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.