When Judy and Bob Falconer were Stanford students, the unpaved lanes of Portola Valley were trysting places for young couples. Later, after they married and were looking for a home, they returned to those lanes. They talked to realtor Gordon Oberg who operated from a little house on the corner of Alpine and Golden Oak. who showed them property. To get up to the property they were considering, they had to get up a head of steam to make it up the gravel road.
They bought their lot in 1955 and moved in in 1956 when there were very few other houses. They paid $7000 for an acres and a quarter, “a lot of money,” they recall today. Many years later when they moved to Westridge, they were told that their Alpine Hills house was bulldozed and taken in pieces to Pacific islands to be used for other houses. When the driveway was being constructed at their new house, an remarkable Ohlone lance point was unearthed, dated by an archaeologist who specializes in the Ohlone from 2000 BC to 800 BC.
Although Ilsa Cauble’s husband Dale was a contractor who built spec houses around Menlo Park, she says he was an Oklahoma cowboy at heart. So in 1950, when they found “perfect” land with a pasture for two horses and a stream along the edge, they bought their Alpine Hills property. They made a wonderful riding ring. Sausal Road stopped midway then, and the rest of the way up was a steep hill, somewhat smoothed later by further development. Neighborhood kids would haul big pieces of cardboard to the top, climb aboard, and slide all the way down.
An operating-room nurse, she worked the 3-11 shift at the old Stanford hospital, now Hoover Pavilion. She remembers being told tales of local quarries from which kids would roll rocks down to Alpine Road for building the stone house at 4141 that was once the Manginis’ Picnic Park and today is home to Windmill School.
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…
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.
Joan Madden’s grandfather Pete Duzanica followed the Jelichs to Portola Valley from Croatia, arriving in 1904, Her mother, Ann Duzanica Estacaille, was born on Nathhorst in 1917, on property that remained in the family until a few years ago.
She and her husband moved to Brookside where Joan was born, already a third generation Portola Valley resident. In her mother’s day, the Croatian community were mainly workers on the estates as gardeners or housekeepers. Joan went to the 1894 schoolhouse, the one dismantled in 1950 to make way for Portola Valley School, itself now a part of history. She remembers running away from school to the Jurians’ house next door. She also remembers longtime and famous teacher Nathalie Cooper tying her to her chair or giving time-outs in a dark cloak room. And she remembers when the creek that contributed to the street’s name flooded their lower garden, a problem periodically faced by the neighborhood in days gone by.
Gloria Sanguinetti Morris’s family bought land in Brookside Orchard in 1933, one of the several Italian families in the neighborhood. As the name suggests, the area was then full of several kinds of fruit trees.
When Mr. Sanguinetti first drove his wife out to look at the property, she said, “Where are you taking me – to the ends of the earth?” The family lived in San Francisco and were summer and weekend residents until the family built a house and came to stay in 1948. Gloria started high school at Sequoia and was in the first graduating class at Menlo Atherton in 1952. She remembers being teased by her classmates about her rural home: “Did you ride your goat to school?” Her mother used an old treadle sewing machine to make clothes, as did most of the other women of the era. Although it isn’t possible to play football on Portola Road any longer, she says Brookside has kept the same feeling that it had in earlier times.
Ben Sanguinetti’s family arrived in Brookside Orchard in 1933 when it was a place of summer cottages. Most of those escaping the city fog were the Italian partners in the Sunset Scavenger Company. The only permanent residents then waere the Ernst family who subdivided the property.
The oval-shaped road had an orchard of apples, pears and figs in the center with one space left open as a playground. In those early years, the only water came from wells; water was only about twenty feet down. Some properties still use their wells today. The Sanguinettis had only small buildings on their two acres: a shed for the well, a shed for sleeping – truly a summer camp. They had well water pumped inside, but for hot water, Ben’s mother would make a fire in the woodstove to get hot water. Ben’s stepdad built the house in 1948. As an adult, Ben was a pioneer in bringing soccer to Portola Valley.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California