backdrop of the town. In 1937, he had acquired the property from Herbert Law for $255,000. Earlier in the century, Law had amassed the estate, buying from small farmers in order to control the waters of Corte Madera Creek so that he could have sufficient water for his herb farm that extended along today’s Willowbrook Drive.

Neylan was an ardent and vociferous foe of the incorporation talk that began in the mid 1950s. And yet, it was a decision of his that made him responsible more than any other single person for the incorporation for the Town of Portola Valley.
By Nancy Lund, January 2014

Multi-Ethnic Beginnings

Multi-Ethnic Beginnings

          When schoolmarm Miss Mamie Shine went out to the farms of Portola (as our town was then called)  around the turn of the century to take the census of school children, she often found many residents who spoke no English. At times she had to ring the dinner bell to call the men from the fields to find an English speaker who could report on school age children in the home.

Strawberry Field Workers
Strawberry Field Workers

When the Sequoia Union High School District started a satellite campus at the Portola School in 1927, the subject taught three times a week was “Americanization Skills”.  Who were these early residents ?

Few remains from Indian times have turned up in our valley. Most early histories report that they avoided the hills out of respect for the grizzly bears who inhabited them.  They did pass through along the Old Spanish Trail on their way to the coast. Probably seasonal camps existed along our many creeks, and a very few stayed on into Hispanic and American times.

Maximo Martinez and his family were the first occupants from whom we have written records. Born in San Francisco, Maximo was a soldier at the Presidio for many years.  When loggers from many countries began to drift into the redwoods in the 1830s, he was sent by the Mexican authorities to our neighborhood to check up on them. In 1833 he requested and received a land grant eventually reaching 13, 000 acres and encompassing all of today’s Portola Valley. His eight children owned their various inheritances for many years, but the land gradually passed out of the family’s hands.  Descendants still live in the area but none within our borders.

The Irish are best represented by three families. Dennis Martin was a hero in the first wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra in 1844. He and his wife Bridget bought land in the Jasper Ridge vicinity in 1846 and more in 1854. He stocked his land with horses and cattle and built (arguably) the first sawmill and the first gristmill in the area.  Ultimately, he lost everything. Bridget and Bryan Cooney bought 147 acres at the top of Spring Ridge in the early 1860s. A lumberman and farmer, Cooney raised hay, wheat and barley. They and their daughter and grandchildren ended their days on the ridge.  Hugh Kelly came in the 1860s. He’s listed as the first San Mateo County foreigner to  gain U. S. citizenship. His son Eugene had a restaurant and saloon where Alpine Hills Tennis and Swim Club stands today. Son Tom raised strawberries in the Wyndham neighborhood.

In the 1850s Chileans arrived, driven from the gold fields by extreme prejudice and unable to return home because the bay was full of abandoned ships while the crews hunted for gold. Living in humble shacks, they worked for the Martinez family clearing the willows from the thickets along the creeks for charcoal. By 1870 almost all of them were gone.

By 1866, Italian families, mostly from the Genoa area, were arriving and leasing land in today’s Willowbrook area from the Martinezes. They had truck gardens and sold their produce door to door in Redwood City, Menlo Park and Mayfield. They began strawberry culture, which became a thriving valley industry.

Two Italians bought the upper reaches of Spring Ridge in 1867. Later, Emanuele Bozzo, a hero in a ferry accident, lived for 32 years on Spring Ridge. Nicolas Larco, who had become one of the wealthiest Italians in California, planted 50,000 mulberry trees in today’s Arrowhead Meadows for silkworm culture. Domingo Grosso, the hermit of Jasper Ridge, always flew the Italian as well as the U. S. flag. Three separate Mangini families probably had the greatest Italian impact on our valley.

Jack Mangini at Lazy Day(1)
Jack Mangini at Lazy Day

Andrew and Ida operated a picnic park on the site of today’s Alpine Hills Tennis and Swimming Club from the twenties to the fifties.  Thousands (yes!) of people would appear on weekends for barbecues, baseball, and dancing. One school board member has been recorded as remarking that the Mangini families made the difference between a one room school and a two room school.  A third generation member of one of the Mangini families, Jack, lived in the valley until his death in 2010..

German immigrants came also. Two married Martinez granddaughters. Julius and Gustav Siebeck came in 1862 to mine for coal on Coal Mine Ridge. A massive landslide in 1890 buried forever the site of their mine. Garrett Nahmens and his wife came around the Horn in 1869 and arrived in Portola Valley in 1884.

Dan Nahmens with strawberry boxesThey bought the land around Stonegate and raised strawberries. Three generations of the family are still in the area. The Fromhertz family lived on Coal Mine Ridge from 1880 until the trip to school in the valley became too difficult for the children. They then built the house which stands at 211 Portola Road and the father, George, served on the school board. Henry Schoelhammer came from Prussia to be superintendent of Herbert Law’s Willowbrook Farm. He and his family lived in the stone house on Portola Road and later in the administrator’s house at the Villa Lauriston complex.

Chinese workers were here.  Admired for their hard work, they helped to build Andrew Hallidie’s tramway. They worked on Herbert Law’s mansion, Lauriston, and tended his herbs. They raised strawberries for the Fitzhughs at Catoctin, today’s Stonegate/Grove Drive area and for the Manginis and the Kellys. They sublet land from the Italians in the Willowbrook area, paying half their produce as rent.

At least four Portuguese families, mostly from the Azores, were in residence before the turn of the century.

Alves Children
Alves Children

At first they worked on the farms for wages, then gradually leased or bought land. Truck farms providing produce for the city was their main livelihood. They too grew strawberries and had vineyards in today’s Brookside and Georgia Lane neighborhoods. Most left after the typhoid epidemic of 1902, which began at a dairy leased by Portuguese and which took a fiercesome toll of Portuguese residents. Until his death in 2007, Joe Gomes was the third generation of his family to occupy his  family’s Portola Valley homestead.

Filipinos came as woodchoppers in the Coal Mine Ridge area, hired by Peter Faber, a grandson-in-law of Maximo Martinez. They lived in makeshift shanties throughout today’s Blue Oaks subdivision and Portola Valley Ranch. They too were mightily affected by the typhoid and disappeared from our neighborhood when the hills were stripped of trees.

Other groups had small representations.  Two Scots worked as gardeners on estates.  Another was a blacksmith. A second blacksmith was from the Netherlands. A Frenchman, Sanservian, had a vineyard near Bull Run Creek. John Nelson from Sweden was a woodchopper who lived on Alpine Road. Guamanians cut wood and cleared brush for Stanley Morshead. The Marianis, whose ranch became Blue Oaks, were Swiss-Italian.  The Burkhardts who had a large egg farm in the vicinity of today’s Portola Valley Garage were Swiss.

The last major wave of immigrants was the Croatians.  It isn’t clear whether John Lubatich or Walter Jelich Sr. was the first to arrive.

Mary and Walter Jelich, Sr.
Mary and Walter Jelich, Sr.

Both supported their countrymen when they arrived until they were established. Walter Jelich’s home was the center of Croatian activity for years. Second, third and fourth generations of the family live in town to this day. John Duzanica, who came in 1908, was the Morshead foreman for 44 years and served on the school board from 1921 until 1953. His great-niece, Joan Madden, lives on Brookside. Four Skrabo brothers came in 1916, and their descendants too are still around town.

Most of these pioneer families have moved on to other places. Those descendants who remain remind us of the rich multi-ethnic origins of our town.

The Library’s Story

It has been important for people living in Portola Valley to have ready access to books even before the beginning of the modern town.  When residents built the first school in Portola Valley in 1894, they included a small library. Later, in the early years of the twentieth century a little building stood in the circle of redwoods beside the surviving 1909 historic schoolhouse. At first it was a residence for the teacher (called a “teacherage”) because Portola Valley was too remote for any commuting teacher.  It eventually became a library.

It hasn’t been easy to keep a library close by, as Portola Valley has always been somewhat remote and has a small population. For several years a bookmobile served as the local library. When the town was incorporated in 1964, the Town Council set up a Library Study Committee, and the Friends of the Library of Portola Valley was established the next year.  The goal was to bring in a San Mateo County Branch Library. In 1967 a little library opened in an empty storefront in the Village Square. Many residents surely remember it.

Several things happened in the next years. Emma and Carroll Roush gifted the Friends with a piece of property on Nathhorst for a library site. As real estate prices rose, the land significantly increased in value. Along with various fund-raising drives aimed at creating a nest egg for a building, by 1970 $53,000 had accumulated in the Library Building Fund.

In 1975, the Town purchased Portola Valley School, and it became the Town Center and a logical place for a library. The Friends sold the Nathhorst site, more funds were raised, a grant was obtained, and in 1980, a 4000 square foot library with a collection of 20,000 books opened in a wing of the former Portola Valley School. It served the community until 2006.

In 1988 the first computer was installed for use by the public, and the technology has advanced ever since with more available computers and periodic free lessons for patrons. In 1993 the library staff unveiled a CD-Rom computer catalog linking all the county libraries, giving patrons instant access to the entire county’s collection

In the early 1990s, the county reduced funding for libraries and there was concern about a possible decrease in open hours or even closure of small libraries, such as ours. After two years of negotiations, headlines and editorials, the Council agreed to accept a complicated funding formula and to join a newly created Joint Powers Agency involving the county and eleven cities. The financial crisis was over, at least for the time being.

The Town Council has maintained strong support for a local library through all the re-locations and several renovations. The Friends have continued their work through the years as well, donating funds to the county for books for their library as well as other libraries in need of support. They have provided children’s programs, audio-visual equipment, summer reading programs, furniture, landscaping…an endless list of enrichments for the library.

Portola Valley Library, November 2013
Portola Valley Library, November 2013

When a new Town Center became a necessity, there was no question that a library would be included. In 2006, deconstruction of the former Portola Valley School (and the library housed there) began. The school district offered two former kindergarten rooms at Corte Madera School for a temporary library during construction of the new facilities. Once again, thanks to the generosity of residents, the beautiful new Town Center with its state-of-the-art library opened in September 2008. For the first time in the 118-year history of libraries in Portola Valley, patrons can visit a building that was actually planned to be a library.

 

1838 Earthquake

1838 Earthquake

In the years after the Martinez family moved onto their rancho which encompassed all of Portola Valley and more, the land was quiet. Quiet that is, until a June day in 1838 when an earthquake of a magnitude at least similar to that of 1906 struck.  Since so few people were in the area, few details were recorded. However, one man, Charles Brown, who took the name Carlos de Jesus Moreno when he married the daughter of a ranchero, lived in an adobe house near Alambique Creek, a short distance beyond the Martinez boundaries. Forty years later, a reporter for the San Francisco Call interviewed him about his memories of that day. Here is what he remembered.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

          He had been cutting wood.  As he entered his adobe shortly after noon, he was struck a blow on the back of his head by a vat of lard suspended from the ceiling. It was swinging wildly about the room. He felt the house rock and the floor tremble. From the doorway, as far as the eye could see, the earth was rising and falling in solid waves. The redwoods rocked like lakeside reeds. Thousands of them were broken off and hurled through the air for immense distances.

            Francisca Brown was washing clothes in the creek near the house when, without warning, the bed of the stream was uplifted, and its water poured over her. An Hispanic workman threw himself to the ground and prayed to God for deliverance, as he feared the end of the world was at hand.

Adobe houses were cracked from top to bottom with fissures wide enough for a person to walk through. The ground was cracked in all directions and one miles-long crevice, ten to twelve feet wide, opened. Brown said he had experienced many earthquakes in the half century since he arrived in 1829, but this one was by far the worst.

Charles Brown adobe
Charles Brown Adobe

Wondering if the vivid description was the exaggerated tall tale of an old man, in 1947 University of California geologist George D. Louderback decided to study the Brown account.  Comparing his report to many from 1906, he concluded that the details mentioned were not unusual for an earthquake of great magnitude.  He compared it to reports from others who were in California at the time but not in this area.  They seemed consistent. Except for a few discrepancies that didn’t affect the overall reminiscence, Louderback concluded that the Brown account must be accurate.  A huge earthquake rocked the Portola Valley area in 1838.

The Charles Brown adobe survived not only that earthquake but also the ones in 1868, 1906 and 1989. Although modified many times over the years, it stands today.

 

Willowbrook Farm

Willowbrook Farm

Gatehouse_Lauriston3JPG

Willowbrook “Gate House”
The Old Stone House on Portola Road

Traveling along Portola Road takes one past some of Portola Valley’s most highly valued historic sites. One  structure there  has recently received some attention because it has been somewhat remodeled and put up for sale. It is one of the most intriguing buildings in town–the quaint stone houses at 451 Portola that look like  castles from a Grimm Brothers story.  Was that window in the tower the one where Rapunzel stood and hung down her hair for the prince?   Was it the castle where Cinderella, dressed in her finery, went to the ball? Or maybe it was the house to which the evil witch enticed Hansel and Gretel. Although the property’s story is less romantic than a fairy tale, nonetheless, it’s interesting.

This charming ivy-covered house is often called the Willowbrook Gate House, or just the gate house.  Actually it was built around 1915 as a home for the superintendent of Willowbrook Farm, a man named Henry Schoellhamer, nicknamed “Shell.” The smaller structure was his office. They sit at one entrance to the old Willowbrook Farm,. 61 acres purchased in 1912 by Herbert E. Law. It stretched approximately between Portola and Willowbrook roads as far as Alpine Road.

Herbert Law and his brother Hartland were publishers, chemists, patent medicine purveyors and land developers. They owned the unfinished Fairmont Hotel when it burned in 1906.  Afterward, they hired Julia Morgan to direct the reconstruction. They were instrumental in bringing the Panama Pacific Exposition to San Francisco in 1915.  In 1926, Herbert incorporated as the Lauriston Investment Company and was the main stockholder in the group that built the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Law purchased Willowbrook Farm from Laura Martinez Faber, granddaughter of Maximo Martinez, the original ranchero who owned the 13,000 acre Rancho el Corte de Madera. They needed a place to grow the rare herbs and plants needed for their patent medicine VIAVI, an enormously successfully product designed to cure a variety of women’s complaints. The VIAVI system included red Moroccan leather manuals and books and 10,000 active saleswomen (mostly) teaching and selling the system door to door in more than 20 countries.

Law immediately built a cow barn, stables, a bunkhouse, chicken houses, and he renovated existing gardens and orchards. In 1915 he added a white stucco villa with roof garden and tower on a knoll above the south entrance to his farm off Alpine Road.  It had a loggia, red brick terraces and formal gardens with a large marble fountain, an artificial stream and waterfalls.

Herbert Law's first mansion
Law’s first mansion on lower Alpine RoadLaw vista with lathsLaw’s terraces and herb farm

At one point lathhouses for the exotic plants covered 40 acres. This farming operation required enormous quantities of water. Since Corte Madera Creek was insufficient despite providing as much as 60,000 gallons per day, Law purchased land along Spring Ridge (the long bare ridge leading to Windy Hill) and piped water as far as 3 1/2 miles to his fields.

Ultimately he controlled almost 400 acres and almost all the water rights in the area.

Schoellhamer, the man who occupied the stone house, oversaw all the construction and farming. He ranged over the entire property in his khaki shirt, tie, jodhpurs, puttees, and boots. He would meet Law at the train station in Palo Alto, and they would ride their horses back to Willowbrook Farm, accompanied by two Great Danes.

Unfortunately, a blight continually affected the plants, it was hard to get skilled workers to tend them, the market for the plants weakened, and in 1920, Law traded Willowbrook Farm for the Ritz Carlton Apartments in San Francisco.

He sent Schoellhamer to the property along Spring Ridge which he had bought to supply Willowbrook and built there the enormous house called Villa Lauriston, another superintendent’s house and an “agricultural complex.”  But that’s a story for another day.

Law sold Willowbrook to William Fitzhugh of the neighboring Catoctin Estate, today’s Stonegate/Grove Drive area, in 1921.The stone house was empty for a long time and a subject for vandalism. In 1941 the Catoctin people sold to a Mr. Cox, who in turn sold to Alexander and Madeleine  Isenberg in 1953 for $29,000.  After  Madeleine Isenberg passed away, John Zicker owned the stone house for a decade. A couple of years ago, he sold to the developer who has it on the market.The next chapter of the house’s story is yet to emerge.

Although portions of the terraces exist today on private property, “Shell’s” house and office are the only remaining structures from Willowbrook Farm.  The mansion was razed in 1945.The barn/dormitory at 211 Willowbrook, which had long ago been converted into a home, was demolished several  years ago.

To learn more about the stone houses, Willowbrook Farm and Lauriston, one might read  Lauriston:  An Architectural Biography of Herbert Edward Law  by Sewall ‘Skip” Bogart, available in the Portola Valley library and the Town Heritage Center.