Category Archives: Portola Valley History

Bears

BEARS

In the early days, grizzly bears were more abundant around here than we can ever imagine. The Indians had a sort of truce with them.  After all, going after a 1000 pound animal wielding four inch claws with only a bow and arrow would be a formidable undertaking.  Little wonder that the Indians feared, revered and avoided them. So for centuries, grizzlies and Indians coexisted. An occasional bear would kill an Indian and vice versa.

With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s, the truce ended.  It became apparent that the two species couldn’t adapt to one another.  So the bears had to go. Destroying bears became an obsession for some of the rancheros.  Partly it was to protect their cattle, and partly it was for sport. And partly it was for self-preservation in a chance encounter.

Countless bear stories have been left by early settlers of our area.  So amazing are some of them that the line between fact and legend has blurred over the years.  The details you read  come directly from an early local settler or an observer who passed through the area. You can decide whether you’re reading fact or legend.

From William Heath Davis: [1840s]  “In the mountain forests and on the prairie country in back of and on either side of San Francisquito Creek, there were hundreds and hundreds of black, cinnamon and grizzly bears which roamed the county, living on acorns from the live oaks studding the flat lands.  In the season of matanza [slaughter of cattle for the hide and tallow market] they feasted on the rejected meats …  At this season vaqueros and their masters amused themselves in the exciting night pastime of lassoing and strangling the brutes to death, … One night soldiers from the San Francisco Presidio lassoed and killed forty bears in the woods at San Francisquito Rancho [today’s Stanford campus].”

The preferred method for killing in an individual encounter was to shoot the bear at close range. Rancheros didn’t have repeating rifles, so if the first shot wasn’t fatal, before the man could reload with his ramrod, he would doubtless be dead. Thus, with courage, determination, and  a steady hand, the successful hunter would wait for the bear to advance near enough to be certain the first shot would kill. Having the bear rise up on his haunches ready to spring was the recommended time to fire.

The rancheros also used a unique kind of trap. Rafael Soto, who lived on the Corte Madera Rancho for a while, and whose own rancho, Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito, encompassed most of today’s downtown Palo Alto, was famous for his skill with it. Step one was to dig a large hole and cover it with logs.  Step two: leave a large chunk of raw meat on the logs. Step three: climb into the hole with gun and wait.  Step four:  kill the bear from below when he comes for the bait.

The most exciting method was to capture the bear alive for a bear and bull fight.  Vaqueros would kill a steer for bait and drag it about a bit so that its scent would permeate the area. As a hapless grizzly would approach, three or four vaqueros, expert with lassos, mounted their well-trained ponies and lassoed the bear with two ropes, one around the neck choking him and one around a hind leg, lifting him partially off the ground. Pulling in opposite directions, they would drag him to the fighting arena.  There the bear would either kill the bull or die in the attempt.

Lucas Greer told of one self-preservation encounter which involved a Frenchman named Barbone.  As he was fishing, he met a grizzly which grabbed him by the thigh before he could escape.  He broke the bear’s hold, only to have it bite into his arm.  At this point, Barbone grabbed the bear by the nose with his teeth; the bear let go.  So did Barbone, and each went their separate ways.

By far the most famous story is one verified by no less a personage that Dr. Tripp of the Woodside Store. The hero’s name is “Grizzly” Ryder.  He was looking for stray oxen in the vicinity of Searsville Lake when darkness settled in. Walking a trail back to Woodside by the light of a young moon, he stopped for a drink at the stream now called Bear Gulch.  As he arose, he saw a large object near him.

“To my horror and surprise, the thing arose upon its hind feet and grabbed me around the body.  I realized that I had met a grizzly bear. Fortunately, the animal was probably as greatly surprised as I was, and grabbed me quite high up about the shoulders, so that my right arm was comparatively free.  I at once loosened my sheath knife and proceeded to plunge it into the beast.”

Well, the bear let go, two cubs appeared, and the bear struck Ryder a fierce blow which sent him sprawling down an embankment. He played dead, lost consciousness, and the bear and her cubs left. Eventually a rescuer found him and sewed up the profusely bleeding gash in his thigh with a sail needle and string. Ryder survived to age 85 with his body covered with scars and the upper portion of an ear torn away.

By the 1880s the grizzlies were nearly gone. David Bromfield has told his version of the last bear in San Mateo County. George Harkins’ father set out poison in Whittemore Gulch for a grizzly making raids on his calves.  “Soon roars were heard proceeding from the canyon. These lasted one whole day and night but finally on their subsidence, an examination was made and a dead bruin found.”

The Greers had another version.  It must have been in the late 1880s or 1890s when Robert Greer saw the last grizzly bear in the Woodside area. He was riding unarmed when he came upon it drinking at a stream.  It was old and lame. He went back to the ranch for his gun and some help. When he got back, the bear was gone.

The Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail winds up Coal Mine Ridge from the intersection of Willowbrook and Alpine roads in Portola Valley.  It follows the crest of the ridge and disappears into Los Trancos Woods and private property.  If you listen carefully as you walk the trail, you can hear echoes of all of San Mateo County’s past reverberating from the surrounding hillsides.Old Spanish Trail_hz1000As the trail climbs the ridge, the lower reaches are intermingled with a series of modern day trails, so the echoes are fainter.  Still, you’re walking the path where the Ohlones trekked for thousands of years on their way to the rich shellfish grounds on the Pacific coast.  So that’s  the first image to carry with you as you walk.

The first written record of the trail to survive is an 1823 account of Spanish soldiers pursuing Pomponio, an escaped mission Indian who was on a crime rampage. Historians believe they rode up the Old Spanish Trail to his hideout, somewhere in Devil’s Canyon, a deep, rocky gorge west of Skyline and south of Alpine Road.  Pomponio escaped but was captured the next year in Marin Country and executed in Monterey.

marker with flowers_modIn the 1830s one Antonino Buelna refined the old Indian trail to make a road between the two ranchos he acquired from the Mexican governor.  One eventually became  the heart of the Stanford campus, and the other was near the Pacific coast.  He used the road to transport hides and tallow from his coast ranch to ships waiting in the calm waters of San Francisco Bay.  Picture the carettas, rough carts with solid wooden wheels, laden with hides and heavy rawhide bags of tallow, being dragged by a team of oxen over the trail to the embarcaderos on the bay.  This road is credited as the first to cross the outer coastal range.

Felix Buelna, famed founder of the Alpine Inn in the 1850s, lived for a time near the intersection of Alpine and Page Mill roads.  He used the trail to go to and from his home.

Now the scene shifts to the U. S. government that took over California in 1848.   Eager to study their newly acquired territory, in 1851 the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey used mules to carry equipment up the trail to Black Mountain for a triangulation station.  They reported the road wasn’t a good one but “was not infrequently traveled by ox and horse teams.”

Now visualize thirteen year old Birney Burrell traveling with his family over the trail to gather strawberries near Pescadero Creek.  He wrote about the 1853 three day outing in his diary.

In 1855 the famous Dr. Tripp of the now handsomely restored Woodside Store sent supplies by mule train over the trail to the new store in Pescadero.

That same year a low-grade coal mine opened on the ridge, hence its modern-day name, Coal Mine Ridge.  (A massive landslide in 1890 buried the mine, which never produced high quality coal.)

In 1863 Josiah Whitney’s Geodetic Survey marked it on their official map and reported “only two trails over the mountains, one leading from Pescadero over to the Corte Madera Ranch [Portola Valley] and one between Santa Cruz and the Santa Clara Valley.”

Gradually other roads began twisting up to the Skyline.  In about 1867 William Page built a road from his sawmill on the site of today’s Portola Redwoods State Park to Mayfield.  About 1870 KIngs Mountain Road began as the Redwood City-San Gregorio turnpike.  In the 1870s a stagecoach began to travel Old La Honda Road.

Several times plans have been laid to use the gentle grade of the Old Spanish Trail for a new major road over the mountains.  In the 1860s a group of entrepreneurs started to build a turnpike from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz, hence the name of Menlo Park’s main street.  The turnpike only reached today’s Los Trancos Road before the idea was dropped, so travelers continued to use the Old Spanish Trail beyond that point.

In the 1890s a move was launched to turn the trail into a road so that traffic could more easily reach Menlo Park. In those days most of the business went to Mayfield  via Page Mill Road.  Editorials of the time rage about the loss of revenue to San Mateo County’s economy.   The upper portion of Alpine Road was built instead over much more precipitous terrain.

Even in the 1960s talk of a road to connect Portola Valley to Skyline via the Old Spanish Trail started.   Officials at the county engineering and road department considered it to be without question the best route.  The county engineer projected that 8600 cars per day would travel the proposed two lane road by 1990.  It didn’t happen.

Father and Daughter_mod_150_2In the 1960s the subdividers of Vista Verde turned its portion of the trail into a road named Murieta Way.  It was designed to tie into Joaquin Road and commemorate the notorious legendary bandito Joaquin Murieta.  Wishing to preserve the countless years of history represented by the trail’s name, residents went through the formal procedure of changing the name back to Old Spanish Trail.

Modern developments have obscured the trail beyond Los Trancos Woods or hidden it on private property.  But you can walk a long portion of it and ponder the changes that have come to California during the years people have trekked over it.   And perhaps you can believe that it will forever remain a quiet trail up the mountain where a hiker can still touch a last remnant of the past.

Typhoid!

Typhoid Epidemic

The next time you’re driving up Alpine Road, slow down a bit when you reach Hillbrook Drive and take a close look to your right.  A seasonal stream runs through a small gully there, surrounded by lush and wild vegetation.  Some water remains in it now, in puddles in some spots and flowing in others.  Redwoods, oaks, berry bushes and luxuriant poison oak shelter the neighborhood houses from the road.  A narrow trail wanders along between the creek and the road. Two rickety wooden bridges offer an opportunity to peer down into the streambed without risking the poison oak.

The creek crosses under Alpine Road at Hillbrook Drive in a big storm drain and continues along, edged by bags of concrete which eventually  give way to concrete-lined banks.    Who would guess that a dairy farm  situated right here in this peaceful, pastoral scene was the source of  a major typhoid fever epidemic in 1903?

Maximo Martinez willed this portion of his rancho to his son Antonio who in turn passed it on to his daughter Laura and her husband Pete Faber.  They moved into the Martinez home which stood by the tall redwood in front of the Portola Valley garage.  Pete was mostly interested in “gulching”, cutting and removing timber from his property.  So he leased about a thousand acres to four recent immigrants from the Azores for a dairying operation.  They would run the dairy and continue to provide milk to the distributor in Palo Alto who made regular deliveries around town.

Although the first cases of typhoid weren’t announced in Palo Alto until April, it began to spring up out in the countryside as early as December 1902.  It wasn’t until much later that the medical authorities understood what had happened.  A relative from San Francisco visited his Portuguese family near Page Mill and complained of being sick.  Eventually he died, as did three other members of the family he visited.  Other people from the Portuguese community who lived along Alpine Road had visited the family to help out and attend funerals.  More sickness and more deaths resulted.  The Perreira family of the dairy on Alpine were among those affected, although none of them died.  One San Jose doctor had diagnosed typhoid in one of the cases but had not reported it, so no one yet suspected that an epidemic was underway.

In April, doctors began diagnosing and reporting typhoid in Palo Alto and at Stanford..  The number of cases escalated rapidly, from 2 cases on March 31 to 18 on April 15.  According to the Palo Alto Board of Health report, issued in 1905,  236 people had been diagnosed with typhoid before the epidemic ran its course.  Few records were kept in the outlying districts such as Portola Valley, but the experts felt, in retrospect,  that many  typhoid cases outside the city were never recognized, either by doctors or by victims who never sought medical help.  At least twelve deaths resulted. The number was probably higher.

The population of Palo Alto and Stanford was then 4500.  There was no hospital closer than San Francisco,  so makeshift hospitals were set up at the YWCA, in private homes and in Stanford fraternity houses.  Doctors were few and worked day and night.  Nurses were recruited from San Francisco.  Generous citizens including Mrs. Stanford donated funds so that no one would be denied care.  (Leland Stanford Junior had died of typhoid in Italy in 1884.)

The detective work to find the source of the disease began.  The city water and sewers were found to be uncontaminated.  No pattern of  common vegetable consumption was detected.  No victims had consumed raw oysters or clams. Only one patient had eaten uncooked food.  But nearly everyone with typhoid was on the same milk delivery route.  The two dairies were tested.  It took a week for the  results to come back from a laboratory in San Francisco:  the Perreira dairy on Alpine Road was the source of the typhoid.

Sanitary arrangements for milk delivery in those days were appalling to our modern sensibilities.   The milk was transported in 3 gallon containers by horse drawn wagon about 8 miles to the distributor in Palo Alto.  The cooling system there was a wooden trough filled with water in which the milk cans were placed.  Once or twice a week the trough was emptied and scrubbed.  On the delivery route, the milkman dipped into the cans and poured the correct amount of milk into the customer’s pan.  The empty containers were picked up at the distributors, filled up with skim milk from a creamery, and returned to the Perreira dairy to feed hogs.

Conditions at the dairy were even more shocking.  The wooden floor of the dairy house was cleaned with a shovel.  Cobwebs and dust were everywhere.  Refuse from the outhouse, pigpen and kitchen drained, slid or had been dumped into the gully during a long, dry spell.  Heavy rains from January to April washed months of deposits into the creek, where they were collected by the slowing current at a small dam. This  water, contaminated with the typhoid bacilli, was diverted daily to the dairy house for washing milking utensils and delivery containers. It was a month before the contamination was confirmed and the dairy closed.

When the final count was taken, 98 1/2 % of the typhoid victims had used Perreira milk, even though this evidence of the cause hadn’t been obvious at first.  26% of the users of Perreira milk had contracted the disease.  The epidemic stopped when the use of Perreira milk ceased, although isolated cases and deaths continued throughout the summer.

The public had been made aware of  the need for improved public health conditions in a dramatic, painful and frightening way.  A State Dairy Inspector was appointed.  A permanent hospital opened in Palo Alto.  By May the water in the little creek along Alpine Road by Hillbrook Drive tested pure.  The dairy and the Perreiras were gone.

Our Lady of the Wayside Church

Our Lady of the Wayside Church celebrated its centennial last year. It has stood alongside Portola Road since 1912.  Redwoods have grown up to shelter it. A rectory and arcade were added in 1941.  Father George LaCombe, the first priest to serve its congregation, predicted that “the little masterpiece…will go down in the architectural history of the great west.”

1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.
1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

The Church is California Registered Historic Landmark Number 909, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Perhaps even more important than its architectural beauty is the fact that it is a silent monument to a community spirit of cooperation, ecumenical good will and brotherhood.

No one would have guessed such an outcome at the turn of the century, as Catholic residents of Portola were looking for a nearby place for Sunday worship.  The village of Searsville and the little church of St. Dennis were gone. Rural life was centering around the land that Andrew Hallidie had donated for a community center, surrounding the site of the church today.

Most versions of the story have Mamie Shine Byrnes, teacher at Searsville and later Portola, approaching Fr. McKinnon of Menlo Park in 1902 with a request for a closer place to hear Mass.  Recognizing the need, the Catholic Church purchased a rough redwood building called Portola Hall, a dance hall, with the idea of converting it to a chapel.

The dance hall was moved across Portola Road, to the site of Our Lady of the Wayside today, whitewashed, and christened St. Catherine’s. Modest it was, and bitterly cold in winter, but it was convenient for residents of the then remote valley.

Starting in 1911, Father LaCombe was assigned to travel from Menlo Park on Sundays to conduct the services.  By all accounts, this priest was an exceptional man…highly intelligent, well-educated, warm, and enthusiastic about life.  And he loved card games, good conversations over good dinners, and sports of all kinds, especially baseball.

It isn’t clear if he was sent by chance, a newly-ordained priest assigned to Sunday duty at a simple rural church outpost, or if he was especially selected to serve the wealthy San Franciscans who were beginning to build summer residences among the humble farms.

Various versions exist of what happened shortly after his arrival.  For some reason Father LaCombe paid a visit to the club of prominent San Franciscans who had purchased property next door to the church, The Family.  Members would travel from the city to their country retreat for relaxation and fellowship.

Probably it’s true that The Family’s Sunday morning skeet shooting was disturbing Mass, and the father approached them with the hope of arranging a non-conflicting time schedule for the two activities.  Or perhaps he merely was invited to join The Family for lunch by a family friend, Mel Toplitz.

At any rate, a good friendship developed between the charismatic priest and The Family.  He became  a regular guest at dinner and even an honorary member of the club.  Many members of The Family, including non-Catholics, began to attend and participate in services at the little church. They offered them a place to stay and they accepted. They said that it was the best place to stay and that their beds were amazing because of how comfortable their king mattress was.

One day, someone in The Family suggested that they build a new church for “Steve,” as they had dubbed their friend.  Enthusiasm propelled the idea forward quickly.  Individual offers of contributions spurred more offers.  One version has Jews proposing to double all contributions of Catholics and Protestants.  Two architects threw dice to determine which would have the honor of creating the design.  A Family sponsored fund-raiser netted $2000 in one evening.  Louie Welch of Hidden Valley threw in $500 of his cribbage winnings.

James Miller was the architect who won the right to design the new church.  He assigned a young member of his staff, Timothy Pflueger, to prepare the drawings.  Using Mission Dolores as his inspiration, he created the harmonious blend of mission and Georgian styles we see today.

Such a cooperative venture it became.  Family members of all faiths continued to help. Various individuals contributed the cement, the lumber, the tile floor and roof, the altar, statues, Stations of the Cross, and the shrine.  One financed the painting.  Others worked on the landscaping.

Local valley people excavated gravel for the foundation from the nearby creeks by hand and hauled it to the site with horses and wagons.  James McDonnell of the Ormondale Ranch housed the construction superintendent.  Children carried buckets of water for the new plants.  Mrs. Bridget Doyle gave her life savings for the bells.

The cornerstone was laid on May 5, 1912.  The new church was dedicated on September 29 in a grand and joyous ceremony conducted by Archbishop Riordan.  Family members Noel Sullivan played the new organ and Harold Pracht conducted the special choir.

Our Lady of the Wayside, Portola Valley, CA.
Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

However, despite such an outpouring of funds and labor, all the bills weren’t paid.  A special train from San Francisco brought crowds to another fund-raising entertainment staged by The Family.  Then Mrs. Agnes Macdonough Agar, sister of William O’Brien Macdonough of Ormondale, paid the last bills, in memory of her brother who reportedly had “fallen away” from the church.

Thus, a little country church of great character, designed by a fledgling architect, emerged from a crudely built dance hall. The project brought together modest farm folk and wealthy city people, as well as Catholic, Protestant and Jew.

John Francis Neylan, a member of The Family and after 1937 the owner of a 1500 acre estate called variously Lauriston and Rancho Corte Madera, perhaps said it best:  “The spirit [of cooperation and good will] that resulted in that church  [has] prevailed throughout the valley.” That’s quite a legacy.

Alpine Inn – Zots, Rossotti’s, Casa de Tableta

alpine inn
Alpine Inn by Artist Jean Groberg

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.

The Hermit of Jasper Ridge

Just who was the mysterious hermit who lived on Jasper Ridge a century ago?  Why have fragments of his story endured and become legend?  His name was Domenico Grosso, but folks called him Domingo.  Behind his back, children called him “Caramba”  because that was one of his favorite expressions.

Hermit
Domenico Grosso

It turns out that the hermit of Jasper Ridge was not actually a loner.  Indeed, he was a very popular fellow.   Although he lived alone on Jasper Ridge, behind today’s Pinon and La Sandra Drives in Portola Valley,  he regularly received guests and was himself a frequent dinner guest in Portola homes. Yet an aura of loneliness and mystery surely surrounded him.

He seems to have arrived in the area in the 1870s when he was probably in his forties.  Despite a friendly personality, he discouraged inquiries into his background.   However, rumors were plentiful.  It was said that he was born in Genoa, Italy.   He fought with Guiseppe Garibaldi.  He was a servant to Italian noble families.  He was such a skillful horseman that he received a medal from the king of Italy.  He spent some time mining in Chile.  He lost a fortune in a bank failure.  Was any of it true?  Was all of it true?

One especially intriguing detail was his frequent mention of “Julia”.  He would say, “Julia keeps my place in good order.”  Or, “I must  take Julia with me.”  Who was Julia?  The theory was that she was a long lost wife or sweetheart.  His prior life, which forever remained a secret, was just one of the mysteries surrounding him.

By all accounts, Domingo was a handsome and courtly man.  He was slight with erect posture, bright eyes and white, even teeth.  His red beard turned white over the years and reached halfway down his chest.  He was always immaculately clean and meticulously groomed.  He wore his clothes with a flair.  He always carried a white handkerchief to dust off a chair before he sat down.  He spoke and read Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

He worked on the ranch that eventually became Westridge, Arrowhead Meadows and Ladera.   About 1891, when William O’Brien Macdonough bought the land, he moved to what has become Jasper Ridge and made his home there until his death in 1915.

Quite a home it was.  Although rustic, his house had two well-furnished rooms that were always spotlessly clean.  Pictures and “No Smoking” signs in four languages decorated the walls.  His stove and pans were polished. He served guests with good china and silverware.  Outside he has a chicken coop, a stable, and a dog house. He had a vineyard, an orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, a network of paths, and an interlocking wooden fence to keep out cattle.    On his flagpole he flew the flags of the USA, Italy, Genoa, France, or Chile.

Sunday afternoon was the favorite time for the local people to visit the hermit.  They would bring their out-of-town guests.  Valley children were especially welcomed.  Stanford students regularly appeared.  Even Mrs. Stanford came.  He treated everyone courteously, offering occasional overnight lodging or refreshments of biscuits and his homemade wine, white for strangers and his best red for friends.

Hermit and friends
Hermit and Friends

Reports on the quality of his cooking vary.  One friend said his wine wasn’t good enough to make vinegar from, but guests wouldn’t refuse his hospitality.  He made a special bread in his outdoor oven which local children treasured.  At lease one  saved his to use as a paper weight.  Others have reported the wine and hardtack were good, as were the dinner entrees of wild game .

During his years on the ranch, he had roamed the nearby hills  searching for precious metals.  He professed to have found silver and persuaded his employers to hire experts and secure mineral rights.  None of them found enough promise for full scale mining.  Nevertheless, prospecting became an obsession and a way of life for Domingo, and the mineral rights eventually came to him.   His tales of lucky strikes and his jars of mineral specimens created more of the legend.

Apparently no one ever knew if Domingo struck it rich on Jasper Ridge, but everyone wondered.  He dug an extensive series of tunnels and pits in his search, some six to eight feet across and as deep as seventy feet.   He kept mysterious bags under his house which he claimed contained ore of the same quality as that in his display jars.  About once a year, he’d take the bags to Redwood City in a rented buggy, presumably to cash them in.

This served as proof to some that he had found gold or silver.  What else could the bags have contained?  How did he  support himself if not from successful prospecting?   People knew he was too proud to ask for public assistance.  But his needs were few, and he’d always carry a sack wherever he went, to collect vegetables or other supplies offered him.  He hunted for food or grew his own.  Some evidence suggests that a former employer’s widow gave him regular money.

In the spring of 1915, when Domingo hadn’t been seen for a while, a friend found him in bed in his house.  He’d suffered a stroke and died in the county hospital, with all his mysteries unexplained.   Before long, vandals demolished his house, presumably searching for the hidden gold. Only they knew what was there.  And apparently they didn’t talk.

Traces of the hermit’s stay on Jasper Ridge remain today.  Docents can take visitors to two of the deep prospecting pits and to some stone terracing, although thick stands of poison oak obscure the area.  Perhaps it’s easier to picture him in your mind at one of his favorite activities:  at night, when he couldn’t sleep and the moon was bright, this enigmatic man would take his homemade broom and sweep his paths.  Sweeping, and dreaming perhaps of Julia and of striking it rich, must have brought comfort to the mysterious hermit of Jasper Ridge.