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Today's news: tomorrow's history

Palo Alto historian calls for relics of the present and near-past, to save for the future

Streetcar tracks run down University Avenue. A horse and wagon roll through Professorville. A suffragette wears a sash over her dress that reads "Voter."

If someone had handed these photos to Guy Miller in 1913, when he started his job as Palo Alto's first city historian, might he have momentarily wondered: "Are these historic?" These were just scenes of life around him.

History, of course, has a way of sneaking up on us. A hundred years ago, Miller was maintaining Palo Alto's archives, clipping out articles and obituaries from newspapers that dated back 60 years. A hundred years later, his own world is part of the same archives that now bear his name.

Miller had file cabinets and books and a typewriter; today's city historian, Steve Staiger, has file cabinets and books and a desk that looks a lot like Miller's did, if you cover up the PC. Staiger also has a century more of perspective and the futuristic technology to make his artifacts instantly available globally.

Some 4,000 of the Palo Alto Historical Association's 13,000-plus photographs can be viewed through the organization's website. Type in "nineteen tens" for your decade of choice, and you see the streetcar tracks, the horse, the suffragette. You also get the Novelty Theatre on University Avenue, where people caught the latest motion pictures; the Palo Alto Poultry Market (listed as "location unknown" -- could it have been in your neighborhood?); a man in a three-piece suit driving a load of lumber down Alma Street.

Drop in on Staiger, who works Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Guy Miller Archives, and he may be able to tell you the backstory of your Palo Alto neighborhood, your street, maybe even your house. He might have a menu from the restaurant where your grandparents went on their first date. He could find your great-grandmother's obituary in his collection of 30,000.

These are very specific, local searches in a world where the Internet has everything. And perhaps that's part of the enduring appeal of a small municipal historical society.

The nonprofit Palo Alto Historical Association has been around for a century in one form or another (it was founded in 1948 as a successor to the city's historical society that began in 1913). Technology comes and goes, but a city historian is still minding the store, keeping track of Palo Alto. The association continues to publish books and an official newsletter, along with putting on talks and exhibits and working with the city to preserve historic places and structures.

As the society marks 100 years, those fascinated by the history of Palo Alto say the past is still very much with us. Fundraising efforts are in progress to open a new Palo Alto History Museum in the 1932 Roth Building. "The Roth Building restoration project is 'shovel-ready,'" said Karen Holman, a city councilwoman and the museum's former director.

In addition, PAHA board members Jeanne McDonnell and Doug Graham are at work on the association's newest book project, a history of the city of Mayfield that first neighbored Palo Alto to the south and then became part of it in 1925. As Staiger and others are quick to point out, that's why a city the size of Palo Alto has two downtowns: California Avenue (formerly Lincoln Street) used to be Mayfield's main drag.

In addition, Staiger said the number of visitors and inquiries to the archives is still healthy and in fact seems to be increasing. When asked why, he said that PAHA's active website makes the group easy to find. In addition, local history just plain remains interesting, especially to longtime residents of a city.

In his office in the archives, which are temporarily housed at Cubberley Community Center while the main library is being renovated, Staiger picks up the 1989 book "History of Palo Alto: The Early Years," by Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund, and reads a quote from Wallace Stegner: "Local history is the best history, the history with more of ourselves in it than other kinds. It is immediate, intimate, personally apprehended, and least in America it is by definition recent."

Staiger smiles. Local history, he adds, "doesn't scare people as much."


It was rare in 1913, and even for several years after that, for a city as small as Palo Alto to have its own historical association, Staiger said. In many California cities it wasn't until the 1940s, when the state's centennial was approaching, that there emerged a strong interest in local history.

Staiger himself came to Palo Alto in 1984, after growing up in Marin and going to library school at U.C. Berkeley. He worked for Palo Alto as a reference librarian until retiring 12 years ago and staying on in his current job. Some of that time overlapped with his work at the historical association. He's now PAHA's only staffer amongst volunteers and interns.

Family ties sparked his interest in local history, he said. "I had two grandparents born in California. They were here during the (1906) earthquake," he said. "They had histories and stories to tell."

Palo Alto is a pretty interesting place for a historian as well. Early on, it became clear that the city would become more than just another 19th-century farm town. For one, Staiger pointed out, it has long owned its own utilities, a rare thing for a city and one that has paid off financially.

"A hundred and 10 years ago, it was expected that utility companies would dominate, but Palo Alto did it itself," he said. The financial rewards helped make the city blossom, contributing to such municipal resources as five libraries and a multitude of parks, he added.

Palo Alto, too, has been bolstered by donations from residents over the decades, including just a few odds and ends from Lucie Stern, the Depression-era philanthropist whose dollars supported theaters and a community center, among other well-appreciated donations.

In addition, since 1885, the city has had the influence of neighboring Stanford to enrich it culturally and academically -- and financially. (It was two Stanford professors, Charles "Daddy" Marx and Charles Benjamin Wing, who were instrumental in developing the city-owned utility service.)

Stanford has also had other effects on Palo Alto's history that are less well known. In the early years of the 20th century, Palo Alto was home to many teetotalers, and even after the repeal of Prohibition the city remained largely dry for several years, thanks to a state law that banned the sale of hard liquor near college campuses of a certain size. Meanwhile, "San Mateo County was one of the wettest counties in the country," Staiger said.


Also positively sloshy -- at least for a time -- was the town of Mayfield, which once had so many saloons that Stanford students sometimes sang a drinking song about the "road to Mayfield," according to "Palo Alto: A Centennial History," a tome published by journalist Ward Winslow and PAHA in 1993.

Unfortunately for the barflies, Mayfield succumbed to the dry spirit and voted in a saloon ban that took effect on New Year's Day of 1905.

No history of Palo Alto would be complete without a look at Mayfield, which emerged as a town in the 1850s. Its first school was established in 1855, in a log cabin. By the early 1890s, when neighboring Palo Alto was taking form, Mayfield "lay somewhat isolated, dependent on farming, lumbering and the construction at Stanford, with a social life bound up with its schools, churches and fraternal lodges," Winslow wrote.

(The lumbering legacy lives on in the street signs for Page Mill Road, which was named after lumberman William Page. The road was built as a thoroughfare for transporting wood down from his yard into Mayfield.)

Officially incorporated as a town in 1903, Mayfield had its growing pains, not the least of which was an ongoing competition with its northern neighbor.

Palo Alto was swiftly being seen as a university town, intellectual and attractive, while Mayfield for a while had no lucrative businesses other than its saloons. Real-estate development and population influx slowed in Mayfield, Winslow wrote. The Bayside Cannery on Park Boulevard (its building now houses Fry's Electronics) was a major employer for several years, but its fortunes turned as the Santa Clara Valley's orchards dwindled. In May 1925, Mayfield's citizens voted 357 to 288 to be annexed into Palo Alto.

Winslow's book had a chapter on Mayfield, and PAHA's McDonnell and Graham are in the midst of creating the complete Mayfield book, which they hope will be published next summer.

"I'm being reintroduced to Mayfield. It's really quite a thrill," said McDonnell, who has been on PAHA's board for six years and is also the historian for The Woman's Club of Palo Alto. She and Graham are currently immersed in research for the book, going through archives and newspapers and, especially, photos. Later, they'll formalize the structure of chapters.

"To me, pictures say a lot more than words. There are some really good pictures of the houses that are quite amazing for that era," McDonnell said. "But mainly you look at the people there. That's what matters."

As McDonnell does her research, she's constantly asking herself, "Why?"

"Why did they come there in the first place?" she muses about Mayfield. "The ecology is terribly important. You had to have a water source, good soil -- to some extent you grew your own food -- and having the train right there was important. What made life what it was there? Why did people come there, and what did they create that was so vital?"

Photos in "Palo Alto: A Centennial History" give clues about the vitality of the community.

Mustachioed misters pose with their instruments in an 1889 photo of Mayfield's University Brass Band. A woman in a bustle curtsies at a dance academy. Pictures in PAHA's archives show a Fourth of July grand marshal on horseback, Rosenblum's General Merchandise Store, Jane Lathrop Stanford's Mayfield Free Kindergarten and an unusually snowy day in 1887.

However, no photo is known to exist of one of Mayfield's most influential residents, Sarah Armstrong Montgomery Green Wallis -- the very Sarah Wallis who has a park named after her off California Avenue.

She came west to San Francisco in 1844 as an 18-year-old bride, later remarking that "it was a delightful trip except when we got into the mountains," Staiger wrote in a Weekly column about Wallis in 1999. While her early marital life was checkered (her first husband left for Hawaii and never returned; her second had another wife), she eventually found solid nuptials with justice of the peace and state senator Joseph Wallis. She also became a leading advocate for women's rights.

For many years, the Wallis family lived in the Palo Alto area. Sarah Wallis was an investor in the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad -- and a major reason why today's California Avenue train station is where it is. "They were going to put the train station on the corner of Churchill and Alma," McDonnell said. "But the local people and Sarah Wallis wanted the station in their town (Mayfield), so they could get to it. She was a leader in that sense."

McDonnell added: "She was also very prominent in getting good schools established. That wasn't always common in those days."

The Wallises lived first on Mayfield Farm in what is now the Barron Park area of Palo Alto, and then moved to a smaller house in Mayfield after the economic downturn of 1875. Sarah Wallis Park marks the site of that home.

Long interested in women's history, McDonnell has been fascinated with Wallis for years, and helped get a historic plaque put up in her honor at the former site of Mayfield Farm, on La Selva Drive.

"We are what we were," McDonnell said about her abiding interest in history. "We didn't start out on an original basis anywhere in the world. It's extremely important to know how this land that we're living on has been transformed. And what does it mean to us today?"


From her seat on the Palo Alto City Council, Karen Holman also does a lot of thinking about how local history affects what she does today. Many in Silicon Valley think about history in the sense of making it -- creating the latest high-tech something that will echo down the years (or months). But as a council member, Holman has to be immersed more in the concrete, the brick-and-mortar history of local buildings and streets and neighborhoods.

"Having a good understanding of how we got to where we are today, what guidance was laid out previously, provides a good foundation in how to approach current and future actions," she said.

Holman cited a current proposal to build a downtown office and theater complex at 27 University Ave. The plan would displace the building that houses the MacArthur Park restaurant, a structure designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan.

"Knowing the history and importance of the Julia Morgan Hostess House gave me an understanding of the care with which development ... should be respectful of that building (that is) listed on the National Register, designed by a revered female California architect and first home to the Children's Theatre," Holman said.

As another example, she added that knowing the background of Cubberley Community Center helps determine how to govern its future. The south Palo Alto center, now a home to numerous cultural and educational organizations, was originally opened in 1956 as Cubberley High School but closed in 1979 in the wake of declining enrollment. Most of it is still owned by the school district and leased by the city; with the lease expiring at the end of the next year, the center's future is an open question.

Holman is looking ahead to a future that includes a new Palo Alto History Museum downtown. While she stepped aside as executive director last year and PAHA board member Rich Green now heads the museum, she clearly remains passionate about the need for the facility.

The museum would "serve as a core resource to connect people from around the world to our city's dynamic past," she said. "It will be a place of great inspiration, designed to help us better understand and more effectively influence the world in which we live."

As planned, the museum would house the city's archives as well as exhibits on such topics as the local history of education, technology, sports and the arts. Classes for children and adults are also envisioned, along with joint programs with such organizations as the Stanford Historical Society and history classes at local schools.

The museum's proposed home, the Birge Clark-designed Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave., has plenty of history of its own. Besides formerly housing the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, the structure holds the dubious honor of sparking Palo Alto's first traffic jam.

Victor Arnautoff's Art Deco murals created a commotion in 1932 for depicting half-naked patients in the examination room; after the San Francisco Chronicle ran a critical article in the Sunday paper, "everyone drove by after church to see for themselves," Staiger said.

Today, the museum project has been approved by the City Council and the Historic Resources Board and is simply awaiting sufficient funding to break ground, Holman said.

The museum's board is still studying what its final fundraising goal will be and is consulting with potential donors, Green said. "Funds are needed for rehabilitation of the Roth Building, operations, a reserve and an endowment. Construction funds to complete the rehabilitation of the building are estimated to be in the area of $2.5 million."

Green said the board is also looking for funds for the first two to three years of operations. "The expectation is that our campaign will be aggressive," he said.


For Staiger, the close of that campaign can't come soon enough. He gets a little dreamy when he talks about a new history museum, one that could be part of a historic district in the neighborhood of the Museum of American Heritage, the Hewlett-Packard garage and the Woman's Club.

While the archives have more commonly housed two-dimensional artifacts, Staiger also keeps an eye out for items that would look good in a museum display case. Those include the black satin jacket that hangs on the wall of the archives, sporting the logo "Cameo Club." The cardroom used to be on El Camino Real in south Palo Alto. The jacket is probably from the 1980s.

Other items include a host of pens and pencils with logos for the city's utility department and libraries. Everyday, perhaps, but they could mean something more. "This could be part of an exhibit about the branding of Palo Alto," Staiger said.

Giving a visitor a tour of the archives, he ambles between rows of file cabinets labeled by subject. One is marked "Organizations," with the Peninsula Women's Chorus, the Parents' Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the Rainbow Girls, the Rebekahs. At 30,000 strong, the obituaries take up a lot of space in the cabinets. More prominent Palo Altans like Birge Clark get bigger, "obituaries-plus" files; his folder also contains an autobiography and a genealogy of his family.

Staiger also points out files of houses listed by address. They might include details on when and how an early-20th-century house was built or something as recent as last week's newspaper listing. "One of the things we most avidly collect is real-estate ads," Staiger said. Ads can give great insight into architectural styles that were popular in a given era, or just tell how many bathrooms people liked to have.

Also prevalent are old phone books; old newspapers stored on microfilm, some of them defunct (the Palo Alto Live Oak, anyone?); and old Polk's city directories that listed a person's name, address, phone number and profession. A phone book from the turn of the 20th century combined Palo Alto with the whole county, because there were only about 100 telephones in the entire county.

And there are lots of yearbooks. A city historian can never have too many yearbooks. They're great for looking up past fashions and hairstyles, but they can also provide important insight into genealogy and changes in demographics, Staiger said.

So Staiger would like your yearbook, if you don't want it anymore. Especially if you graduated after 1970, which is when the collection starts to drop off.

This is true of the archive as a whole. It's less strong on documents, photos and other items from more recent years, perhaps because people don't think their own "present-day" things are really historic. Staiger estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the archives' photos are from the 1990s or beyond.

"We're always asking people to send photos of things that might be historic or paint a picture of a place or time, even if they don't think it's worth anything," Staiger said. "Guy Miller would say, 'Let me throw it away for you.' I say, 'Let me recycle it for you.'" PAHA has even enlisted people to go out and shoot specific photos.

Another possible reason why fewer recent photos are being donated is that they're often shot digitally and never printed. PAHA is fine with receiving digital images -- its website's wealth of images attests to that -- but one technology-related challenge it is still grappling with is how best to share high-res versions with the public.

Technology evolves, but many of the questions that visitors ask the city historian remain the same. People still ask about their own genealogy, who built their house and when. Kids still love historic mysteries; when Staiger gives presentations at third-grade classes, the students love speculating about why Mayfield landowner Peter Coutts built the medieval Frenchman's Tower in 1875. (It's still a mystery.)

For decades, Staiger has kept track on index cards of all the inquiries he receives each year. The cards show the numbers are growing, he said. As an example, he pulls out his neatly inked card from fiscal year 1994-95: 266 in-person visitors, 161 phone inquiries, 13 mail or other ("other" is probably email). That's a total of 440 for one year, compared to 40 for September 2013 (15 in-person, 10 phone, 15 mail or email).

Some of the most interesting inquiries are the most specific. One man had a passion for vintage menus, Staiger said, pulling out his menu file. A pink one for a restaurant called Blum's offers Ham Steak Dixie with candied sweet potato for $1.50.

Palo Alto author Meg Waite Clayton worked with Staiger to do research for her novel "The Wednesday Sisters," about five women living in Palo Alto in the 1960s. "She thanked me in her acknowledgments," he said.

Then there was the man who came in because he was writing a noir novel about a Sam Spade type in the 1930s and '40s. The character was going to come through Palo Alto, and the author wanted to know: How would he get here from San Francisco, where would he stay, what would he eat? "We showed him city directories, old menus, where the character could get alcohol," Staiger said.

Mission accomplished. And yet, as any historian -- or gumshoe -- knows, there is often a part of the story that remains unknown.

"He was very excited with the information," said Staiger, who then looked a little disappointed. "But we never saw the book."

Check out the archives

The Palo Alto Historical Association's archives are currently housed in Room H-5 at the Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, and open Tuesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. and Thursdays from 1 to 5 p.m.

PAHA also presents free public programs at its monthly general meetings the first Sunday of the month. The next is 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For details, go to Information about the Palo Alto History Museum project is posted at

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Like this comment
Posted by UC Davis Grad
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Great story! The people who live in a community should have a way to know their community's history -- since, after all, the past shapes the present.

Great photos, BTW.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm

I have consulted with Steve on numerous occasions researching various topics of Palo Alto history, and can say unreservedly that Steve Staiger always provides both impressive, and courteous, service to myself. It is a pleasure to visit with Steve, whose knowledge of the Historical Society’s archives is encyclopedic. In my opinion, Steve Staiger sets the bar for customer service, even though that is not his primary role.

The historical society’s archive is paper-based, as it were, stored in a couple dozen filing cabinets. For the most part, Steve can retrieve archival material in a very short time on virtually any subject in the archive. However, it would be a huge step forward if the inventory of all of these filing cabinets were placed on-line, as a “finding aid”, which would allow interested parties to investigate the whole of the archive without having to actually visit the location where the materials are physically located. Advertising the contents of the archive would likely help to increase not only people’s knowledge of its existence, but might also increase the use of this material by people interested in Palo Alto history.

Like this comment
Posted by Truth
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm

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Posted by Sara
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 1, 2013 at 7:17 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Old Palo Alto

on Jun 6, 2017 at 1:18 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

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