Martin is one of ten children in the Ramies family. They arrived in Portola Valley by a circuitous route from Spain to Hawaii to Morgan Hill to Mountain View, ending up here in the 1920s. A poor family, they lived in various places: the Jelich barn, across the creek at the Manginis’, in a house by the windmill and on Nathhorst, where Martin was born. All the kids worked in the orchards for the big estate owners—Schillings, Jacklings, Phlegers, Fitzhughs. Morsheads. After serving in the Korean War, Martin went to work for the Lindstroms who had opened the Portola Valley Garage in 1948, buying it from them in monthly installments with no down payment in 1963. He worked there for 45 years.
Three generations of the Ramies Family at a family gathering.
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.
Ad Jessup is the person who has lived the longest in the Westridge subdivision, having been the sixth family to buy land ($6250,) build a house, and move in. In those early days, the 1950s, usually the men went to work and the women stayed home, tending the children and the family affairs. (Ad is holding a photo of herself as a young woman.) She was so active in the nine long years working toward incorporation that she was one of the three people named in a lawsuit by one of the big landowners opposed to incorporation, John Francis Neylan. She remembers more open fields than today, meadowlarks, roadrunners, milk and bread delivery to the door, school bus stops, and lots of rattlesnakes
Ed Jelich’s family came to Portola Valley from Croatia in 1893. Several Croatian families followed them. Walter Jelich, Sr. was bartender at “Zots” and the Pioneer in Woodside. In 1911 he bought land at the corner of Alpine and Portola roads for orchards. Ed’s brother George, a Woodside Fire District fire fighter, had a house on the site of Roberts Market. For decades, his brother Walter Junior was a town institution, holding forth at his orchard and fruit stand on Portola Road. Ed, the youngest of his generation, left town in 1947 for Walnut Creek and became a regional chief in the Highway Patrol. His memory of early days here is phenomenal.
Joe Dixon and his family camped on the land around Wayside Road in the 1930s. In 1946, he and his wife Pearl bought a plot of land near where his family had camped, and in the early 1950s they built a house in the midst of small summer homes and large ranches. After serving as a radio operator in the South Pacific in World War II, he spent his life building power switchboards for Columbia Electric and making music: a little piano, the guitar, bass, and, as you see here, the banjo. Even at the end of his life he was playing in the Happy Time Banjo Band at the Sopranos in Redwood City.
“I’ve never thought of moving away; I’ve been so spoiled living in paradise,” he has said. “I sit on my deck and look out. You can breathe.”
The June 1946 wedding of Laura Ramies and Jack Mangini at Our lady of the Wayside brought together two pioneer families. Jack’s grandfather first came to the Portola Valley area in 1866 when the land was full of strawberry ranches. Laura’s family came in the early 1900s to pick prunes and apricots. They remember Chinese strawberry pickers, a car coming along Portola Road ever half hour or so, and a life of going to school and going to work. The Manginis had a Picnic Park in the stone building grounds that now houses Windmill Pre-School. Thousands would show up on weekends to have a good time. The Ramies family has had the Portola Valley Garage since 1963.
Nancy Lund, Portola Valley Town Historian, Educator and Author, and I embarked on a project several years ago to learn more about the roots of the Town of Portola Valley, California.
Nancy brought her knowledge of the Town’s history and interview skills and I, my technical and creative talents. Together we forged an alliance and captured video histories of many of Portola Valley’s earliest residents.
Our initial work was to find out about the people who helped incorporate the Town of Portola Valley, California in 1964. We wanted to learn what the forces were that helped to create the Town and the challenges our early residents faced.
Here we hope to share with you some of what we have learned. You can reach Nancy Lund at email@example.com