November, 1963: Despite failed attempts at both incorporation and annexation to Woodside, the drive for local control over local issues continued. Officers of the Portola Valley Association were spending countless hours giving Valley opinions to the County about the development plans that continued to pour in for the area. The advocates of incorporation and annexation were united in believing that the status quo would be the ruination of the valley. However, those who were happy to have the government remain in distant Redwood City were also persistent.
Merrill Morshead took his argument to the Palo Alto Times, declaring that “in the sound and fury surrounding the attempt to incorporate as a city, certain arguments against incorporation are not being expressed…As to land presently scheduled for development, it is an undeserved slur at our county supervisors and planning commissioners to assume that they will permit developers to desecrate the valley. On the contrary, with the more extensive resources available to the county, it is better equipped to plan and control development of the area than will be a relatively poverty-stricken city government.”
Alan E. Green chimed in, saying, “Why don’t you newspapers give the people of Portola Valley a chance to speak for themselves, instead of forever trumpeting the persistent squeaking of a few “little idler wheels” of the Portola Valley Association? … If I still have the right as a citizen of the Republic, to want a little MORE FREEDOM …in preference to a lot more unnecessary government, … I surely do wish that you would also find out [what most people want.]”
A glimmer of hope did exist if an incorporation attempt failed once again, an Ace in the Hole. In June of 1962, the Association had asked the County to prepare a Master Plan for the Portola Valley region. The County agreed to do this and applied for a Federal grant to help in financing, to which the feds agreed, allotting $40,000 for the project. Spangle and Associates was hired to prepare the plan, which was to emphasize maintaining the rural, single-family residential, and open space aspects of the area. Creating an urban open space preserve was to be the goal. When the plan was completed, even if the status quo remained, development would be monitored by the County in accordance with its dictates. [The plan was completed and put to use by the first Town Council. They also hired Spangle employee, a young George Mader, who served as Town Planner for almost fifty years.]
However, the Action Group for Local Control had plans for seeking incorporation once again.
They had gained permission to circulate a petition to incorporate on November 19, just one week after the Woodside defeat. The strategy they devised was a one-on-one approach: contact every homeowner, armed with information about the benefits of local control.
Bob Katz was put in charge of organizing the volunteers who would fan out and canvass the neighborhoods. He created a pyramid approach with area chairmen who oversaw neighborhood chairmen. Each neighborhood chairman was responsible for contacting approximately ten homes. This precinct organization and the vigorous outreach of the neighbor to neighbor approach were important factors in the ultimately successful vote.
Three months later, on February 11, 1964 the Board of Supervisors received the completed petition. It contained 1070 signatures, representing sixty percent of those eligible to sign and fifty-four percent of the total assessed land value of the area to be incorporated. John Bruning, the county clerk, stated that it was the most extensive petition for an incorporation that he had ever received during his long term in office (In addition to signatures, the document contained very explicit and detailed statements about boundaries, zoning, densities, and objectives, prepared by attorney James Morton and planning consultant Lawrence Wise.) The Board agreed that the signatures were proper and well in excess of legal requirements. And, there was not a majority of the assessed value in opposition.
Thus, the next step was a public hearing, scheduled for March 26 and April 9. In the midst of a large number of supporters, several landowners expressed opposition, but they represented less than 50% of the assessed valuation. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the Action Group’s boundaries. They set an incorporation election date of June 23.
As it turned out, nine years after that first meeting to discuss how to reign in excessive development, the people of Portola Valley wanted to incorporate. They had attended countless meetings, received dozens of explanatory mailings on such issues as boundaries, local taxes, fire and police protection and water rights. As many as one hundred had served on committees, and another 250 had helped in one capacity or another.
On June 23, 1964, eighty-one percent of the electorate turned out to vote. 72.8% of the voters, 1061intensively-informed citizens, voted in favor of incorporation. Eleanor Boushey, Nevin Hiester, Bob Brown, Bill Lane and Sam Halsted were elected to the first Town Council.
Portola Valley officially became San Mateo County’s 18th incorporated community on July 14 at 5 PM when required paperwork was filed with the California Secretary of State, Frank Jordan. The first council meeting took place in the MUR of Portola Valley School on July 15. The councilmembers were sworn in by the County Manager, E. R. Stallings, and Nevin Hiester was elected mayor. The business of the new town began. Various dignitaries and 120 summer school children were in the audience. A dog slept on the stage.
In a triumphant and graceful report about the years of arduous, widespread volunteer efforts to create Portola Valley, Myron Alexander, Bill Lane and Nevin Hiester conclude: “Thus, the Town of Portola Valley came into existence with the desired boundaries intact, a Master Plan at no cost to the town, with planning control over the western foothills and an opportunity to maintain its residential character, open space and rural ambience through the political actions of its own residents and its own Town Council.”
Town Councils since then have maintained these values. Here are the members of the 2014 Town Council.
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.
By Nancy Lund, January 2014
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California