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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1962, when the Santa Maria neighborhood was a place of summer cabins, Rowland Tabor bought a 1920s era house from the valet of a wealthy person. It was a good half-acre site, but ever since the purchase, he’s been working on improvements. Meanwhile, the two Tabor boys played in the meadow above Woodside Highlands. Rowland served on the committee that led to Portola Valley’s incorporation in 1964. In the 1970s, he was one of the geologists who pointed out the danger of the San Andreas Fault and who started the movement that resulted in the sale of Portola Valley School, sitting astride the fault, to the Town.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Nancy Lund, Portola Valley Town Historian, Educator and Author, and I embarked on a project several years ago to learn more about the roots of the Town of Portola Valley, California.
Nancy brought her knowledge of the Town’s history and interview skills and I, my technical and creative talents. Together we forged an alliance and captured video histories of many of Portola Valley’s earliest residents.
Our initial work was to find out about the people who helped incorporate the Town of Portola Valley, California in 1964. We wanted to learn what the forces were that helped to create the Town and the challenges our early residents faced.
Here we hope to share with you some of what we have learned. You can reach Nancy Lund at email@example.com