Category Archives: Historic Vignettes

Multi-Ethnic Beginnings

Multi-Ethnic Beginnings

          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.

Strawberry Field Workers
Strawberry Field Workers

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.

Jack Mangini at Lazy Day(1)
Jack Mangini at Lazy Day

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.

Dan Nahmens with strawberry boxesThey 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.

Alves Children
Alves Children

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.

Mary and Walter Jelich, Sr.
Mary and Walter Jelich, Sr.

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.

…………….Nancy Lund

The Library’s Story

It has been important for people living in Portola Valley to have ready access to books even before the beginning of the modern town.  When residents built the first school in Portola Valley in 1894, they included a small library. Later, in the early years of the twentieth century a little building stood in the circle of redwoods beside the surviving 1909 historic schoolhouse. At first it was a residence for the teacher (called a “teacherage”) because Portola Valley was too remote for any commuting teacher.  It eventually became a library.

It hasn’t been easy to keep a library close by, as Portola Valley has always been somewhat remote and has a small population. For several years a bookmobile served as the local library. When the town was incorporated in 1964, the Town Council set up a Library Study Committee, and the Friends of the Library of Portola Valley was established the next year.  The goal was to bring in a San Mateo County Branch Library. In 1967 a little library opened in an empty storefront in the Village Square. Many residents surely remember it.

Several things happened in the next years. Emma and Carroll Roush gifted the Friends with a piece of property on Nathhorst for a library site. As real estate prices rose, the land significantly increased in value. Along with various fund-raising drives aimed at creating a nest egg for a building, by 1970 $53,000 had accumulated in the Library Building Fund.

In 1975, the Town purchased Portola Valley School, and it became the Town Center and a logical place for a library. The Friends sold the Nathhorst site, more funds were raised, a grant was obtained, and in 1980, a 4000 square foot library with a collection of 20,000 books opened in a wing of the former Portola Valley School. It served the community until 2006.

In 1988 the first computer was installed for use by the public, and the technology has advanced ever since with more available computers and periodic free lessons for patrons. In 1993 the library staff unveiled a CD-Rom computer catalog linking all the county libraries, giving patrons instant access to the entire county’s collection

In the early 1990s, the county reduced funding for libraries and there was concern about a possible decrease in open hours or even closure of small libraries, such as ours. After two years of negotiations, headlines and editorials, the Council agreed to accept a complicated funding formula and to join a newly created Joint Powers Agency involving the county and eleven cities. The financial crisis was over, at least for the time being.

The Town Council has maintained strong support for a local library through all the re-locations and several renovations. The Friends have continued their work through the years as well, donating funds to the county for books for their library as well as other libraries in need of support. They have provided children’s programs, audio-visual equipment, summer reading programs, furniture, landscaping…an endless list of enrichments for the library.

Portola Valley Library, November 2013
Portola Valley Library, November 2013

When a new Town Center became a necessity, there was no question that a library would be included. In 2006, deconstruction of the former Portola Valley School (and the library housed there) began. The school district offered two former kindergarten rooms at Corte Madera School for a temporary library during construction of the new facilities. Once again, thanks to the generosity of residents, the beautiful new Town Center with its state-of-the-art library opened in September 2008. For the first time in the 118-year history of libraries in Portola Valley, patrons can visit a building that was actually planned to be a library.

…………….Nancy Lund

1838 Earthquake

1838 Earthquake

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.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

          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.

Charles Brown adobe
Charles Brown Adobe

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.

……………….Nancy Lund

Willowbrook Farm

Willowbrook Farm

Gatehouse_Lauriston3JPG

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.

Herbert Law's first mansion
Law’s first mansion on lower Alpine RoadLaw vista with lathsLaw’s terraces and herb farm

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.

……………..Nancy Lund

Bears

BEARS

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.

…………..  Nancy Lund

Typhoid!

Typhoid Epidemic

The next time you’re driving up Alpine Road, slow down a bit when you reach Hillbrook Drive and take a close look to your right.  A seasonal stream runs through a small gully there, surrounded by lush and wild vegetation.  Some water remains in it now, in puddles in some spots and flowing in others.  Redwoods, oaks, berry bushes and luxuriant poison oak shelter the neighborhood houses from the road.  A narrow trail wanders along between the creek and the road. Two rickety wooden bridges offer an opportunity to peer down into the streambed without risking the poison oak.

The creek crosses under Alpine Road at Hillbrook Drive in a big storm drain and continues along, edged by bags of concrete which eventually  give way to concrete-lined banks.    Who would guess that a dairy farm  situated right here in this peaceful, pastoral scene was the source of  a major typhoid fever epidemic in 1903?

Maximo Martinez willed this portion of his rancho to his son Antonio who in turn passed it on to his daughter Laura and her husband Pete Faber.  They moved into the Martinez home which stood by the tall redwood in front of the Portola Valley garage.  Pete was mostly interested in “gulching”, cutting and removing timber from his property.  So he leased about a thousand acres to four recent immigrants from the Azores for a dairying operation.  They would run the dairy and continue to provide milk to the distributor in Palo Alto who made regular deliveries around town.

Although the first cases of typhoid weren’t announced in Palo Alto until April, it began to spring up out in the countryside as early as December 1902.  It wasn’t until much later that the medical authorities understood what had happened.  A relative from San Francisco visited his Portuguese family near Page Mill and complained of being sick.  Eventually he died, as did three other members of the family he visited.  Other people from the Portuguese community who lived along Alpine Road had visited the family to help out and attend funerals.  More sickness and more deaths resulted.  The Perreira family of the dairy on Alpine were among those affected, although none of them died.  One San Jose doctor had diagnosed typhoid in one of the cases but had not reported it, so no one yet suspected that an epidemic was underway.

In April, doctors began diagnosing and reporting typhoid in Palo Alto and at Stanford..  The number of cases escalated rapidly, from 2 cases on March 31 to 18 on April 15.  According to the Palo Alto Board of Health report, issued in 1905,  236 people had been diagnosed with typhoid before the epidemic ran its course.  Few records were kept in the outlying districts such as Portola Valley, but the experts felt, in retrospect,  that many  typhoid cases outside the city were never recognized, either by doctors or by victims who never sought medical help.  At least twelve deaths resulted. The number was probably higher.

The population of Palo Alto and Stanford was then 4500.  There was no hospital closer than San Francisco,  so makeshift hospitals were set up at the YWCA, in private homes and in Stanford fraternity houses.  Doctors were few and worked day and night.  Nurses were recruited from San Francisco.  Generous citizens including Mrs. Stanford donated funds so that no one would be denied care.  (Leland Stanford Junior had died of typhoid in Italy in 1884.)

The detective work to find the source of the disease began.  The city water and sewers were found to be uncontaminated.  No pattern of  common vegetable consumption was detected.  No victims had consumed raw oysters or clams. Only one patient had eaten uncooked food.  But nearly everyone with typhoid was on the same milk delivery route.  The two dairies were tested.  It took a week for the  results to come back from a laboratory in San Francisco:  the Perreira dairy on Alpine Road was the source of the typhoid.

Sanitary arrangements for milk delivery in those days were appalling to our modern sensibilities.   The milk was transported in 3 gallon containers by horse drawn wagon about 8 miles to the distributor in Palo Alto.  The cooling system there was a wooden trough filled with water in which the milk cans were placed.  Once or twice a week the trough was emptied and scrubbed.  On the delivery route, the milkman dipped into the cans and poured the correct amount of milk into the customer’s pan.  The empty containers were picked up at the distributors, filled up with skim milk from a creamery, and returned to the Perreira dairy to feed hogs.

Conditions at the dairy were even more shocking.  The wooden floor of the dairy house was cleaned with a shovel.  Cobwebs and dust were everywhere.  Refuse from the outhouse, pigpen and kitchen drained, slid or had been dumped into the gully during a long, dry spell.  Heavy rains from January to April washed months of deposits into the creek, where they were collected by the slowing current at a small dam. This  water, contaminated with the typhoid bacilli, was diverted daily to the dairy house for washing milking utensils and delivery containers. It was a month before the contamination was confirmed and the dairy closed.

When the final count was taken, 98 1/2 % of the typhoid victims had used Perreira milk, even though this evidence of the cause hadn’t been obvious at first.  26% of the users of Perreira milk had contracted the disease.  The epidemic stopped when the use of Perreira milk ceased, although isolated cases and deaths continued throughout the summer.

The public had been made aware of  the need for improved public health conditions in a dramatic, painful and frightening way.  A State Dairy Inspector was appointed.  A permanent hospital opened in Palo Alto.  By May the water in the little creek along Alpine Road by Hillbrook Drive tested pure.  The dairy and the Perreiras were gone.

…………Nancy Lund

Our Lady of the Wayside Church

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.”

1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.
1912 Photo of Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

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. They offered them a place to stay and they accepted. They said that it was the best place to stay and that their beds were amazing because of how comfortable their king mattress was.

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.

Our Lady of the Wayside, Portola Valley, CA.
Our Lady of the Wayside Church, Portola Valley, CA.

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