A personal history: Frank Helfrich reflects on 83 years in a changing city
"Wool when it gets warm, like you want to wrap yourself in it," Frank Helfrich says, recalling what the old textile mills along the railroad tracks in Menlo Park smelled like when they operated decades ago. At 83, Mr. Helfrich is one of the few people in town to remember that smell. As a boy, he would hang out at the mills after finishing a paper route that delivered the Saturday Evening Post, fascinated by the weaving machines.
The mills made specialty items like movie theater curtains, he recalls, and even fulfilled an order from the shah of Iran.
Sparely built and spare with his words, Mr. Helfrich is generous with his memories of the town he's called home for 83 years. When he received a commendation from Menlo Park on May 22, a friend — Jim Lewis — presented the historian with a binder filled with 40 stories from the Almanac that mentioned Frank Helfrich.
The commendation acknowledged more than 30 years of volunteer service with the Menlo Park Historical Association (MPHA), a nonprofit organization that has archived the town's memories for nearly four decades. Brought on board by the late Jeanne Bone, he helped her shepherd the association almost from day one. Mr. Helfrich still mans the MPHA office in the main public library two days a week.
Fellow historian Michael Svanevik praised Mr. Helfrich's ability to "walk a fine line between being a historian and a social chairman" within the association. The indefatigable man could arrange the annual ice cream social and also come up with information thought lost, says Mr. Svanevik, who with Shirley Burgett wrote a history of the city, "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate."
"When we would ask for something, about an event that took place 50 or 100 years ago, or the name of a person we could contact, Frank would always say, 'oh, I'm not sure we can do that,' and then a day or two later the phone would ring and he would have the information." Sometimes the call came within hours.
The youngest of seven children, he was six months old when his father died, leaving his mother to endure the Great Depression alone. "To coin a phrase, it was depressed," Mr. Helfrich says with dry humor. "People were very, very hard up. Some neighbors went without food, without clothing, without anything."
The family survived with help from the Las Lomitas School PTA and card parties. In the later years of the Depression, his mother tried to sell several lots the family owned on Valparaiso Avenue for $100 total, but found no takers. Eventually the fire department bought the land in the late 1940s.
Mr. Helfrich chipped in by working at the town's general store, then run by L. J. McCarthy. He and his boss were delivering groceries ordered by phone long before Safeway came up with the idea. The grocer was a "wild driver," chauffeuring the delivery boy who was too young to have a license, Mr. Helfrich says.
He remembers when there were only three houses per block along Cedar Avenue, where he grew up. In one of the houses down the street lived renowned composer Henry Cowell, who would drop by to play the piano and also play music "on my mother's crystal goblets."
Adulthood saw Mr. Helfrich graduate from the University of Santa Clara with a science degree. After a stint in the Army, he took a job as an auditor with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, weighing gold bullion and burning paper money. Business trips kept him on the road about eight months out of the year on a circuit from Portland to Seattle to Los Angeles, he said, and he missed the "quiet country life" left behind in Menlo Park.
It's hard to throw things out with you're a historian, Mr. Helfrich allows. But some possessions are particularly cherished: a World War I trench scope; old military uniforms, including his own from the Korean War; enlarged photos from the town's past packed into two suitcases that serve as a portable museum, traveling to schools and, most recently, to Little House.
Old documents sometimes shed light on his own family history. Mr. Helfrich once combed papers held by the Archdiocese of San Francisco to learn more about an 1890 railroad accident that killed his great-aunt, Mary O'Connor, along with 12 others. An active church member, she died when her train plunged into the Bay after a drunken engineer failed to stop at an open Oakland drawbridge. Levi Strauss served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
The archives of local history carry their share of bloopers. Mr. Helfrich remembered when the association published a centennial album that included a prominent photo of one of the area's most prominent citizens: "Silver King" James Flood.
Unfortunately, the photo was actually of the estate's manager, as Mr. Flood's son pointed out some time later.
The more things change
Mr. Helfrich may also be one of the few residents who knows how the town got its name: Brothers-in-law Dennis Oliver and Daniel McGlynn bought 1,700 acres on the north bank of the San Francisquito Creek. He says they thought to name it after their Irish hometown, Menlough Park, only to discover there wasn't enough room to paint the entire name on the entrance gate to their property. So "Menlo Park" it was.
Born a year after the city's final incorporation, Mr. Helfrich has watched it go through growing pains, with more on the horizon. But the essential nature of Menlo Park remains intact, Mr. Helfrich thinks. "It's still a small town, still quiet," he says. "I find a lot of parking, although a lot of people complain."
He still lives on Cedar Avenue, and has his favorite spots around town, of course, with the decidedly non-vintage Trader Joe's on Menlo Avenue topping the list.
One particular development tantalizes Mr. Helfrich — the possible return of MacArthur Park to Menlo Park. The historic landmark, designed by architect Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame, housed visiting military families during World War I. When the city contemplated razing the building after the war, Palo Alto bought it for $1 and moved it to University Avenue, where it now serves as a restaurant.
A recent proposal from developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga to build a performing arts center on University Avenue means the landmark might move again, and one likely spot is on the grounds of the Menlo Park Veterans Administration hospital, according to city staff.
"We'd like to have it back," Mr. Helfrich says. His eyes brightened at the thought. The return of MacArthur Park would demonstrate his belief that "history tends to repeat itself. What took place years ago might come around again."
Known as the "go to" man for town history, the one who knows where the ghosts and the secrets are buried, Mr. Helfrich may seem like an anachronism in a time when archival collections are going digital. Yet there's a visceral essence to history that can be discovered only by seeing the stains on a soldier's uniform, or by listening to a man describe the warm wool smell of an old textile mill.