Publication Date: Wednesday Jan 24, 2001
Echoes of Alpine Inn's early days
by Steve Staiger
It is one of the oldest businesses on the Peninsula, dating from a time when the local residents felt squeezed by the burgeoning population of foreign-born newcomers.
Nearly 150 years after it first opened for business, the Alpine Inn in Portola Valley continues to attract customers to the roadhouse/beer garden on the banks of Los Trancos Creek, at the corner of Alpine and Arastradero roads. And some customers still arrive on horseback.
In the 1850s, disappointed gold seekers began settling in the Santa Clara Valley to farm the fertile land. The earlier settlers, the Californios, felt displaced and outnumbered by the newcomers with their foreign customs and new form of government.
Many of the Californios withdrew from the valley and found refuge in remote areas such as Half Moon Bay and Portola Valley. Felix Buelna, a former alcalde (mayor) of San Jose, settled on 95 acres of Maximo Martinez' Rancho de Corte de Madera in 1852. He soon opened a casa de tableta, a gambling house, where his fellow Californios could play cards, enjoying each's company with their beverages of choice.
Buelna's roadhouse was established at the intersection of Arastradero Road and Alpine Road, then known as the Old Spanish Trail and a major route from the Santa Clara Valley to the coast communities of San Gregorio and Pescadero.
Business was good but Buelna's gambling was not so good, and he sold the roadhouse to William Stanton, a Menlo Park coachman, reputedly to cover his losses in a poker game.
For the next century, ownership or proprietorship of the Alpine Inn would change numerous times, often with changes in ethnic flavor and with changes in the name of the roadhouse on Alpine Road.
In 1870 an Englishman, William Tate Philpott, leased the roadhouse for five years before Stanton resumed management, when it became known as Stanton's Saloon. When Stanton died in a railroad accident, his family leased the business to F. Rodriguez Crovello, known to his customers as "Black Chapete." The short, plump bartender with his black handlebar mustache was popular with his growing clientele of locals and construction workers who were building the new Stanford University.
When Stanford opened in 1891, the students soon discovered the liquid refreshments at Black Chapete's, a welcoming change from "dry" Palo Alto. University officials pressured San Mateo County officials about the saloon operating near the university and its young, impressionable students. But county officials did nothing--as saloon keepers and related interests dominated San Mateo County politics, maintaining a very "wet" atmosphere throughout the county.
When the notoriously "wet" town of Mayfield incorporated in 1903, one of the first acts of the town trustees was to declare the town "dry," thus forcing the closure of the 23 saloons in town. Charlie Wright, one of the former Mayfield saloon owners, began a partnership with Crovello at the Alpine roadhouse.
Soon thereafter Charles Schenkel took over management of the roadhouse and renamed it the "Wunder." With the new name came a German flavor, but Schenkel's proprietorship did not last nearly as long as the new name.
In 1907, Portola Valley farmer Walter Jelich bought Schenkel's lease and continued the saloon's operation.
Stanford President David Starr Jordan took advantage of the change of ownership to protest the saloon's presence to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. He complained that the establishment had "the reputation of being vile even for a roadhouse" and that it was a "disgrace to San Mateo County."
But the Board of Supervisors again failed to share the Stanford viewpoint of and granted Jelich a liquor license before they even listened to Jordan's plea.
Jelich's attorney responded that Jordan and the other Santa Clara County protestants should "missionize at home before crossing the creek."
As is the case with many protest efforts, the publicity only increased the popularity of the saloon. Local ranchers, farm workers and draymen continued to patronize the establishment, but it was Stanford students that made it a profitable business for more than 70 years.
In 1909 the State of California passed a law prohibiting the sale of liquor within 1 1/2 miles of schools and universities, including Stanford. This resulted in the closure of 14 saloons in Menlo Park, but left the Alpine Road establishment unaffected--it was just outside the new limit. With much of the competition banned, the saloon's business boomed.
During World War I, the U.S. Army's Camp Fremont in Menlo Park created a dry zone surrounding the camp. But this dry zone also did not extend to the roadhouse, and the soldiers joined the locals and the students in enjoying the liquid refreshments supplied there.
By 1911, saloonkeeper Chapete, then an old man, was living at the County's "poor farm" and all interests in the saloon had passed to Julius Schenkel, the brother of Charles.
Then came Prohibition: the Volstead Act of 1919. Saloons closed nationwide as the nation became legally "dry." For the next 13 years, rum runners and speakeasies were sources of alcoholic beverages.
Illegal liquor activity in San Mateo County was notorious, reflecting the sentiment of many of its residents. Numerous shipments of illegal liquor were smuggled into the county along the long coastline.
The Alpine Road establishment was renamed "Schenkel's Picnic Park" and encouraged San Franciscans to come down to visit and enjoy the countryside. Advertised non-alcoholic beverages were sold, but more potent beverages were reputedly available to those in the know.
When prohibition ended in 1933, Stanford students exuberantly returned and Schenkel retired, the lease passing to Enrico Rossotti. Rossotti eventually purchased the property from the Stanton family and ran the popular establishment until 1956. Mr. and Mrs. Rossotti's business became more than a saloon with the addition of burgers and similar grill food, popular with the crowds that often swelled enormously on Stanford home football gamedays. Alumni and families began to frequent the establishment in greater numbers.
Don Horther and John Alexander took over the roadhouse in 1956 and renamed it the "Alpine Inn Beer Garden"--but patrons today continue to refer to it as "Rossotti's" or even more casually as "Zott's."
The clientele has changed over the years. Stanford students no longer dominate as they did for so many years. Like the Californios before them, the students have been replaced by new groups of beer-loving customers.
The saloon and its outdoor beer garden are populated by Silicon Valley workers out for a burger and beer at lunch under the trees. After work, the parking lot fills with expensive sports cars and luxury vehicles. On weekends, bicyclists, motorcyclists and occasionally horse riders pull off the road or trail to enjoy the pleasures of the Alpine Inn.
Steve Staiger is the City of Palo Alto historian and a staff member at the main library.
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