Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The quiet '20s

by Kathleen Donnelly

In 1920, Palo Altans waited for federal census figures to be released with a great degree of anticipation. Up and down University Avenue, businessmen assured one another that Palo Alto's population had doubled in 10 years, up from 4,500 to at least 8,000. Why not, after all? The town had a great future.

At Stanford University, it seemed the hard times following Jane Stanford's death in 1905 were finally over. The buildings damaged by the great earthquake had been replaced and enrollment had topped 2,000. And at least some former San Franciscans frightened by the earthquake took Palo Alto up on its post-temblor promotion aimed at convincing shaky city dwellers to move down the "safe" Peninsula. The town now had an estimated 200 commuters who took the hourlong train tide to the city each working day. To top it off, an agriculturist had just published an article trumpeting the new that Palo Alto was about to become the milk goat capital of the world.

So when the official census count showed the population of Palo Alto to be only 5,900, the townspeople were outraged. They did what true Palo Altans of any age would do in the same situation: They debated demanding a recount. Only the fact that the neighboring town of Mayfield had grown even less, up 87 people from 1,040 to 1,127, finally assuaged feelings.

In 1920, attracting new residents was still a foremost goal of the small town near the great university. In its 26 years of incorporation, Palo Alto had grown into a pleasant place full of pleasant homes, many of them owned by Stanford faculty members.

In other words, around Palo Alto the '20s didn't exactly roar, but they did engage in an animated conversation.

For Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the decade started out with a loss of population rather than an increase. After World War I, the soldiers of Camp Fremont left their grounds and the land reverted to its previous owners. For months afterward, rumors circulated around Menlo Park that a Hollywood motion picture studio would take over the site. The motion picture studio never materialized.

When Prohibition came about in 1920, Palo Alto was more than ready. As one booster in the '20s put it, "The saloon and the blind pig (a place that sold liquor illegally) have never existed in Palo Alto, so that the police department does not occupy a prominent place in the city's administration."

Property owners in Palo Alto faced strict controls when it came to bootlegging. Deeds to property in the "Hopkins Tract" all stated that if the property owner, his heirs or his assigns "shall at any time manufacture or sell, to be used as a beverage, any intoxicating liquor, or permit the same to be done on the premises thereby occupied, this deed shall be void and the premises revert to and become the absolute property of the devisor." Until 1922, that devisor was Timothy Hopkins and his wife, Mary. In 1922, the assignation was shifted to the Stanford Board of Trustees.

But in Menlo Park, the saloon and the blind pig did exist, even through Prohibition. Newspapers of the day periodically carried reports like this one, published in 1922:

"The agents raided two places at Menlo Park, one on complaint of Stanford University officials, who said students had become intoxicated in the place. The Menlo Park Cafe, where Louis Figone and George L. Condor were taken into custody as the proprietors, was the place complained of by the University. Authorities at the Veteran's Hospital also said the disabled soldiers undergoing rehabilitation training there had also been drinking in the establishment. The Oak Villa Inn at Menlo Park was the second place raided and J. Oliver and Bissio arrested as proprietors."

In the '20s, serious citizens of Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto and Mayfield, the town located near the site of California Avenue today, spent a lot of their spare time debating the boundaries of their towns.

By 1920 Palo Alto was the only settlement to be officially incorporated as a city. Now, the question of which land belonged to which city was a point of intense discussion.

The most intense group were those trying to incorporate Menlo Park and Atherton. Representatives from both areas met throughout the early '20s to discuss becoming one city. The men from Menlo Park were all for including Atherton, but the men from Atherton were by no means convinced.

Finally, after one particularly heated meeting in Menlo Park's Masonic Hall, the Atherton contingent bolted, scrambled through the night to gather enough residents' signatures to incorporate their town and then literally raced the Menlo Park contingent to the courthouse in Redwood City in the morning. Atherton won and the city was incorporated. Menlo Park's representatives dragged home to regroup.

Meanwhile, residents of Mayfield were wondering whether they should allow the town to be annexed to Palo Alto. But residents of Palo Alto weren't sure they approved of their southern neighbors. Mayfield had approached Palo Alto 10 years earlier, in 1915, and had been gently dissuaded from seeking annexation by the Palo Altans. Now it was 1924, and Mayfield wanted to pave its streets.

Representatives of both towns formed an annexation committee, and Palo Alto made it clear to Mayfield that it would not pay for the street paving, annexation or no. In May 1925, Mayfield's citizens voted to become part of Palo Alto. In July, the Palo Altans voted to accept Mayfield. And, despite the objections of a committee formed to keep Mayfield out, Palo Alto now had a north and a south.

Back in Menlo Park, residents despaired of ever incorporating the town. In a fit of frustration, the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce went on the record in January 1927 as advocating a bill before the state Legislature that would allow Palo Alto to annex Menlo Park, even though the two communities were in different counties.

The move would "prevent Menlo Park from becoming what it now is becoming," the chamber thundered, "the dumping ground of the Peninsula!"

The chamber's stand seemed to give Menlo Park residents the push they needed, since most residents stood staunchly against joining with Palo Alto. Later that same year, the town was incorporated.

On Stanford campus, construction of sports facilities surged. In 1921, 100 teams of horses and mules pulling scrapers moved 232,000 cubic yards of earth to create Stanford Stadium. Construction was finished in time for the annual Big Game against California. Encina Pavilion was built for basketball in 1922 and the Sunken Diamond, for baseball games, was finished in 1925 in the pit left after a stadium project.

In between sports facility construction projects, university President Ray Lyman Wilbur pushed Stanford toward becoming a true, outward-looking university instead of the fairly insulated, regional school it became during the hard years after Mrs. Stanford's death. Wilbur expanded graduate study at the university, reorganized the independent departments into schools and promoted faculty research.

He also was on hand at the beginning of the decade, when Stanford graduate Herbert Hoover established a library for the study of war, revolution and peace at Stanford. Almost 10 years later, in 1928, Stanford celebrated as Hoover won the presidential election and became the university's most famous alumnus.