Realizing that the post-war boom roaring through the small towns of the United States was beginning to reach the valley, a group of seventy-five residents met at the Portola Valley School on January 13, 1955 to discuss how to “protect the rural character of the area, to defend it against intensive development, the population boom and urbanization.” They created an organization they called the Portola Valley Association. It was the first of many, many meetings committees and studies before Portola Valley became an incorporated town in 1964, thereby allowing residents to make their own land-use decisions.
In 1955, few Americans worried about over-use of land, or about pollution, or environmentalism. Bigger was considered better. Earth Day demonstrations would not be held for another fifteen years, the Environmental Protection Agency would not come into being until 1970 and global warming was unknown, never mind a household word. Yet these citizens of the village of Portola Valley wanted to grapple with environmental and other and land use issues before irreparable damage was done.
By 1957, a committee composed of Horton Whipple, Bob Brown, and Albert Boissevain had prepared a 25-page report detailing problems based on increasing pressure from subdividers and commercial interests.
Their report used the approximate borders of the school district. Their entire report was mailed to all residents. Most read it, and many attended long meetings about growth and possible solutions. Democracy was alive and well.
A postcard poll followed. Results: 400 cards returned; 201 against incorporation, 50 for it, and 149 wanting to postpone incorporation. The Association dropped plans for incorporation and focused on developing a master plan for the area and studying the possibility of annexation to Woodside.
Then John Francis Neylan, owner of 1500 acres above Portola Road, sold property along the road to the Northern California Presbyterian Homes. They planned a retirement home on the site.
Although the plans were relatively modest, one feature alarmed residents: the introduction of sewers to the valley. Until that time, the sole use of septic tanks, which required large leach fields, provided a natural brake on growth. A sewer line, however, could make possible close, multiple hook-ups and small lots, even apartments. Canvassing by the Association showed widespread opposition to the complex, but the County of San Mateo approved the project, named by then the Sequoias, anyway. Here was significant proof that local control was the only way to preserve their valley. How best to accomplish this was the dilemma.
The Portola Valley Association proclaimed itself neutral with regard to what decisions should be made to achieve that goal; members considered it an information gathering body and a clearing house for discussions. The Association hired Griffenhagen-Kroeger, a highly respected consulting firm specializing in local governments, to study such issues as a description and costs of existing government service, the operating budget the proposed city would require, non-property tax revenues available, and fiscal consequences of annexation. They presented their report in April. More discussions. Democracy is time-consuming.
Meanwhile, a number of people within the Association continued to believe that incorporation was the only way to assure reasonable development in the valley. The Committee for the Incorporation had been formed in January and planned to go through the required procedures to bring a vote. The first step was to file a Notice to Circulate a Petition for Incorporation with the county along with a map of the proposed new town. The petition had to have signatures from at least 25% of the population within the boundaries, who represented at least 25% of the assessed valuation of that area. That notice was filed with the county on February 1, 1960.
On March 4, 1960, John Francis Neylan (yes, the man who had sold land for the Sequoias) sent the first of many mass letters to the “Residents and Tax Payers of Portola Valley” announcing his intention to procure signatures of the owners of 51% of the land’s assessed valuation. Presenting such a petition to the Board of Supervisors would be sufficient to halt incorporation. His goal: “to stop the headlong rush into unknown taxes and turmoil.”
John Francis Neylan was a formidable foe to the Committee for Incorporation. He was the lawyer for William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the old San Francisco Call, State Controller, and twenty-eight-year member of the University of California Board of Regents.
Alexander Bodie, editor of the Palo Alto Times knew him well. He wrote: “He was a biased, opinionated and often an irritating man – I think he would have taken that as a compliment.” Neylan spoke of himself thusly: “Some people love me, some people hate me; no one within the sound of my voice is indifferent.”
The battle was engaged.
The Committee began circulating its petition to incorporate on April12. They needed 443 signatures based on 1772 property owners, and representation of $700,408 of $ 2,801,635 of assessed valuation.
Neylan fired off a series of letters, including response postcards. He first garnered support of the large landowners; others followed. His frequent letters to the community, using words such as “sly and slick maneuvers, a dearth of intelligent arguments”, and “misrepresentations and fraudulent statements,” about the Committee to Incorporate were enormously effective.
On June 1, the Petition to Incorporate was filed with 548 names, 30.9% of residents who represented $717,104.50, 25.595 % of the assessed valuation of the proposed town. It was enough! A hearing was set by the Board of Supervisors for September 15, at which time it was presumed that they would set a date for an incorporation election.
Meanwhile, Neylan had filed petitions of protest from 680 residents representing $1,305,815 of assessed valuation; it was $200,000 short of the required 51%. Since another 212 more protests had been filed at the last minute, the hearing was postponed so that the names could be verified.
In the end, on October 6, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution declaring that 55.2% of owners of more than 51% of the assessed valuation had protested. The incorporation attempt had failed.
Elsa Roscoe and her then-husband Ray Spafford found Portola Valley on a sightseeing jaunt in the days when the Alpine Hills sub-division was just being laid out. They fell in love with the place with its few houses tucked in among the trees; they felt they’d fit in well with the outdoorsy people.
Developer Don Holden carved out an extra “problem lot” for them on Holden Court. It had an irregular shape and was overgrown with vegetation; they considered the lot a challenge, but it had a better price than the others and had a forest in back and a fine view. People said: why would you move way out there? No street lights, no sidewalks, no sewers, and no private phone lines. In fact, for years the Spaffords shared a party line with their neighbors the Linvills. That arrangement worked so well that the two families continued it for many, many years, until the phone company said they had to have private lines.
She was an ardent naturalist and loved animals, especially her cats, Reilly and ENC. Elsa modeled for Eastman Kodak and at charity events in an earlier time. She outlived three husbands, traveled the world, sometimes on freighters, went on digs every summer with Earthwatch, volunteered at the USGS and practiced yoga every day from her 60s onward.
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…
Karen Wu is the daughter of Al Bertschinger, the longtime owner of Al’s Nursery on Portola Road. The business, started in 1959, was the way of life for the family from the beginning. At first they lived in the little building that became the office, then in 1960 in a house they built on the site. Both Karen and her sister worked alongside their parents, beginning by pulling weeds. “Work first, then play,” was the motto. (Play was sometimes in the dirt of sparsely traveled Portola Road.)
Karen and John Wu
Karen met John, who has a background in biology and zoology, at the nursery. He had had various careers, e. g. college administration, before he began chatting with Al one day when he was biking the loop. He and Karen eventually married, and became increasingly active in the business as Al aged. Karen and John took over the business in 1996. Until his last days, Al missed the work and always asked, “Who came in today?”
In 2011, the Wus sold the nursery and retired to Florida to join their two children who work for Disney. Volunteering and/or working only eight-hour days was something to look forward to.
Bob and Sue Katz bought their lot on Mapache in 1958, even though they were living in the East at the time. Four years later they moved into their new home. It was two years before incorporation, and Bob became interested in the discussions within the community. Seeing the benefits of decisions being made by local people instead of by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission, Bob led the campaign for local control. He still remembers a great celebratory party on June 24, 1964 when residents voted “yes” to incorporation.
He became the first chairman (and last survivor) of the first Portola Valley Planning Commission. He says that the town’s spirit of volunteerism began in those very early years of the town’s history.
He remembers those early years as wonderful. Twenty or thirty families all had children about the same ages, and everyone played together and walked to school together. The creek that runs behind and below the Katz house (and several others,) was a favorite spot. One day as one of the Katz sons came home after playing for hours down there, he said, “Every boy should have his own creek!”
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
At first Macdonough was horrified at the thought of 400 houses rising on those 260 acres.
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!
The 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.
The 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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lorraine and Noble Hancock were out looking for property in 1956 and were lost somewhere on Arastradero when someone suggested that they look into a new subdivision in the area. It seemed pretty far out, and they thought they didn’t like subdivisions, but they loved the Westridge property the found. They bought their 2 ½ acres on Mapache in 1957 for $16,000 when the only house was on the corner at Westridge.
The road stopped at the far edge of their property. When the rest of the streets went in shortly thereafter, prices doubled. It was neighborhood of stay-at-home moms, big families, and fourteen kids of the same ages who played together in traffic-free streets and walked or rode their bikes to school. 4H was a big activity for most of them. It was also where Tennessee Ernie Ford bought three adjoining lots and became an ordinary neighbor.
Finding property for a vineyard was important to Ed and Alison Wells when their found their Westridge property in 1963. They ordered their grape vines from UC Davis immediately: 175 vines on one-quarter acre, half chardonnay and half cabernet sauvignon. There were semi-annual wine parties, a local vintner group PHEW (Peninsula Home Enology Workshop) and tractor derbies.
Their six children were a part of a neighborhood full of kids. Although they weren’t involved in the efforts for (or against) incorporation, Ed became the volunteer Town Treasurer in the newly-incorporated town, a post he served for thirteen years. The Wells note big demographic changes from those early days: fewer horses, smaller families, bigger houses, mature landscaping, more working women…less of a neighborhood feel. Yet, they enjoy hearing and watching some dozen children running around the neighborhood having fun.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California