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

The '30s: down but not out

During the Great Depression, the people of Palo Alto learned to pull together to make a stronger community

by Carol Blitzer

The advertisement read: 6-RM. modern hse., 2 bdrms., sleeping porch. Lge. fireplace, 100 ft. frontage by 147 deep. Cor. lot. Fruit trees. Price $3,750

No, that isn't a typographical error. That's what it cost to buy a house in Palo Alto in the 1930s. The country was racked by the Great Depression, and Palo Alto was just a sleepy little burg with fewer than 14,000 residents. By the end of 1939 that had grown to only 16,774.

In the '30s, Palo Alto was not a center of high finance. Rather, it was a pastoral area, with orchards to the south and farms to the east in the neighboring communities of Ravenswood and Runnymede. If you couldn't afford to buy one of the homes, you could always rent a seven-room house near schools for about $70 a month.

But if people weren't exactly rich, they didn't tend to dwell on it. "You didn't buy anything," recalled Elizabeth Nitz in an interview with the Weekly in 1988. Nitz graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1938. "My dad was in business for himself, in real estate and insurance. We just didn't buy anything . . ." She paused. "I didn't know anyone who had a Shirley Temple doll!"

Nitz grew up in Palo Alto's Professorville neighborhood, near Lincoln Avenue and Ramona Street. Two things stood out in her memory: She recalled the students voting at Paly High to require uniforms, a middy blouse with a blue serge skirt, so no one would demonstrably have more than anyone else. And she remembered her father nagging her to come see the newly elected President Herbert Hoover in 1928. She wanted to stay home and play, but her father won that argument, asking how often a president comes from your hometown.

Socially, Nitz feels that the '30s was a time when family was emphasized more than today. She recalls doing more things as a group, having birthday parties to which siblings were automatically invited. "It was a nice time to grow up," she said.

In many ways the town was sleepy and rural, but progress was catching up to Palo Alto in some measurable ways. In 1932, Palo Alto architect Birge Clark designed a post office, which had 165 employees, including 60 carriers by the end of 1933. The College Terrace branch library opened in 1936. And the Palo Alto Airport was moved from the edge of Stanford campus to between what was the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor and Bayshore Highway.

On the schools front, the public elementary and high school districts consolidated in 1936. One of the early actions of the newly merged district was to assess its buildings in light of the '33 earthquake damage in Long Beach. After consulting with engineer Walter L. Huber, the district decided to rebuild the Palo Alto High School auditorium, remodel the library and gym and improve Addison and Mayfield schools. Voters approved a $110,000 bond issue to cover the costs.

Another bond issue would cover the cost of the land for what would become David Starr Jordan Junior High School, 16 acres purchased from the Alfred Seale family. Named for a former president of Stanford University, Jordan was designed by Birge and David Clark and cost $322,550. It opened in the fall of 1937.

Private schools also made some headway in the '30s. Menlo School and College incorporated as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization in 1931. The John Carter Ford Country Day School was started in 1935, begun by the man who founded and directed five seasons of the Palo Alto Summer Theatre for children at Castilleja School. A few years earlier, in 1930, the Palo Alto Secretarial School opened its doors with 20 pupils at 180 University Ave.

With the founding of the Palo Alto Community Theatre in 1931 and the Palo Alto Children's Theatre in 1932, Palo Alto was rapidly becoming known as a small center of cultural activities.

It also was known as a speed trap.

Concerned about an increase in traffic-related accidents and even a death, Police Chief Howard Zink instituted a plan of rigorous and impartial enforcement of traffic regulation. That meant anyone getting off the Bayshore Highway where it ended at University Avenue and speeding up University probably would get a ticket before reaching El Camino Real.

Town merchants were not amused. In fact, they feared that this "vigorous enforcement" would hurt trade. But when the local newspaper, the Times, polled its readers, 804 were for the enforcement and only 60 against. So Palo Alto became known as a place where it was safe to drive, and where you couldn't get a ticket fixed.

A thornier issue than traffic enforcement was what to do about alcohol. Not only was Prohibition in effect until 1933, but state "blue" laws limited the sale of liquor within a mile and a half of a university. That meant most folks had to drive from Stanford and Palo Alto to Menlo Park or Whiskey Gulch to imbibe.

But in 1934, after Prohibition was lifted, the legal sale of beer within neighboring Palo Alto's city limits made headlines. While hard liquor still was subject to the mile-and-a-half rule, there was a movement afoot to measure the distance from Stanford's administrative building, rather than the outer edge of campus. The movement lost.

Meanwhile, down on The Farm, Stanford's major problem for the decade was keeping its endowment from sinking along with the value of its railroad bonds. In 1934, the Stanford Associates was formed by 250 alumni to raise money for the university. Trustees appropriated $10,000 to finance the first annual fund drive, which netted them far more in return.

Joe Weeden, who practiced dentistry in Palo Alto from 1927 through 1977, recalled when a group of men got together to form the tiny Buck-of-the-Month Club, which provided tuition for Stanford athletes.

Money may have been a problem, but Stanford continued building through the decade. The golf course was established in 1930, the women's gym in 1931 replaced an old wooden one, Frost Amphitheater was readied for commencement in 1937, and Memorial Hall, built mainly through student contributions as a memorial to Stanford students and faculty who died in World War I, was dedicated in 1937 as well.

While community members were actively supporting theater, building a new hospital and arguing about hard liquor, they didn't miss out on the Depression completely. Churches pulled together to help locals who were forced out of work. In November 1931, the Menlo Park Community Club, which operated the Blue Moon dance hall, gave a series of benefits for the needy families. Soon after, the local newspaper noted that Ena and Florence Douglass, daughters of Victrola inventor Leon Douglass and his wife, assisted Santa by taking 20 baskets of food to needy families.

The community helped its own in many ways: An Unemployment Committee met. A food sale was held at the Piggly Wiggly store on Santa Cruz Avenue in July 1932 to benefit the unemployed. The Trinity Guild made clothes for needy families with material supplied by the Red Cross. Then in January 1933, two jobless men were hired to canvass Menlo Park and explain the need for funds. The money solicited was collected by the water company along with its monthly bills, or could be sent to Earl Hook, relief committee treasurer.

Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto managed to take pretty good care of their own, but being located on a train route meant that signs of the Depression were never far away. Hobos would drop by, looking for a meal or a day's work. Soon a "hobo jungle" developed in San Francisquito Creek, where Menlo Park police ventured only in case of death. Soon, however, these transients found an alternative in the "Hotel De Zink" shelter.