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Issue date: November 15, 2000

At last: "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate" At last: "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate" (November 15, 2000)

Once-controversial history book paints lively portrait of Menlo Park and Atherton, spanning 150 years -- from silver kings and struggling immigrants, through two world wars, to Silicon Valley.

By Marion Softy

For a while, the turbulent history of Menlo Park's history book threatened to upstage the actual history of Menlo Park.

No longer. "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate," released last week by the Menlo Park Historical Association, stands on its own merits as a vivid and varied picture of a community growing in the oak meadows bordering San Francisco Bay.

The release topped more than a year of controversy and confusion. First, the book was killed last year after several board members tried to purge the draft, by local history authors Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, of ethnic references, controversy, and a few local scandals.

After a blaze of national publicity and widespread charges of censorship, two members of the board of the historical association resigned, and the book was re-authorized. But problems persisted, this time with the printer, who has had the book since May.

So it was a banner day when the historical association board got the first 120 books -- even though the remaining 2,880 remained incommunicado at a secret location, awaiting shipment to Menlo Park.

"We're pleased the book has arrived before we had to label it 'ancient history'," says association president Rita Gado with relief. "It really looks good. Today is a great day!"

The book, indeed, is handsome, with 181 large pages of text accompanied by more than 300 historic photographs, many never published before. Its dark green cover shows an oak tree and Menlo Park's signature gate, erected by Irish immigrants Dennis Oliver and Daniel McGlynn. In 1854, they bought 7,000 acres of the old Mexican land grant, Rancho de las Pulgas, and hung a sign, "Menlo Park," on the gate, after their original home in Menlough, in County Galway.

Depicting rich and poor, virtuous and scandalous alike, the book shows how San Franciscans, rich beyond belief from the wealth generated by the Gold Rush and the Comstock Lode, built country estates served by residents of the small town -- hard-working immigrants from Italy, Ireland, China and elsewhere.

Growing through two world wars, Menlo Park and Atherton now harbor a new generation of super-rich, cashing in on the wealth created by Silicon Valley and the venture capital hub of the world, centered on Sand Hill Road.

All the controversial subjects that almost killed the book last year are still there. The Jews of Menlo Park, poor Italians and "dirt-poor" Irish, the conversion of Belle Haven from white to primarily black, drunken Stanford students, and anti-war protests give range and vitality to the tapestry of life that gave rise to today's Menlo Park and Atherton.

"Nobody will be offended," said author Michael Svanevik. A history professor at College of San Mateo -- and lecturer at Little House senior center -- he and his wife, Shirley Burgett, have now published 10 books of local history, as well as magazine articles and colorful stories of local history in area newspapers. "You will find the beauty and magnificence of south San Mateo County as it once existed."

Although he calls it the "book from Hell" because of the controversy and delays plaguing it, Mr. Svanevik acknowledges, "The delay made a better book."


"Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate" is a coffee-table book in the best sense. It forms a quilt of lively vignettes of people, institutions and events that shaped today's Menlo Park and Atherton during the last 150 years, tied together by a lively historical overview.

Before 1923, when Atherton seceded from Menlo Park and became a separate town, the two communities were tied together in an uncomfortable relationship of town and country.

As described in the book: "Thus, from the very beginning, two radically different civilizations began to emerge in Menlo. There was Menlo Park, the country, dominated by wealthy landowners and visited by presidents and other powerful potentates. And there was Menlo Park, the town, comprised of lower-class Irishmen, humble Italians, mysterious opium-smoking 'Chinese Celestials,' and a smattering of Germans and other nationalities. The well-to-do scorned the town, where the dusty streets 'crawled with little urchins.' They refused to identify with it, seldom visited and rarely shopped there. Most referred to the town as 'that sordid little village.'"

The "country" of the 1800s is represented by pictures and tales of the great estates built by wealthy San Franciscans to provide refuge from summer fog, as well as fresh fruit vegetables, dairy products, and flowers all year. One of Timothy Hopkins' chrysanthemum plants awed San Francisco florists by producing blooms 20 inches in diameter. It was Irish gardening wizard Michael Lynch who cared for the gardens at Sherwood Hall and produced the extraordinary flowers.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Beltramo came in 1882 to work in Cupertino vineyards. Soon, he moved to Menlo Park, established a liquor store that still bears his name, opened a boarding house that nurtured immigrant Italian workers, and survived Prohibition. Beltramo's may be the oldest family-owned business in Menlo Park.

Huge influences during these early days -- and until today -- were the railroad, with the oldest railroad depot in California; and the founding and growth Stanford University next door.

In town, Duff and Doyle's merchandise emporium opened in 1874, and Martin Kuck's Menlo Park Hotel grew in prosperity since the 1860s. Churches and schools were founded. And in 1891, President Benjamin Harrison stopped by for a formal welcome and a visit to Senator Charles Felton's Felton Gables estate and Timothy Hopkins' Sherwood Hall.

World War I was a defining event for Menlo Park as some 30,000 soldiers passed through Camp Fremont preparing for a war that was close to ending. Businesses sprouted like mushrooms after rain, and Rosalie Stern converted her ballroom into an area where Red Cross volunteers made surgical dressings. The army hospital that was built at the time still serves veterans today -- amid gardens created by Mrs. Stern and other wealthy ladies.

Between the wars, Menlo Park matured. Its "country" sector seceded in 1923, incorporating as Atherton, and Menlo Park followed suit in 1927. Transportation improved with the opening of the Dumbarton Bridge in 1927; the Bayshore Highway finally linked Menlo Park to San Francisco in 1931.

The history book does not ignore some of the juicier stories of the time. The paternity suit filed against James L. Flood, son of the "silver king" who built Lindenwood, by Constance May Galvin turned into one of the trials of the century. It ended abruptly in 1931 when Judge George H. Buck ordered the jury to find for the Floods.

World War II and beyond

World War II brought Dibble General Hospital to Menlo Park. More than 16,000 wounded received treatment in a hospital that developed important new techniques for treating eye injuries, burns and disfigurements.

After the war, the Dibble grounds were turned over to three of Menlo Park's most important institutions: the city; Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International; and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Postwar Menlo Park was shaped by Charles Burgess, who joined the city council in 1942 and served as mayor for most of the years from 1945 to 1955. As a member of the Sequoia High School Board, he also helped obtain a local high school, Menlo-Atherton, which was dedicated in 1951.

During this period, more local institutions grew or emerged, ranging from Sunset Magazine, Little House, and Bohannon Industrial Park, to Kepler's bookstore, the Oasis beer garden and Draeger's market. The late developer and philanthropist Tom Ford is credited with building the mecca for venture capital that now borders Sand Hill Road and fuels today's high-tech economy.

The book also touches on social upheavals, like the block-busting that transformed the model subdivision built by David Bohannon in the 1930s to today's largely minority community of Belle Haven. It also treats the anti-Vietnam war protests that culminated in a confrontation between protesters and the City Council in Burgess Theater -- with armed police hidden behind the curtain. Fortunately, it ended peacefully.

The authors conclude, "Through it all, though the town has managed to maintain its quaintness and bucolic environment, it has in fact carved itself a significant niche in the history of the West."


"Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate" by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett. Custom and Limited Editions, San Francisco. 2000.

When it arrives, the book may be obtained at Kepler's, Little House senior center, and local book stores.

The Menlo Park Historical Association is selling it for $43, including tax, from its offices in the Menlo Park Library basement.

For information call 858-3368.


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