It is springtime in Palo Alto. The snow has melted, giving way to new shrubs and plants. And at the bottom of "Pally Mountain," children gather, eager to climb the slope.
This is Palo Alto, Pa.
"When you're a kid, you have to walk up the mountain," said Charles Dries, council president for the community of nearly 1,500. "It's a rite of spring."
Picnics and get-togethers on the mountain are common, Dries said. So is beer drinking among teenagers.
"If you live here, you go up to the white rock sometime in your life," he added.
This Palo Alto, located in mid-Eastern Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County (pronounced skookle), is the largest "other" Palo Alto in the United States, aside from a county of the same name in Iowa.
Called "Pally" by the locals, Palo Alto, Pa., is similar in some ways to Palo Alto, Calif.: Community members are active and aware. Residents feel happy and safe, according to those who live there. When homes go on the market, they sell within days.
But there is no bustling downtown with trendy restaurants and coffee shops. There are no famous garages.
A lone officer makes up the entire police force.
Palo Alto, Pa., is a borough -- not a city or a town -- which means it is in-between the two in size. Lying at the foot of the mountain, it has three principal streets -- or two and a half to be exact -- running its mile-long length.
It was created in 1816 under a land grant and for many years was known as Worterville. But it was renamed Palo Alto in 1854, not for any tall tree but because some of its young men fought and died in the Battle of Palo Alto in the Mexican-American War -- the most common namesake for Palo Altos across the United States.
The Pennsylvania Palo Alto is a rural community. It is small, residents say, but thriving.
The names of communities near Palo Alto, Pa., hint at the area's industrial past: Mechanicsville, Port Carbon, Minersville.
With the area's rich coal deposits, Dries thinks the first settlers came to work the mines.
The mountain itself was mined up until only 50 or 60 years ago, and locals can still find a few holes, Dries said.
"A coal mine still sits across the highway from my house," he added.
A small bridge connects the borough to a city called Pottsville, population 15,549, known as "The Gateway to the Anthracite Coal Region."
Hard coal from the area powered much of America's growth.
Residents are mainly working class, representing middle- and lower-middle-class families. The median household income in 1999 was $35,729, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition to coal, Palo Alto was once involved with major underwear production -- a large textile factory was only walking distance away. Major employers included JP Morgan Knitting and the Van Heusen Shirt Company. While the latter still owns a shipping plant just four miles away, only a few people from Palo Alto work there today.
Another of the borough's claims to fame: Costas Food Inc., a local candy company, co-created the famous York Peppermint Pattie, according to residents.
But Palo Alto is mainly a commuter town. Residents work in more populated places such as St. Clair, Reading and Harrisburg -- the state capital, where the pay scale is higher.
An average work commute is 30 minutes, but Dries drives an hour to Harrisburg, where he works for the auditor general for the State of Pennsylvania.
Other people, including Jared Diehl, 27, work just across the bridge in neighboring Pottsville.
He is Palo Alto's sole mailman.
Diehl's daily route covers about 450 homes.
"A great plus of being the mailman is that I get to see people I haven't seen in a while," he said. Stopping to talk sometimes slows him down, but Diehl doesn't mind.
"A plus is that I get to stop home for lunch almost everyday," he added.
Locals do almost all their shopping in neighboring Pottsville, but about 30 small businesses call Palo Alto home, said Mayor James Gayeuski, a resident of 47 years.
There used to be a couple places where people could eat, "but when folks retired, they closed the businesses," he said.
So most people hang out at Borough Hall, where a pavilion in the park across the street is used for concerts and town events such as the Memorial Day celebration. On that day, the pavilion is particularly busy, Gayeuski said.
There may be no "El Palo Alto," Stanford University or venture capital, but the borough prides itself immensely on its history and community feel. Life is community-oriented and laidback, residents say. Families have lived here for generations.
"You can blink, and everyone would know it," said John Vandermeer, a councilman and 18-year resident.
Dries estimates at least one half the people on his block have lived in the same house their whole lives.
"I'm going on 26 years in my house," said Dries, who has raised two grown sons with his wife, Betty.
If the inhabitants of a home are not the original owners, "they are most likely relatives."
Most families are of Italian, Irish, German and Eastern European descent; almost 99 percent of the population is white.
Diehl, the mailman, has lived in Palo Alto since third grade. He and his wife have two young sons, ages 1 and 2.
With family close by and playing on the streets generally considered safe, Palo Alto is a great place to grow up, he said.
"My dad lives just a block away, and across from him there's a playground," he said.
Someday Diehl's sons will attend school across the bridge in Pottsville; Palo Alto's only school closed back in the '70s. The Pottsville Area School District includes several boroughs and small towns so the middle and high schools have about 1,000 students each -- about the size of Palo Alto itself.
"The Pottsville schools weren't bad," Diehl remembered. "but there were lots of kids." Unlike in Palo Alto, Calif., school brings little stress in Palo Alto, Pa. Students are involved with academics, but the school culture centers heavily on sports.
"We are involved with just about every sport -- football, golf, gymnastics, even water polo," Dries said. The high school has an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and interest in soccer is quickly picking up. Kids also participate in after-school events and school plays, he said.
Councilman Vandermeer, whose 12-year-old daughter attends middle school in Pottsville, calls the schools "very good" and conveniently close -- "only about 20 blocks away."
After high school, most students leave for college or join the military, which is unfortunate because some don't come back to Palo Alto, Mayor Gayeuski said. But while young people usually settle in other places, some older folks return to the borough to retire.
"We are a really nice community -- a typical small town," Gayeuski said.
A typical two- or three-bedroom house in Palo Alto sells for about $80,000.
Housing demand in the borough now may not be fierce, but "when a house goes up for sale, people go for it in only a matter of days -- not weeks," according to Dries.
Municipal finances can be a challenging topic in Palo Alto.
"You don't want to raise taxes, but you don't want to cut services," said Dries, echoing many a discussion that's taken place in Palo Alto, Calif. With prices going up, "sometimes you wonder where the money will come from," he said.
Last year the council was forced to raise taxes for the first time in 12 years due to a Pennsylvania regulation -- but "it was only 2 mills," said Gayeuski, referring to a ratio used to tax property.
"Our mills stay at 9.5 right now," said Diehl, "and that year my taxes went up only by $20 or so."
Palo Alto's yearly budget is approximately $250,000.
"There's usually no trouble" meeting it, according to Gayeuski. It helps that council members are very frugal and conscientious with all decisions, he added.
But there are needs, such as the Collins Street bridge, built in the 1920s, which has been shut down for safety reasons.
"The bridge to Pottsville needs replacing," Vandermeer said, noting that it is the shortest route to the schools and local hospitals. "We need a few million dollars."
A request for funds has already been submitted to the state, but the issue is "moving at the pace of government," according to Gayeuski.
And Palo Alto cannot pay for it alone.
One option to share costs and provide more services to Palo Alto residents would be to merge with Pottsville -- an idea other communities like Mechanicsville are considering. But Dries is adamant Palo Alto will never merge.
"It's a universal feeling. There's not the slightest hint," he said. "Palo Alto is its own community and will always want to be its own community."
So Palo Alto residents pitch in to keep their community running. The fire department is entirely volunteer-run -- with about 40 active members staffing the East End and Citizens volunteer fire companies. Both men and women volunteer, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, said Diehl, who serves as assistant chief for the borough's fire department along with being a councilman.
And Palo Alto does get a little help.
"From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. a neighboring community -- Port Carbon -- works with us," said Diehl. Just northeast of Palo Alto, Port Carbon has a population of 2,019.
To combat crime, Palo Alto has a one-man police force: Sgt. Robert Crawford Jr.
"The policeman lives a couple miles away from us," Diehl said.
Crawford works 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shifts, logging in about 40 to 60 incidents a month. When he is off duty, state police officers take calls, and Port Carbon officers occasionally drive through to make sure everything's alright, Diehl said.
But Palo Alto, crime-wise, is a quiet place. There has only been one murder in Palo Alto, according to residents interviewed. Disturbances are few, if any. Crawford usually checks the playgrounds and deals with petty theft and suspicious people.
"Once in a blue moon we'll have some major activity," Diehl said.
At one time, "there was a kid or two doing drugs," Dries said. "But that has been resolved."
Complaints are few and far between.
"Sometimes a guy will complain his neighbor's grass is too high," Diehl said. But it doesn't usually get worse than that.
Council meetings take place once a month and usually last about an hour and a half. They mostly center on committee briefings and open discussion. Each of the six council members heads a committee overseeing issues ranging from finance to borough beautification.
The war memorial committee has been particularly active lately, raising money to refurbish Palo Alto's memorial wall, according to the councilmen. Dedicated to Palo Alto citizens in the armed forces, the wall is running out of space for the names of those who died in service.
As stable as life in Palo Alto is, change has come to the area. One of the more recent events: the construction of a new state prison in Frackville, just 10 miles northeast.
The prison was built about two years ago, according to Kelly Vandermeer, John's wife. As a state prison, it's brought more new people to Pottsville, including inmates' family members, she said.
Pottsville for most of its history has been predominantly white. Now that's changing, "especially in the projects area," Kelly Vandermeer said.
She likes Palo Alto because it's still quiet, she said.
But while she may feel some discomfort over Pottsville's changes, Kelly Vandermeer is not uneasy with her daughter going to the schools there. As former PTA president for her daughter's elementary school, she believes the schools are "very good."
"There are a lot of children here. And if Palo Alto changes, I think it'll only be for the better," she said.
In interview after interview, Palo Altans repeatedly said how much they love their community -- a trait shared by at least some California Palo Altans.
The borough last year celebrated its 150th anniversary by publishing a commemorative book detailing the history of the community -- including the period when it had its own professional football team: The Palo Alto Red Devils.
"We are so proud of this book. It was a joint effort by everyone in the community. When it was published, I took copies down to the state library," Dries said.
It caught the attention of other smaller communities planning upcoming celebrations.
Along with articles highlighting the borough's history, the book brims with family business ads and memorial notes tracing back family lines in Palo Alto as far back as 1887.
One ad reads: "It doesn't seem like 150 years. As a resident for 60 years, I've enjoyed my life in Palo Alto to the fullest extent."
This story contains 2221 words.
If you are a paid subscriber, check to make sure you have logged in. Otherwise our system cannot recognize you as having full free access to our site.
If you are a paid print subscriber and haven't yet set up an online account, click here to get your online account activated.