Palo Alto Centennial

Memories of Palo Alto's "father"

by Carol Blitzer

John F. Parkinson was a man of stature: both in size--he was 6 feet, 3 inches tall--and in business and community life in Palo Alto at the turn of the century.

He started a lumberyard in 1892 (on the site of the former Hubbard and Johnson outlet) speculated in land in Ravenswood (now East Palo Alto), ran for state senator (and lost by just a few votes, recalls his family), and published a newspaper called The Citizen from 1904 to 1916.

Parkinson was a man who took his civic responsibilities seriously. Injured in Palo Alto's first automobile accident in 1906, he got out of his sickbed to help organize the food drive for needy San Franciscans after the earthquake. He wasn't too ill to chastise local merchants for raising prices, and managed to keep a lid on price-gouging, his daughter, Sarah Parkinson, said in an interview with the Weekly in 1986.

Parkinson and his wife had five children and lived at 1101 University Ave. on a half-acre plot with plenty of room for animals.

Sarah said she and her youngest brother, Jack, used to ride their Shetland ponies to Castilleja, which accepted boy students then, where she went through fifth grade (Jack stayed on through eighth). Sarah attended Lytton Avenue School (where Lytton Gardens is today), then Channing Avenue School (where Channing House is now) and Palo Alto High School.

Sarah finished her education at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, while brother Jack went on to Stanford. He later served a manager of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, carrying on his dad's tradition.

After that major car accident, Sarah's father never got behind the wheel again, except once when sons Ben and Bob encouraged him to try once more, and at that point he had forgotten how to use the brakes. He did not try again.

Sarah said she remembered well the day her father's lumberyard went up in flames and everything was destroyed. Her dad told her he lost $60,000 in the fire, and he had no insurance.

"Living didn't cost what it does today," Sarah said. "My dad was always a good provider" she added, explaining that the fire didn't stop him. He went on to work in real estate. "He always had something going."

Sometimes called the father of Palo Alto, Parkinson was granted the first franchise for the streetcar line called the Toonerville Trolley, which ran down University Avenue. He talked the Carnegie Foundation into putting up $10,000 to help begin the town's library, and even served on the school board.

Although two men preceded him nominally as mayor--or chairman of the trustees as the job was called at first--he was the first active mayor, serving in 1906, Sarah said. He was also the first postmaster, organizer of the Chamber of Commerce, master of ceremonies for the historical society and director of the first Bank of Palo Alto.

J.F. Parkinson died in 1956.

In his autobiography, Parkinson admitted that he'd "made a fortune in Palo Alto and lost it in Palo Alto. I don't know a better place to do either."

After her dad died, Sarah moved to Barron Park.