The good life, Atherton style

Local authors chronicle 200 years of town's history in new book

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By Andrea Gemmet

Almanac Staff Writer

Atherton has long been an enclave of wealthy families, but in the early days, it wasn't quite as posh as it is now.

When the town was divided into sprawling country estates owned by San Francisco's elite, regular cattle drives ran down Middlefield Road, prompting warnings to keep gates and doors firmly closed in case a straying steer decided to take a detour into someone's yard. And when residents fell on hard times during the Great Depression, finding a buyer for an estate was so difficult, it seemed you couldn't give the land away.

In the past 200 years, there's been a rich assortment of scandals, romances and tragedies lived out by debutantes, inventors and tycoons, and now that history of Atherton has been compiled into a weighty, 281-page full-color coffee table book by local authors Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund.

The duo, who most recently published a history of Portola Valley entitled "Life on the San Andreas Fault," spent the past six years researching and writing "Under the Oaks: Two Hundred Years in Atherton."

Using documents, diaries, photographs and transcripts of old interviews with longtime Atherton residents, the pair sought to flesh out familiar stories and turn up new ones.

The oft-repeated tale of the race to the courthouse to incorporate Atherton and keep it from being absorbed into Menlo Park -- usually told as a frantic ride to Sacramento on horseback -- is a little less dramatic. It took place on horseback, all right, but the race was to the nearby courthouse in Redwood City, not all the way to Sacramento, says Ms. Gullard.

"One of us read all of the accounts," she says, glancing over at Ms. Lund. "What's interesting is that they were on horses in 1924. The mix of cars and horses went on for longer than we realized."

The origins of the Menlo Circus Club are well-known in town -- a group of horse-loving Atherton girls organized a charity circus in 1920, complete with costumes and performing pets. The event grew, and four years later, a group of 16 families purchased the Circus Club property.

What they didn't know was why the girl elected queen of the festivities each year was called "Polly of the Circus," says Ms. Gullard.

After much digging, they discovered a 1908 novel of the same name by Margaret Mayo, a romantic melodrama about a daring young equestrienne that was apparently a favorite of the Circus Club girls. A photo from the 1922 circus shows Queen Polly and her honor guard leading the opening procession.

Their efforts to dig up information were occasionally frustrated. While many of Atherton's early female residents were powerhouses in their own rights, running the estates and founding cultural institutions in San Francisco, including schools, museums, hospitals and churches, information about them could be slim.

"It's hard sometimes to even find out the first names of the women," says Ms. Gullard. In many cases, a woman was only know by her married name -- Mrs. Henry Moore, for instance.

"Being women ourselves, it would have been nice to find some diaries or documents (about them). Running an estate would have been a lot like running a corporation," she says.

But despite some setbacks, there were also some real treasures that turned up. The section on famous inventor Leon Douglass, whose lovely estate is now home to Menlo School, is derived largely from an unpublished contemporary memoir provided by his grandson, Earl Douglass Jr. The pair kept hearing hints that such a document had been written, and were thrilled to get access to it.

"I'm just so impressed with all of the information that they found," said Marion Oster, the head of the Atherton Heritage Association.

The group approached Ms. Lund and Ms. Gullard about 12 years ago with the idea of doing a book on Atherton, but at the time, the duo was busy working on the Portola Valley book. They'd thought to do Menlo Park next, but in 2000, another pair of local historians, Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett, published "Menlo Park: Beyond the Gate," effectively quashing that idea.

Ms. Oster credits the Heritage Association's previous president, Sally Bush, as the motivating force for the book.

"She kept saying, 'We need to do a history of the town of Atherton, there's never been a real comprehensive one,'" says Ms. Oster. "We didn't know how in the world we could make it happen, because we're not a big group."

When Ms. Lund and Ms. Gullard decided to take on the task, it was perfect, she said.

"What's interesting is, you open the door a crack, and all of a sudden you see so much more," says Ms. Oster, using the example of Holbrook-Palmer Park, which was bequeathed to the town by Olive Holbrook, whose father Charles bought the property in 1881.

"They came in with a few questions about Holbrook-Palmer Park, then they investigated Charles Holbrook, and then they made the connection between the Holbrook and Merrill (families)," says Ms. Oster. "They made contact with descendents on both sides, and made copies of the diary Charles Merrill wrote. It gave such insight into what it was like during the Depression."

In fact, descendents of the Merrill family had volumes and volumes of diaries written by Charles Holbrook Merrill in the first half of the 20th century. His wife Phyllis Moulton, a co-founder of Peninsula School and the Menlo Circus Club, came from one of the first families to live in Atherton full time, moving there in 1890.

"They lent us all those diaries. What a treasure!" says Ms. Lund, appreciatively.

Ms. Gullard, a Menlo Park resident, teaches writing at Menlo College and the University of Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont, and is a published short story author. Ms. Lund is the Portola Valley town historian and a longtime teacher in the Las Lomitas School District.

Delving into local history was not only interesting, but helpful to her career, Ms. Lund says.

"Teaching fourth-grade history, and not being a California native, I needed to keep ahead of my students," she says.

She took classes and, in 1974, created a booklet on the history of Ladera. Ms. Lund met Ms. Gullard when their husbands began commuting together to Intel, and later approached her with the idea of collaborating on a local history book.

As a historian, Ms. Lund says she appreciates working with an author.

Their first book chronicled the history of Palo Alto and was published in 1989, in time for the city's centennial. The call from the publisher, saying that they wanted to print the book, came only a few days after Ms. Gullard's second child was born, she says.

They knew they were taking a risk with their book on Atherton -- it's a small town of fewer than 2,500 households, and hence, a small market.

"It's really hard to do a quality book for a very small market. We're sorry to put a really high price on it," says Ms. Lund. The book costs $75 a copy.

They thought about going without color and making the book smaller, and thus cheaper, but were encouraged not to go that route.

"People told us, 'Make it as beautiful as you can, because there will probably never be another history book (about the town) in our lifetimes.' So we did," says Ms. Lund. "It was a leap of faith that (Atherton residents) would want a book about their town."

So far, early indications from pre-sales of the book are promising, she says.


-- Two book-signing parties are scheduled for the publication of "Under the Oaks: Two Hundred Years in Atherton." The first will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Gen Merrill carriage house at Holbrook-Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Ave. in Atherton. A second signing is set for 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the Atherton Town Council Chambers, 94 Ashfield Road. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, and light refreshments will be served.

-- The book may also be ordered through the Web site,, or at the Atherton Heritage Room, open from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays at 94 Ashfield Road, adjacent to the council chambers.


Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Forget about the debutantes, the inventors an tycoons to lend an air of respectability to this area.
The REALLY fascinating story of Atherton has to do with the colorful and aristocratic MAFIA who had style, tons of real money, and who knew how to spend it both traveling, in San Francisco where they kept sumptuous digs, and were palsy with all of the politicians,City Hall both in Atherton and SF and NY. This was in the 50's and I am sure there are a lot of remnants or descendants walking the corridors of city hall today. They may not be related but still know how to make deals.
The wives all shopped the Paris salons and jewelry from Laykins et Cie was competitive with NY in style and equal to Cartier while they wore Diors to the opening nights at the opera and most people ate dinner at their own tables at the Captain's table 4 nights a week, at least.....Right up to the 70's, the dowdier set of Atherton who found that life "vulgar", ran to read Herb Caen to find out which locals were dining with movie stars or politicians.
Even the "prominent old families" of which there were more in S.F. thought the Peninsula "quaint" but a nice Sunday drive. This book is going to have to have some really great stories to take away from that period when Silicon Valley brought attention and "grace" back to this area. When an 85 year old wreck of a house would have been torn down without even calling downtown for permission.

Like this comment
Posted by kristin nichols
a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 14, 2009 at 7:28 am

This book is the kind of self indulgent tripe only the nuveaux riche would waste their money on.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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