“I really liked both my husbands,” says Phyllis Quilter of Frank Blum and Joe Quilter, whom she married after Frank died in 1974. Looking for a home in the late 1950s, she and Frank “bumped” straight up the hill from Portola Road to what turned out to be the largest Arrowhead Meadows lot. It was so early in the subdivision period that Frank was able to walk the boundaries of the property he wanted.
They loved their Eichler in Palo Alto, so he designed the new house in that style. Phyllis was one of the few employed women in those times. Beginning before her marriage as one of five women in a GE drafting department of 300 men, she went on to model in New York City and serve for twenty years as a public events coordinator at Stanford. Meanwhile, she was the first chair of newly incorporated Portola Valley Parks and Recreation Committee, she served on the Grand Jury for a year, was president of the YMCA in Redwood City and on the county Human Relations Commission. At 87, she could play nine holes of golf in 44 strokes.
When Eve Christensen and her future husband met just after World War II, it was love at first sight. It was a decade later in 1955 that they bought 2 ½ acres in Westridge for $8100. Two years later, they put an additional $31,000 into their house, the fifth on their street, which she says was a lot of money at the time, even though houses
being built then were modest, Eichler-types.
Dozens of kids from Portola Valley and Ladera loved to play in the Christensen field, part of which had been an early road to the Ormondale Ranch and the original beginning route of Westridge Drive. When their two children were older, Eve went to work in the fledgling Silicon
Valley, once for a hardware startup and then as employee #2 for a software company, which was eventually sold. “It was fun,” she says. “I was like the mother to the young kids. I left at age 72, and I don’t even have a computer now.”
Marion Softky was a trail blazing environmentalist. She was also an excellent writer who crafted her skills as a News Reporter for the Country Almanac. She covered San Mateo County particularly the communities in the southern part.
Marion had unique insights into land planning and development in Portola Valley and San Mateo County.
She carefully selected information she had collected over the years. We were fortunate she shared it with us just 6 weeks before she died. Her legacy is that she has provided us unique insights into more than 50 years of our history.
You’ll find her work documented in this lengthy video.
When schoolmarm Miss Mamie Shine went out to the farms of Portola (as our town was then called) around the turn of the century to take the census of school children, she often found many residents who spoke no English. At times she had to ring the dinner bell to call the men from the fields to find an English speaker who could report on school age children in the home.
When the Sequoia Union High School District started a satellite campus at the Portola School in 1927, the subject taught three times a week was “Americanization Skills”. Who were these early residents ?
Few remains from Indian times have turned up in our valley. Most early histories report that they avoided the hills out of respect for the grizzly bears who inhabited them. They did pass through along the Old Spanish Trail on their way to the coast. Probably seasonal camps existed along our many creeks, and a very few stayed on into Hispanic and American times.
Maximo Martinez and his family were the first occupants from whom we have written records. Born in San Francisco, Maximo was a soldier at the Presidio for many years. When loggers from many countries began to drift into the redwoods in the 1830s, he was sent by the Mexican authorities to our neighborhood to check up on them. In 1833 he requested and received a land grant eventually reaching 13, 000 acres and encompassing all of today’s Portola Valley. His eight children owned their various inheritances for many years, but the land gradually passed out of the family’s hands. Descendants still live in the area but none within our borders.
The Irish are best represented by three families. Dennis Martin was a hero in the first wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra in 1844. He and his wife Bridget bought land in the Jasper Ridge vicinity in 1846 and more in 1854. He stocked his land with horses and cattle and built (arguably) the first sawmill and the first gristmill in the area. Ultimately, he lost everything. Bridget and Bryan Cooney bought 147 acres at the top of Spring Ridge in the early 1860s. A lumberman and farmer, Cooney raised hay, wheat and barley. They and their daughter and grandchildren ended their days on the ridge. Hugh Kelly came in the 1860s. He’s listed as the first San Mateo County foreigner to gain U. S. citizenship. His son Eugene had a restaurant and saloon where Alpine Hills Tennis and Swim Club stands today. Son Tom raised strawberries in the Wyndham neighborhood.
In the 1850s Chileans arrived, driven from the gold fields by extreme prejudice and unable to return home because the bay was full of abandoned ships while the crews hunted for gold. Living in humble shacks, they worked for the Martinez family clearing the willows from the thickets along the creeks for charcoal. By 1870 almost all of them were gone.
By 1866, Italian families, mostly from the Genoa area, were arriving and leasing land in today’s Willowbrook area from the Martinezes. They had truck gardens and sold their produce door to door in Redwood City, Menlo Park and Mayfield. They began strawberry culture, which became a thriving valley industry.
Two Italians bought the upper reaches of Spring Ridge in 1867. Later, Emanuele Bozzo, a hero in a ferry accident, lived for 32 years on Spring Ridge. Nicolas Larco, who had become one of the wealthiest Italians in California, planted 50,000 mulberry trees in today’s Arrowhead Meadows for silkworm culture. Domingo Grosso, the hermit of Jasper Ridge, always flew the Italian as well as the U. S. flag. Three separate Mangini families probably had the greatest Italian impact on our valley.
Andrew and Ida operated a picnic park on the site of today’s Alpine Hills Tennis and Swimming Club from the twenties to the fifties. Thousands (yes!) of people would appear on weekends for barbecues, baseball, and dancing. One school board member has been recorded as remarking that the Mangini families made the difference between a one room school and a two room school. A third generation member of one of the Mangini families, Jack, lived in the valley until his death in 2010..
German immigrants came also. Two married Martinez granddaughters. Julius and Gustav Siebeck came in 1862 to mine for coal on Coal Mine Ridge. A massive landslide in 1890 buried forever the site of their mine. Garrett Nahmens and his wife came around the Horn in 1869 and arrived in Portola Valley in 1884.
They bought the land around Stonegate and raised strawberries. Three generations of the family are still in the area. The Fromhertz family lived on Coal Mine Ridge from 1880 until the trip to school in the valley became too difficult for the children. They then built the house which stands at 211 Portola Road and the father, George, served on the school board. Henry Schoelhammer came from Prussia to be superintendent of Herbert Law’s Willowbrook Farm. He and his family lived in the stone house on Portola Road and later in the administrator’s house at the Villa Lauriston complex.
Chinese workers were here. Admired for their hard work, they helped to build Andrew Hallidie’s tramway. They worked on Herbert Law’s mansion, Lauriston, and tended his herbs. They raised strawberries for the Fitzhughs at Catoctin, today’s Stonegate/Grove Drive area and for the Manginis and the Kellys. They sublet land from the Italians in the Willowbrook area, paying half their produce as rent.
At least four Portuguese families, mostly from the Azores, were in residence before the turn of the century.
At first they worked on the farms for wages, then gradually leased or bought land. Truck farms providing produce for the city was their main livelihood. They too grew strawberries and had vineyards in today’s Brookside and Georgia Lane neighborhoods. Most left after the typhoid epidemic of 1902, which began at a dairy leased by Portuguese and which took a fiercesome toll of Portuguese residents. Until his death in 2007, Joe Gomes was the third generation of his family to occupy his family’s Portola Valley homestead.
Filipinos came as woodchoppers in the Coal Mine Ridge area, hired by Peter Faber, a grandson-in-law of Maximo Martinez. They lived in makeshift shanties throughout today’s Blue Oaks subdivision and Portola Valley Ranch. They too were mightily affected by the typhoid and disappeared from our neighborhood when the hills were stripped of trees.
Other groups had small representations. Two Scots worked as gardeners on estates. Another was a blacksmith. A second blacksmith was from the Netherlands. A Frenchman, Sanservian, had a vineyard near Bull Run Creek. John Nelson from Sweden was a woodchopper who lived on Alpine Road. Guamanians cut wood and cleared brush for Stanley Morshead. The Marianis, whose ranch became Blue Oaks, were Swiss-Italian. The Burkhardts who had a large egg farm in the vicinity of today’s Portola Valley Garage were Swiss.
The last major wave of immigrants was the Croatians. It isn’t clear whether John Lubatich or Walter Jelich Sr. was the first to arrive.
Both supported their countrymen when they arrived until they were established. Walter Jelich’s home was the center of Croatian activity for years. Second, third and fourth generations of the family live in town to this day. John Duzanica, who came in 1908, was the Morshead foreman for 44 years and served on the school board from 1921 until 1953. His great-niece, Joan Madden, lives on Brookside. Four Skrabo brothers came in 1916, and their descendants too are still around town.
Most of these pioneer families have moved on to other places. Those descendants who remain remind us of the rich multi-ethnic origins of our town.
George and Marjorie Mader, long-time Ladera residents, know more about Portola Valley and its residents than most people who have lived in town for a long time. Marjorie was a reporter for the Almanac for decades, and the Portola Valley School District was her beat.
She has witnessed the passage of countless school boards, has worked with parents, teachers and other community members and thus has a comprehensive understanding of how the district works. George was the town planner from 1965 until 2011.
As a county planner, he worked on a study of Portola Valley before it was incorporated. His remarkable vision in planning strategies to implement the will of the councils has been instrumental in preserving the beauty of the land as development has occurred. A pioneer in planning for geologic safety, he has crafted the technical ordinances designed to protect life and property from landslides and earthquakes. He has carried the Portola Valley story around the world to countries endangered by faulting to pass on the knowledge learned here. The Maders were Blues and Barbecue honorees in 2001.
George’s insights into how planning in Portola Valley has evolved from early days can be seen in these two videos. They are lengthy and quite detailed.
Although Ryland Kelley and his family have never lived in Portola Valley, his career in real estate and as a developer have had a significant impact on the area.
When the Peninsula Housing Association could not complete their housing project in Ladera in the early 1950s, Ry’s firm, the Portola Development Company, took over and completed the development of our 500-house neighbor, including the shopping center. Hidden Valley, the little incursion of Woodside into Portola Valley near the Town Center, was also his project in the 1950s. When plans for housing on Windy Hill couldn’t be worked out in 1979, he and his company, Corte Madera Associates, donated 535 acres to POST, the private land trust’s first acquisition. The land was subsequently transferred to Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD.)
[As an interesting sidelight, Ry was a kindergarten buddy of Bob Brown, one of our most influential town founders.]
You may enjoy this hour plus video where he explains his role and that of others.
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.
Willowbrook “Gate House” The Old Stone House on Portola Road
Traveling along Portola Road takes one past some of Portola Valley’s most highly valued historic sites. One structure there has recently received some attention because it has been somewhat remodeled and put up for sale. It is one of the most intriguing buildings in town–the quaint stone houses at 451 Portola that look like castles from a Grimm Brothers story. Was that window in the tower the one where Rapunzel stood and hung down her hair for the prince? Was it the castle where Cinderella, dressed in her finery, went to the ball? Or maybe it was the house to which the evil witch enticed Hansel and Gretel. Although the property’s story is less romantic than a fairy tale, nonetheless, it’s interesting.
This charming ivy-covered house is often called the Willowbrook Gate House, or just the gate house. Actually it was built around 1915 as a home for the superintendent of Willowbrook Farm, a man named Henry Schoellhamer, nicknamed “Shell.” The smaller structure was his office. They sit at one entrance to the old Willowbrook Farm,. 61 acres purchased in 1912 by Herbert E. Law. It stretched approximately between Portola and Willowbrook roads as far as Alpine Road.
Herbert Law and his brother Hartland were publishers, chemists, patent medicine purveyors and land developers. They owned the unfinished Fairmont Hotel when it burned in 1906. Afterward, they hired Julia Morgan to direct the reconstruction. They were instrumental in bringing the Panama Pacific Exposition to San Francisco in 1915. In 1926, Herbert incorporated as the Lauriston Investment Company and was the main stockholder in the group that built the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
Law purchased Willowbrook Farm from Laura Martinez Faber, granddaughter of Maximo Martinez, the original ranchero who owned the 13,000 acre Rancho el Corte de Madera. They needed a place to grow the rare herbs and plants needed for their patent medicine VIAVI, an enormously successfully product designed to cure a variety of women’s complaints. The VIAVI system included red Moroccan leather manuals and books and 10,000 active saleswomen (mostly) teaching and selling the system door to door in more than 20 countries.
Law immediately built a cow barn, stables, a bunkhouse, chicken houses, and he renovated existing gardens and orchards. In 1915 he added a white stucco villa with roof garden and tower on a knoll above the south entrance to his farm off Alpine Road. It had a loggia, red brick terraces and formal gardens with a large marble fountain, an artificial stream and waterfalls.
At one point lathhouses for the exotic plants covered 40 acres. This farming operation required enormous quantities of water. Since Corte Madera Creek was insufficient despite providing as much as 60,000 gallons per day, Law purchased land along Spring Ridge (the long bare ridge leading to Windy Hill) and piped water as far as 3 1/2 miles to his fields.
Ultimately he controlled almost 400 acres and almost all the water rights in the area.
Schoellhamer, the man who occupied the stone house, oversaw all the construction and farming. He ranged over the entire property in his khaki shirt, tie, jodhpurs, puttees, and boots. He would meet Law at the train station in Palo Alto, and they would ride their horses back to Willowbrook Farm, accompanied by two Great Danes.
Unfortunately, a blight continually affected the plants, it was hard to get skilled workers to tend them, the market for the plants weakened, and in 1920, Law traded Willowbrook Farm for the Ritz Carlton Apartments in San Francisco.
He sent Schoellhamer to the property along Spring Ridge which he had bought to supply Willowbrook and built there the enormous house called Villa Lauriston, another superintendent’s house and an “agricultural complex.” But that’s a story for another day.
Law sold Willowbrook to William Fitzhugh of the neighboring Catoctin Estate, today’s Stonegate/Grove Drive area, in 1921.The stone house was empty for a long time and a subject for vandalism. In 1941 the Catoctin people sold to a Mr. Cox, who in turn sold to Alexander and Madeleine Isenberg in 1953 for $29,000. After Madeleine Isenberg passed away, John Zicker owned the stone house for a decade. A couple of years ago, he sold to the developer who has it on the market.The next chapter of the house’s story is yet to emerge.
Although portions of the terraces exist today on private property, “Shell’s” house and office are the only remaining structures from Willowbrook Farm. The mansion was razed in 1945.The barn/dormitory at 211 Willowbrook, which had long ago been converted into a home, was demolished several years ago.
To learn more about the stone houses, Willowbrook Farm and Lauriston, one might read Lauriston: An Architectural Biography of Herbert Edward Law by Sewall ‘Skip” Bogart, available in the Portola Valley library and the Town Heritage Center.
Bunny Dawson is amazed that the tiny Russell Avenue cottage where she and her husband lived in 1951 increased in price from $7,000 to $700,000 and beyond. They bought a caretaker’s cottage on Tintern in 1954 for $17,500 and made some improvements. Bunny lived there for more than 50 years. In those early days, feral cats lived in an old barn, open wells were a risk, and orchards of the Catoctin estate still existed. She has known generations of Portola Valley kids because of her decades-long role in the school library and her role as the early technology leader there. in this day and age, having a library that was built to be a library instead of housing books in a former classroom, store, or house is wonderful, she says.
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.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California