People: Steve Staiger: history will teach us something
Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 16, 1997

People: Steve Staiger: history will teach us something

Steve Staiger guarantees he can make you famous. But you'll have to solve one of Palo Alto's longstanding mysteries to gain the promised notoriety.

You'll have to tell him why in the world Peter Coutts built Frenchman's Tower, one of Palo Alto's oldest structures, on Old Page Mill Road. Historians have unraveled many of the other mysteries associated with Coutts, a wealthy French landowner who came to the area in the mid-19th century and settled what is now Stanford's Escondido Village and its surroundings. But the tower, one of the last vestiges of his property, remains an enigma.

So Staiger tells the classes of third graders he visits on his trips through the Palo Alto schools. As the Palo Alto Historical Association's historian, it is his job to tell kids, and those who visit him on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the main library, all about the history of our fair town, which, had it not been for a very large tree near San Francisquito Creek, would probably have been called Mayfield.

When he gets to the part in his presentation where he shows a slide of Frenchman's Tower, he tells audiences that Peter Coutts was an alias assumed by a shadowy French political figure who fled here for asylum. Coutts left in the 1870s as abruptly as he came and his property later became part of Stanford University.

"It wasn't until 50 years later that an older woman who was a granddaughter visited the area and told the story," Staiger said from his back yard in unincorporated Santa Clara County near Portola Valley. This is where he spends much of his free time, puttering around his garden and keeping busy with household projects.

But the Coutts conundrum isn't the only question Staiger ponders. He delights in the "what ifs" of Palo Alto history. "What if Leland Stanford Junior hadn't died?" is his favorite hypothetical question. "(His death) is probably the single most important event in Palo Alto's history," Staiger said. "Palo Alto would have been completely different."

Stanford, Jr., according to Staiger, was collecting antiques by the age of 14 as he trotted the globe with his parents. After his death a year later, his collection became the start of the Stanford museum.

His parents, Jane and Leland Stanford, were devastated by his death and decided to dedicate their vast fortune to creating an inexpensive--you heard right--university for talented students.

"For many years it was cheaper to go to Stanford than it was to go to Berkeley," said Staiger who himself earned a Master's degree in library science from Berkeley in 1973 after completing a B.A. at UC Davis in 1972.

Staiger and his wife were high school sweethearts in Mill Valley. They moved to Palo Alto in 1973 because her work in regulatory affairs brought them here. Upon their arrival, Staiger worked for Cambridge Hardware and later for Bechtel Inc., an engineering construction firm in San Francisco.

He was hired as a reference librarian for the city of Palo Alto in 1976 and when Ruth Wilson retired in 1984 he became the Association's historian. As such he is an employee of the Palo Alto Historical Association for nine hours of the week. For the other 20 he is a regular reference librarian at the main library and works for the city.

On the reference desk he gets all kinds of interesting requests. Many of them have to do with genealogical research--relatives looking for a record of their ancestors' lives. He also gets the occasional "bar bet" when a rowdy sports fan calls to ask him to settle a dispute over which team won a particular event.

Once he got a call from an author who was writing a novel set in San Francisco in the 1930s. He wanted to send a character down to Palo Alto for the weekend and asked Staiger what the town would have been like then.

"We sent him to Dinah's Shack," Staiger said. And he took El Camino Real all the way.

--Elizabeth Traugott 

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