Category Archives: Historic Vignettes

Alpine Inn – Zots, Rossotti’s, Casa de Tableta

alpine inn
Alpine Inn by Artist Jean Groberg

In 1908 David Starr Jordan, Stanford’s first president, wrote to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors about the little building known today as the Alpine Inn.   “The Wunder  is unusually vile, even for a roadhouse, a great injury to the university, and a disgrace to San Mateo County,” he said.

Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that that same rough little structure at the intersection of Arastradero and Alpine roads is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California Registered Landmark?  It is considered to be the oldest surviving roadhouse in California and the longest continual business operation in San Mateo County.  How has it managed to survive and thrive despite such prestigious opposition?

Its story begins in the tumultuous 1850s.  California was a new state, and Anglos were pouring into our area from the gold fields, bringing with them the English language and American laws and customs.  San Jose became the state capital, and many Mexican Californios  of pueblo and rancho days retreated to more outlying areas such as Portola Valley.  Felix Buelna was one of them.

He had served as alcalde [mayor] of San Jose and later in a group of Californios appointed to help ease the transition to the new government.  He left, perhaps in disillusionment after being told to enforce the laws only against his ‘own kind’.

After a brief stay on a ranch near Skyline and Page Mill, he opened a roadhouse and casa de tableta [house of cards] on his friend Maximo Martinez’ rancho about 1852.  He chose his site well.  At the intersection of the old Arrastradero leading to Mission Santa Clara and points south and the Old Spanish Trail [Alpine Road] extending over the mountains to the coast, it was a convenient spot for thirsty men and horses to stop.   It was also a respite for his countrymen away from the Anglos.

In 1868, the property passed into the possession of a Scotch-Irishman, William Stanton.  According to a Buelna grandson, it was to pay a gambling debt.  County recorder’s records show that the 95 acres which include today’s Alpine Hills subdivision sold for just under $1200 gold coin.  Although Stanton was killed in a train-buggy collision twenty years later, the land and the roadhouse remained in his family’s ownership until 1940.

The list of proprietors who leased the roadhouse from the Stanton family reflects the early ethnic heritage of the region:  Mexican, Portuguese, Italian, German, and a Croatian in the person of Walter Jelich, Sr.  His is probably the only name known to residents today. The names of the place changed during these years to reflect the lessee’s origins:  Fernando’s, Philpot’s, Stanton’s Saloon, Chapete’s Place, The Wunder, and Schenkel’s Picnic Park.

The most infamous lessee was Rodriguez Crovello, familiarly known as “Black Chapete”.  He held forth at the bar in the decades around the turn of the century.  He was short and plump with a big handlebar mustache.  Considered easy-going and likable, he was known to like his liquor and to be unlucky at cards.  He was fined for operating without a license, accused regularly [but never convicted] of running a house of ill-repute, and known for serving minors. He ended up at the poor farm in 1911.

The opening of Stanford University in 1891 immediately brought a boost to business.  Throngs of students loved the place that was described in an alumnae magazine as “a miserable, low-class saloon of the San Francisco waterfront type.” Its unsavory reputation added to its appeal in the minds of many students

Mayfield’s 23 saloons closed in 1905, and in 1909 the mile-and-a-half law [no liquor sales within 1 ½ miles of the campus] took effect, closing Menlo Park’s 14. The Wunder escaped.  Business remained good, even after forty Stanford students were expelled for drunkenness.

Not even the five mile dry zone imposed around Menlo Park’s Camp Fremont during World War I reached The Wunder.  Its location continued to be an advantage, if for a new reason.

During prohibition, Julius Schenkel opened the adjacent field for camping.  City folks came down for a few days or a week to enjoy the country creekside ambiance.  He painted out the name of the establishment and added a dance pavilion.  Stories of its role in bootleg operations in an area renown for its stills are as varied as they are impossible to confirm.

In 1938, Mrs. Stanton, who had received rental income from the roadhouse since the death of her husband in 1887, died at the age of 84.  Enter the most famous proprietor, Enrico Rossotti.  He took over the lease and purchased the property in 1940.  Although he only owned his beer garden for eight years, the old place is still affectionately known by his name, or by the even more familiar “Zot’s.”

Don Horther and John Alexander and their wives leased and then purchased Rossotti’s Beer Garden in 1959 and gave it its current name, Alpine Inn.  For the last year and a half, for the first time in 140 years, a woman has been the sole owner and proprietor, Molly Alexander, the widow of John.  She plans to stay on indefinitely.

And so the rude little building, so well situated along important early roads, just distant enough from the arm of the law, and always tended by genial barkeepers, has become an institution.

………………………Nancy Lund

The Hermit of Jasper Ridge

Just who was the mysterious hermit who lived on Jasper Ridge a century ago?  Why have fragments of his story endured and become legend?  His name was Domenico Grosso, but folks called him Domingo.  Behind his back, children called him “Caramba”  because that was one of his favorite expressions.

Domenico Grosso

It turns out that the hermit of Jasper Ridge was not actually a loner.  Indeed, he was a very popular fellow.   Although he lived alone on Jasper Ridge, behind today’s Pinon and La Sandra Drives in Portola Valley,  he regularly received guests and was himself a frequent dinner guest in Portola homes. Yet an aura of loneliness and mystery surely surrounded him.

He seems to have arrived in the area in the 1870s when he was probably in his forties.  Despite a friendly personality, he discouraged inquiries into his background.   However, rumors were plentiful.  It was said that he was born in Genoa, Italy.   He fought with Guiseppe Garibaldi.  He was a servant to Italian noble families.  He was such a skillful horseman that he received a medal from the king of Italy.  He spent some time mining in Chile.  He lost a fortune in a bank failure.  Was any of it true?  Was all of it true?

One especially intriguing detail was his frequent mention of “Julia”.  He would say, “Julia keeps my place in good order.”  Or, “I must  take Julia with me.”  Who was Julia?  The theory was that she was a long lost wife or sweetheart.  His prior life, which forever remained a secret, was just one of the mysteries surrounding him.

By all accounts, Domingo was a handsome and courtly man.  He was slight with erect posture, bright eyes and white, even teeth.  His red beard turned white over the years and reached halfway down his chest.  He was always immaculately clean and meticulously groomed.  He wore his clothes with a flair.  He always carried a white handkerchief to dust off a chair before he sat down.  He spoke and read Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

He worked on the ranch that eventually became Westridge, Arrowhead Meadows and Ladera.   About 1891, when William O’Brien Macdonough bought the land, he moved to what has become Jasper Ridge and made his home there until his death in 1915.

Quite a home it was.  Although rustic, his house had two well-furnished rooms that were always spotlessly clean.  Pictures and “No Smoking” signs in four languages decorated the walls.  His stove and pans were polished. He served guests with good china and silverware.  Outside he has a chicken coop, a stable, and a dog house. He had a vineyard, an orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, a network of paths, and an interlocking wooden fence to keep out cattle.    On his flagpole he flew the flags of the USA, Italy, Genoa, France, or Chile.

Sunday afternoon was the favorite time for the local people to visit the hermit.  They would bring their out-of-town guests.  Valley children were especially welcomed.  Stanford students regularly appeared.  Even Mrs. Stanford came.  He treated everyone courteously, offering occasional overnight lodging or refreshments of biscuits and his homemade wine, white for strangers and his best red for friends.

Hermit and friends
Hermit and Friends

Reports on the quality of his cooking vary.  One friend said his wine wasn’t good enough to make vinegar from, but guests wouldn’t refuse his hospitality.  He made a special bread in his outdoor oven which local children treasured.  At lease one  saved his to use as a paper weight.  Others have reported the wine and hardtack were good, as were the dinner entrees of wild game .

During his years on the ranch, he had roamed the nearby hills  searching for precious metals.  He professed to have found silver and persuaded his employers to hire experts and secure mineral rights.  None of them found enough promise for full scale mining.  Nevertheless, prospecting became an obsession and a way of life for Domingo, and the mineral rights eventually came to him.   His tales of lucky strikes and his jars of mineral specimens created more of the legend.

Apparently no one ever knew if Domingo struck it rich on Jasper Ridge, but everyone wondered.  He dug an extensive series of tunnels and pits in his search, some six to eight feet across and as deep as seventy feet.   He kept mysterious bags under his house which he claimed contained ore of the same quality as that in his display jars.  About once a year, he’d take the bags to Redwood City in a rented buggy, presumably to cash them in.

This served as proof to some that he had found gold or silver.  What else could the bags have contained?  How did he  support himself if not from successful prospecting?   People knew he was too proud to ask for public assistance.  But his needs were few, and he’d always carry a sack wherever he went, to collect vegetables or other supplies offered him.  He hunted for food or grew his own.  Some evidence suggests that a former employer’s widow gave him regular money.

In the spring of 1915, when Domingo hadn’t been seen for a while, a friend found him in bed in his house.  He’d suffered a stroke and died in the county hospital, with all his mysteries unexplained.   Before long, vandals demolished his house, presumably searching for the hidden gold. Only they knew what was there.  And apparently they didn’t talk.

Traces of the hermit’s stay on Jasper Ridge remain today.  Docents can take visitors to two of the deep prospecting pits and to some stone terracing, although thick stands of poison oak obscure the area.  Perhaps it’s easier to picture him in your mind at one of his favorite activities:  at night, when he couldn’t sleep and the moon was bright, this enigmatic man would take his homemade broom and sweep his paths.  Sweeping, and dreaming perhaps of Julia and of striking it rich, must have brought comfort to the mysterious hermit of Jasper Ridge.

………….Nancy Lund