Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 16, 2008

One acre and independence

East Palo Alto's early incarnation as an agrarian utopia may be informing its success in the future

by Alexander Papoulias

The chicken coops and greenhouses are long-gone, but if one knows just where to look, the City of East Palo Alto still bears some physical reminders of its agrarian past.

Some of the pump houses from the 1920s still exist; many of them now used as storage sheds or simply given over to weeds and cobwebs. Covered over by what must be dozens of layers of paint, the building that was once the Runnymede community clubhouse still sits at the corner of Weeks Street and Clarke Avenue in the heart of the city.

Today, California is dotted with the remains of small agricultural communities, which saw their heyday in the 1920s. They sprang up in large part as a response to the rapid industrialization of the country, and the desire of many to return to a simpler rural way of life. Almost 100 years later, that spirit of self-reliance and a desire to farm the local landscape still survives east of U.S. 101.

Raised on a farm in Indiana, Charles Weeks came to California in 1904 to pursue just such a life, and his story and the history of what is now East Palo Alto are inextricably linked.

Weeks' first attempt at farming in California, a poultry farm in the Los Altos Hills, failed within a few years due to the area's unreliable water supply, according to Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association.

Undeterred, Weeks resettled in 1916 on a five-acre plot on the outskirts of Palo Alto near where Hamilton Avenue and Newell Road intersect today — a calculated decision made partially because the area's high water shelf would make digging wells an easy task.

Additionally, his new farm was located close to the booming college town of Palo Alto and just a one-hour train ride from San Francisco. The farming community Weeks would create would succeed where so many others had failed, in part because of its proximity to the urban markets of San Francisco and the Peninsula.

His claim to fame was an innovative way of raising chickens in narrow, compact coops, which would come to be known as "The Weeks Poultry Method." Housing chickens — sometimes as many as 25 in an 8-foot by 8-foot enclosure — the Weeks Method maximized a farm's available space and tripled its productivity. What might be seen today as an inhumane practice was regarded as inspired thinking at the time, and curious people from around the country began visiting the Weeks farm to see his innovation firsthand.

One visitor was the socialist utopian William E. Smythe, whose vision of small self-sustaining farming communities was already beginning to inspire many who were ready to give up urban life for something different. Weeks came to adopt many of Smythe's ideas and envisioned his land as a self-sufficient farming community, where the land itself could meet every one of a family's needs, according to a 1997 article, "Remnants of a Failed Utopia," by Katherine Solomonson and Alan Michaelson.

Weeks purchased land near San Francisquito Creek, cleared it for settlement, divided and sold it to hopeful settlers in one-acre parcels. Evidence of Weeks' land division can be seen today in the tight street grid of East Palo Alto and the long narrow plots of land that make up many of the city's blocks.

Weeks' philosophy was indicative of a "back to the land" movement, which emerged in America around the 1920s as a response to the changing face of the nation's landscape and culture from rural to urban. Weeks named his community "Runnymede," after the meadow in the English countryside where the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. Within five years, some 1,200 people had taken up residence: many of them farmers, and many of them people from cities across the country lured by dreams of a simpler life and independence from employers and city life.

Weeks promoted his vision with pamphlets and magazine articles that reached people across the country. In addition, Weeks authored a book, "Egg Farming in California," which was equal parts autobiography, instruction manual and philosophical manifesto.

Runnymede was a tightly knit collection of small family farms, each of which was designed to be entirely self-sustaining, with a well and a pump-house for water, a small home at the land's street-facing end, enough space for vegetable farming and fruit trees, and of course the Charles Weeks Chicken Coop. Seen from the street, Runnymede's narrow lots with their houses situated in front looked nearly suburban, though the similarities to the neighboring communities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park stopped there.

After a few years, the community of Runnymede was second only to the city of Petaluma as the nation's largest producer of eggs and poultry, wrote author Eugene T. Sawyer in his book, "History of Santa Clara County, California." Runnymede became known unofficially, but perhaps more widely, as the Weeks Poultry Colony.

Despite its successes, records from the period show that the property turnover rate at Runnymede was quite high — few families stayed on longer than a year or two. It has been supposed that many of the colony's early residents were not prepared for the intensive labor necessary for maintaining a working farm. Many seem to have been lured by an idyllic vision of clean air and country living without having a clear idea of the rigors of farm life.

By the mid 1920s, Runnymede was on the decline. Charles Weeks had vacated and sold his land and left to promote a new colony called Owensmouth outside of Los Angeles. Runnymede's colonists had begun to squabble with their neighbors over whether the area should be called Runnymede or Ravenswood — the name originally given to the community's bayfront wharf when it was founded in 1849. According to the East Palo Alto Historical and Agricultural Society, a compromise was struck at a community meeting, and the town was thereafter called East Palo Alto.

Without Weeks as its dynamic leader, the community became rudderless, and an influx of new colonists with little understanding of the colony's original philosophical ideals arrived and began settling on as many acres as they could afford to buy. Weeks' vision of "one acre and freedom" was over. In the late '20s, what remained of the Runnymede poultry colony was dealt a final blow when its wells became contaminated with salt water from the Bay, and an epidemic wiped out the last of its chickens.

By the time the Great Depression hit in the '30s, one acre of land was simply not enough to sustain a farming family. The community's problems were further compounded when in 1933 the Bayshore Highway, which would later become U.S. Highway 101, was extended to connect San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, running directly through what was the area's main business district. The distinction between suburban, collegiate Palo Alto and its comparatively poor rural neighbor to the east began with this divide and persists to this day.

Even as its neighboring cities became more suburban, agricultural expansion in East Palo Alto continued for years after the demise of Runnymede and well into the post-WWII era.

The early 1940s saw Italian and Japanese flower growers move into East Palo Alto. The long, narrow plots of land that remained from the Runnymede era were ideal for the construction of greenhouses to shelter rows of flowers. However, discriminatory property laws meant the Japanese could not be landowners and were unable to rise above the station of tenant farmers. In the hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, East Palo Alto's Japanese were sent with thousands of others to the Heart Mountain Detention center in Wyoming during the spring of 1942.

Even with the Japanese gone, East Palo Alto reached a level of cultural and ethnic diversity in the 1940s unlike any of its neighboring communities. Charles Weeks had marketed his version of utopia strictly to middle-class whites, and it was only after Runnymede that the area saw any ethnic variety. By the 1960s, East Palo Alto's makeup was predominantly African-American, and the 1980s saw a huge influx of Latinos and Pacific Islanders. In the late 1980s and 1990s, East Palo Alto fell on even harder times and its reputation as a center of drug activity and gang violence was beamed into households by media eager for a spectacle.

Today, many of the same philosophical ideals espoused by Charles Weeks 90 years ago are being embraced by a new generation. Already, many of Runnymede's old lots have been converted into private and cooperative community gardens where food is grown for residents as well as on a commercial level for sale to restaurants and at Peninsula farmer's markets.

Happy Quail Farms, located on a two-acre plot at 804 Green St., is one such example. David Winsberg grew up on a pepper farm in south Florida and founded Happy Quail in 1980, naming it after the quails whose eggs he sold to Chinese restaurants in the farm's early days. The land was originally rented to Winsberg by a few of the area's last remaining flower growers.

Though Winsberg never intended for Happy Quail to be a standard-bearer for organic farming, it has grown into the model of small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

"I decided to make farming my livelihood 28 years ago, and we're in this for the long haul. Growing food on the same land year after year really requires an understanding of seasonal irregularities and of the land itself," Winsberg said.

Popular among local chefs, caterers and food enthusiasts for the variety and quality of its peppers, Happy Quail's specialty is the Pimiento De Padron, a variety of Spanish pepper known for its capricious heat and sweet, nutty flavor. The peppers are grown in a greenhouse in which temperature and humidity are automatically regulated by computer, making the most of the area's climate. According to Winsberg, this process allows the peppers "a longer maturing time ... which gives them their renowned sweetness."

The innovation Charles Weeks was known for in his time had to do with economy and maximizing a farm's available space. Happy Quail seems to be taking a cue directly from the Runnymede colony in its thrifty management of land. Happy Quail uses what is known as the "Dutch Method" of growing cucumbers, for example, in which a series of strings and wires are used to direct the plant's vines upward rather than outward.

"This is one way we maximize the use of space so vital in the greenhouse," Winsberg said.

Only time will tell how the area's agricultural roots will inform its future. If the past is any indicator, there will always be farms in East Palo Alto.

Editorial Intern Alexander Papoulias can be e-mailed at apapoulias@paweekly.com.

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