The Jean and Bill Lane have been enormous benefactors to Portola Valley for decades.
Bill Lane camped in Portola Valley as a boy; Jean, however, came to California after college, met Bill, and first visited our town when she was looking for horse property . When the Realtor showed her the site where she still lives, she knew immediately that it was the right place.
Their Westridge property eventually extended to ten acres, over which they placed a conservation easement, to maintain open space into the future. This agreement means that the two lots they purchased in addition to their original site cannot have houses built on them.
Bill was a key figure in the incorporation of Portola Valley, and Jean was a founding member of the Westridge Garden Club which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.
Bill loved colorful clothing and enjoyed being Santa during the holidays at the Ladera Country Shopper. He was an active participant in local government and always wore a flag pin on his label.
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 the early days, grizzly bears were more abundant around here than we can ever imagine. The Indians had a sort of truce with them. After all, going after a 1000 pound animal wielding four inch claws with only a bow and arrow would be a formidable undertaking. Little wonder that the Indians feared, revered and avoided them. So for centuries, grizzlies and Indians coexisted. An occasional bear would kill an Indian and vice versa.
With the arrival of the Europeans in the 1850s, the truce ended. It became apparent that the two species couldn’t adapt to one another. So the bears had to go. Destroying bears became an obsession for some of the rancheros. Partly it was to protect their cattle, and partly it was for sport. And partly it was for self-preservation in a chance encounter.
Countless bear stories have been left by early settlers of our area. So amazing are some of them that the line between fact and legend has blurred over the years. The details you read come directly from an early local settler or an observer who passed through the area. You can decide whether you’re reading fact or legend.
From William Heath Davis: [1840s] “In the mountain forests and on the prairie country in back of and on either side of San Francisquito Creek, there were hundreds and hundreds of black, cinnamon and grizzly bears which roamed the county, living on acorns from the live oaks studding the flat lands. In the season of matanza [slaughter of cattle for the hide and tallow market] they feasted on the rejected meats … At this season vaqueros and their masters amused themselves in the exciting night pastime of lassoing and strangling the brutes to death, … One night soldiers from the San Francisco Presidio lassoed and killed forty bears in the woods at San Francisquito Rancho [today’s Stanford campus].”
The preferred method for killing in an individual encounter was to shoot the bear at close range. Rancheros didn’t have repeating rifles, so if the first shot wasn’t fatal, before the man could reload with his ramrod, he would doubtless be dead. Thus, with courage, determination, and a steady hand, the successful hunter would wait for the bear to advance near enough to be certain the first shot would kill. Having the bear rise up on his haunches ready to spring was the recommended time to fire.
The rancheros also used a unique kind of trap. Rafael Soto, who lived on the Corte Madera Rancho for a while, and whose own rancho, Rinconada del Arroyo de San Francisquito, encompassed most of today’s downtown Palo Alto, was famous for his skill with it. Step one was to dig a large hole and cover it with logs. Step two: leave a large chunk of raw meat on the logs. Step three: climb into the hole with gun and wait. Step four: kill the bear from below when he comes for the bait.
The most exciting method was to capture the bear alive for a bear and bull fight. Vaqueros would kill a steer for bait and drag it about a bit so that its scent would permeate the area. As a hapless grizzly would approach, three or four vaqueros, expert with lassos, mounted their well-trained ponies and lassoed the bear with two ropes, one around the neck choking him and one around a hind leg, lifting him partially off the ground. Pulling in opposite directions, they would drag him to the fighting arena. There the bear would either kill the bull or die in the attempt.
Lucas Greer told of one self-preservation encounter which involved a Frenchman named Barbone. As he was fishing, he met a grizzly which grabbed him by the thigh before he could escape. He broke the bear’s hold, only to have it bite into his arm. At this point, Barbone grabbed the bear by the nose with his teeth; the bear let go. So did Barbone, and each went their separate ways.
By far the most famous story is one verified by no less a personage that Dr. Tripp of the Woodside Store. The hero’s name is “Grizzly” Ryder. He was looking for stray oxen in the vicinity of Searsville Lake when darkness settled in. Walking a trail back to Woodside by the light of a young moon, he stopped for a drink at the stream now called Bear Gulch. As he arose, he saw a large object near him.
“To my horror and surprise, the thing arose upon its hind feet and grabbed me around the body. I realized that I had met a grizzly bear. Fortunately, the animal was probably as greatly surprised as I was, and grabbed me quite high up about the shoulders, so that my right arm was comparatively free. I at once loosened my sheath knife and proceeded to plunge it into the beast.”
Well, the bear let go, two cubs appeared, and the bear struck Ryder a fierce blow which sent him sprawling down an embankment. He played dead, lost consciousness, and the bear and her cubs left. Eventually a rescuer found him and sewed up the profusely bleeding gash in his thigh with a sail needle and string. Ryder survived to age 85 with his body covered with scars and the upper portion of an ear torn away.
By the 1880s the grizzlies were nearly gone. David Bromfield has told his version of the last bear in San Mateo County. George Harkins’ father set out poison in Whittemore Gulch for a grizzly making raids on his calves. “Soon roars were heard proceeding from the canyon. These lasted one whole day and night but finally on their subsidence, an examination was made and a dead bruin found.”
The Greers had another version. It must have been in the late 1880s or 1890s when Robert Greer saw the last grizzly bear in the Woodside area. He was riding unarmed when he came upon it drinking at a stream. It was old and lame. He went back to the ranch for his gun and some help. When he got back, the bear was gone.
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.
Veterinarian John Schulte has known our area, its residents and pets for decades. Getting his love of the land from his father, he came here at age 6 and grew up studying nature on twenty acres on Family Farm Road and at Jasper Ridge. Once in a rainstorm, he rode San Francisquito Creek all the way to the bay. Another highlight of his youth occurred when a teacher at Portola Valley School took John and other students on a 9-week trip across the United States. He opened his practice here because he believed no other place offered all Portola Valley’s benefits. He and his wife bought property on Los Trancos Road in 1980.
The Old Spanish Trail winds up Coal Mine Ridge from the intersection of Willowbrook and Alpine roads in Portola Valley. It follows the crest of the ridge and disappears into Los Trancos Woods and private property. If you listen carefully as you walk the trail, you can hear echoes of all of San Mateo County’s past reverberating from the surrounding hillsides.As the trail climbs the ridge, the lower reaches are intermingled with a series of modern day trails, so the echoes are fainter. Still, you’re walking the path where the Ohlones trekked for thousands of years on their way to the rich shellfish grounds on the Pacific coast. So that’s the first image to carry with you as you walk.
The first written record of the trail to survive is an 1823 account of Spanish soldiers pursuing Pomponio, an escaped mission Indian who was on a crime rampage. Historians believe they rode up the Old Spanish Trail to his hideout, somewhere in Devil’s Canyon, a deep, rocky gorge west of Skyline and south of Alpine Road. Pomponio escaped but was captured the next year in Marin Country and executed in Monterey.
In the 1830s one Antonino Buelna refined the old Indian trail to make a road between the two ranchos he acquired from the Mexican governor. One eventually became the heart of the Stanford campus, and the other was near the Pacific coast. He used the road to transport hides and tallow from his coast ranch to ships waiting in the calm waters of San Francisco Bay. Picture the carettas, rough carts with solid wooden wheels, laden with hides and heavy rawhide bags of tallow, being dragged by a team of oxen over the trail to the embarcaderos on the bay. This road is credited as the first to cross the outer coastal range.
Felix Buelna, famed founder of the Alpine Inn in the 1850s, lived for a time near the intersection of Alpine and Page Mill roads. He used the trail to go to and from his home.
Now the scene shifts to the U. S. government that took over California in 1848. Eager to study their newly acquired territory, in 1851 the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey used mules to carry equipment up the trail to Black Mountain for a triangulation station. They reported the road wasn’t a good one but “was not infrequently traveled by ox and horse teams.”
Now visualize thirteen year old Birney Burrell traveling with his family over the trail to gather strawberries near Pescadero Creek. He wrote about the 1853 three day outing in his diary.
In 1855 the famous Dr. Tripp of the now handsomely restored Woodside Store sent supplies by mule train over the trail to the new store in Pescadero.
That same year a low-grade coal mine opened on the ridge, hence its modern-day name, Coal Mine Ridge. (A massive landslide in 1890 buried the mine, which never produced high quality coal.)
In 1863 Josiah Whitney’s Geodetic Survey marked it on their official map and reported “only two trails over the mountains, one leading from Pescadero over to the Corte Madera Ranch [Portola Valley] and one between Santa Cruz and the Santa Clara Valley.”
Gradually other roads began twisting up to the Skyline. In about 1867 William Page built a road from his sawmill on the site of today’s Portola Redwoods State Park to Mayfield. About 1870 KIngs Mountain Road began as the Redwood City-San Gregorio turnpike. In the 1870s a stagecoach began to travel Old La Honda Road.
Several times plans have been laid to use the gentle grade of the Old Spanish Trail for a new major road over the mountains. In the 1860s a group of entrepreneurs started to build a turnpike from Menlo Park to Santa Cruz, hence the name of Menlo Park’s main street. The turnpike only reached today’s Los Trancos Road before the idea was dropped, so travelers continued to use the Old Spanish Trail beyond that point.
In the 1890s a move was launched to turn the trail into a road so that traffic could more easily reach Menlo Park. In those days most of the business went to Mayfield via Page Mill Road. Editorials of the time rage about the loss of revenue to San Mateo County’s economy. The upper portion of Alpine Road was built instead over much more precipitous terrain.
Even in the 1960s talk of a road to connect Portola Valley to Skyline via the Old Spanish Trail started. Officials at the county engineering and road department considered it to be without question the best route. The county engineer projected that 8600 cars per day would travel the proposed two lane road by 1990. It didn’t happen.
In the 1960s the subdividers of Vista Verde turned its portion of the trail into a road named Murieta Way. It was designed to tie into Joaquin Road and commemorate the notorious legendary bandito Joaquin Murieta. Wishing to preserve the countless years of history represented by the trail’s name, residents went through the formal procedure of changing the name back to Old Spanish Trail.
Modern developments have obscured the trail beyond Los Trancos Woods or hidden it on private property. But you can walk a long portion of it and ponder the changes that have come to California during the years people have trekked over it. And perhaps you can believe that it will forever remain a quiet trail up the mountain where a hiker can still touch a last remnant of the past.
Documenting life and times in the Town of Portola Valley, California