Remembering Woodside: Dolores Degnan's memories of eight decades in the town she loved | March 13, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - March 13, 2019

Remembering Woodside: Dolores Degnan's memories of eight decades in the town she loved

by Barbara Wood

Dolores Degnan, who died on Feb. 19 at the age of 80, had an extraordinary memory for the details of the many years she spent in Woodside, where she lived all but a year of her life.

Degnan remembered — in near photographic detail — specifics of events and places from her life in Woodside, and in the weeks before her death, Degnan shared some of those memories with this reporter.

The stories Degnan told, along with an oral history she gave to Woodside History Committee member Gretchen Tennenbaum in November 2013, an interview with Jim Degnan, and information from the town's history files and The Almanac's archives, are the basis for this story.

Era of estates

When William "Bill" Wilke and Thelma Galliano Wilke moved to Woodside in 1940, soon after their daughter Dolores' first birthday, the town had only about 400 residents — most either living on large estates or providing goods and services to the estates.

Bill Wilke, a native of Germany who arrived in the U.S. on his own as a teenager, came to Woodside as the caretaker and manager of the estate of Stanley G. Harris, whose family owned the Harris Trust and Savings Bank in Chicago. The 36-acre Mountain Home Road estate, purchased by the family in 1922, had a 6,000-square-foot main house built in 1885 and remodeled in 1917. The property also had a children's playhouse, an eight-stall barn, greenhouses, a tool house, a seven-car garage with a two-story, five-bedroom house attached, a four-bedroom single-story house, two other cottages, two smaller garages, and three wells.

The Harris employees included a butler, a chauffeur, a maid, four or five gardeners and a stable person.

The Wilkes originally lived in the only structure that remains from the Harris era, a guest house/amateur radio tower that resembled a lighthouse. "My mother hated living in it because it was an impractical house," Degnan said, so the family soon moved into a much larger house built for them elsewhere on the estate. The lighthouse still stands, now part of the much larger main house on the property.

Other families who owned large estates in Woodside at the time were the L.W. Harrises, the Fleishhackers, the Folgers, the Floods, the Josselyns, the Schillings, the Roths and the Jacklings. Some lived there full time, but most spent their summers, weekends and holidays in Woodside, and socialized and celebrated important family events there.

A country childhood

Living on the Harris estate left Degnan, an only child, isolated and lonely because most of the town's children lived miles away, she said. It was "just me and the dogs." So, when a family with three children moved into the large apartment attached to the estate's seven-car garage when she was 4, she was thrilled.

The middle child, a son, was her age. Soon another boy their age moved into a different home on the property, and the three roamed the estate together. This was during World War II, and once, Degnan remembered, the playmates ripped an old sheet into bandages, dabbing them with smashed-berry "blood." Their battlefield included the estate's numerous stone walls, crafted from sandstone left over from the construction of Stanford University. "We'd run up and down those walls and shoot each other," Degnan said.

The sandstone had been transported to the estate via an old Conestoga wagon, which the children also used. "We'd play on that one by the hour," she said, "attach a rope and jump on the seat like we were going someplace."

Later, the wagon was donated to the Woodside Elementary School, where children played on it until it fell apart.

"As we got older, we got more enterprising," Degnan said of the playmates. Their efforts weren't always successful. After spending five days building a lemonade stand from lumber found in a pile by the barn, the budding entrepreneurs sold only two glasses, and those only after being begged to add more sugar by the first customer.

The children were fired from their job of harvesting plums to be dried for prunes, for which they were paid 25 cents an hour, when their work deteriorated into a fruit-throwing contest. "We didn't have that job for long," Degnan said.

More successful was a raft made from the lumber pile, used on the lake near the neighboring 30-acre horse facility called the Play Pen. "We had great fun, built a raft and a pole and went back and forth across the lake," Degnan said.

Degnan said she collected frogs, polliwogs and salamanders from the pond, plus baby mice and a snake, which she kept on a blue bookshelf in her bedroom. When the snake got loose and was found under her bedspread, however, "I had to turn it loose because (Mother) didn't care for that," she remembered.


Much of Woodside life revolved around horses, and Degnan said she began riding her neighbor's horses when she was only a toddler. She joined the Junior Rider program, a summer riding program for children that still exists in Woodside. Her instructor at Junior Riders for all but the first year was Milo Miloradovitch, a Russian who was originally brought to Woodside by Harris to teach his children how to ride. Miloradovitch lived in a groom's cottage on the Harris property with his wife and son. "Milo had a great sense of humor, teased us a lot," although he was exacting, Degnan said.

"When I was 10, I got my own horse, so then I was free as a bird, rode it all over," Degnan said. In the summers she'd ride from home to Junior Riders, returning home for lunch, where she remembered plucking ripe tomatoes or blueberries from the garden and drinking water from the well.

She and her Junior Rider friends rode everywhere. At the Little Store, now a restaurant, "we'd buy boxes of cinnamon sticks and pretend they were cigarettes," she said. She remembered riding double with friend Mary Jo (Blankenship) Taylor, who still lives in the Woodside Glens where she grew up, to the hardware store where they bought a huge watermelon. "I don't know how we got back on the horse," she said.

After dinner the girls would saddle up their horses again and meet at the large bronze Buddha statues on the Jackling estate near the end of Mountain Wood Lane, which Degnan described as "beautiful things out in the middle of nowhere" and bigger than she was.

Degnan said she was amazed years later to see the statues in a museum at Stanford with a plaque that said they had been donated by the Jacklings.

Degnan trained and exercised horses for others, and even sometimes rode to the Woodside Village Church.

Woodside Elementary

Although Woodside Elementary School in those days did not have a kindergarten, Degnan started first grade at age 5, a year younger than most of her classmates. The school, housed in a Spanish-style stucco building that no longer exists, combined two or three grades in each classroom.

On the first day, she remembered, "one of the first things they showed me was the outhouses," which she found so scary she vowed never to use them. Only two years later did they add indoor plumbing, allowing Degnan to take restroom breaks during the school day.

The eighth grade was in the original schoolhouse, now the school library, with a pot-bellied wood stove and a stage. "I remember being Little Miss Muffet," Degnan said. "I was so scared, but I did it."

"Every once in a while, my father would pick me up at school with his tractor," she said. She'd sit on his lap for the ride home. "Everybody was so jealous," she said.

When Degnan got older, she walked home. Most of the students would go as far as Neuman's store (now Roberts), but she was the only one who went farther on Mountain Home Road, she said.

Neuman's had three sections, divided by doors — hardware, meat and groceries — but instead of picking out their own items, shoppers would hand a list to a clerk, who would get the items. The store also made deliveries.

Degnan fondly remembered the attached ice cream parlor, where huge cones went for 5 cents for a single and 10 cents for a double.

Degnan said her walk home was lonely. "Nobody ever drove by, and if they did, I'd know them, and they'd give me a ride," she said. She also sometimes entertained herself by walking in the roadside ditch, to the consternation of her mother and the detriment of her shoes. "I walked all the way home as far as I could in that ditch," she said. "I knew I'd get in trouble because my feet were all wet."

The school was the center of much of town life.

"May Day was a big event," Degnan said, and she was chosen by lot to be the queen of the parade in the first grade. "The parade used to go to where Wells Fargo is and turned around and came back," she said. "Everyone showed up," and after the parade there was a father and son baseball game.

She also remembers doing the May Pole dance on May Day, held in front of the school until the existing amphitheater, designed by her father, was built.

Most of the offspring of the owners of those large Woodside estates who lived in them year-around also attended Woodside elementary. Degnan said she remembered attending school with Jimmy Flood, Joan Law and George and Lance Gamble.

She remembered going after school to the home of Peter Elkus, whose father was the head of the Ampex Corporation, where they rang a bell to get the maid to bring hot cocoa. "Sometimes the chauffeur would take us to the movie" in Palo Alto, she said.

Fire department

Bill Wilke was a volunteer firefighter, as were most of the other town's men, assisting the four paid firefighters. Thelma and Bill Wilke were good friends of fire Chief John Volpiano and his wife, so Degnan said she remembered spending a lot of time at the fire station. The former station for many years has been used as a restaurant.

"I was there a lot," Degnan said. Two fire trucks were kept in what is now the restaurant dining room. The existing wooden floors "were super shiny — everything was perfect all the time," she said. In the back were a small round table and chairs, a small kitchen and a set of bunk beds.

Woodside residents told time by the fire station horn, which sounded at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m., "so we always knew when to go home for lunch," Degnan said. "You could hear it all over."

The horn also sounded when there was a fire, and Degnan remembered several of them. One night, after her father was called out, she saw "a peculiar light outside." Peering out her bedroom window, Degnan said, she saw "it was the Jackling barn" next door.

"I could see the flames," she said. It was the Jackling's cattle barn, where they kept a prize bull. Although the structure was lost, firefighters "kept the water on the bull so he wouldn't get burned," she said.

Her father also responded to medical calls, Degnan said, and was often called to Searsville Lake. "I could always tell when somebody had drowned, usually a child, because my father would come home, and he wouldn't talk for a couple of days. It was a horrible, horrible thing. They tried to revive them, and they couldn't," she said.

Searsville Lake, owned by Stanford University, was a major recreation destination used by visitors who came from as far as San Francisco and San Jose.

Admission was 25 cents, Degnan said, and "it was packed with people." She, however, often rode her horse there (thus avoiding the admission charge) and on the trails around the lake.

She remembered riding there with her friend Patty (Hallet) Nance and getting ice cream bars or sodas from the snack shack where Patty's aunt Ethel Hallet worked.

Community entertainment

Woodside residents socialized around the school, church and firehouse, Degnan said. Each summer they gathered for a picnic in the Victorian house next door to the school, now owned by the family of Judy Rice, a descendant of the home's original builders. "They'd roll out the oriental carpets and bring out the wicker furniture" from two cabins at the rear, Degnan said. "It was really fun."

"At Christmastime the whole town went to the parking lot at Leo's Garage (now Canada Corners), which wasn't paved; it was just dirt, and we'd have a huge bonfire and sing Christmas carols," Degnan said

Other events took place in the building that is now Independence Hall, which was moved from Woodside Road to Albion Avenue and renovated during her childhood, and then dubbed Scout Hall. On Friday nights they showed movies for the children. "Otherwise you ask someone to take you to Redwood City," Degnan said.

"We had the Follies every year," she said, referring to a community theatrical endeavor in which groups from the fire department, the church, the school and the scouts would each put on an original skit.

Later, Dolores and her husband, Jim Degnan, participated in the Woodside Community Theatre's musicals headed by George Sellman, the school superintendent.

"We would pay a baby sitter so we could go down there and rehearse" several nights a week, Jim Degnan said, even though they never had more than small parts.

"Maybe we had two or three lines," he said, but "we had five costume changes." Everybody in town participated, with those who weren't in the shows sewing and designing costumes or scenery.

"We really felt like we were in show business," he said. Among the shows he remembered are "Hello Dolly," "Kiss Me Kate," "The Music Man" and "South Pacific."

Brushes with the famous

Jim Degnan, who married Dolores in 1961, said that the couple often came face-to-face with celebrities. Once, he said, they settled down to watch a horse show at the Play Pen, and Dolores introduced herself to the woman next to her. "She turned to Dolores and said, 'I'm Rosemary Clooney,'" Jim Degnan said. Clooney told them she was there watching her husband, Jose Ferrer, ride.

It was 1961, Jim Degnan said, when he and Dolores went to the premiere of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, only to encounter star Audrey Hepburn after the show. "We're walking out, and this lady is just walking out, and we said hi," he said. Hepburn was lovely and friendly, he said. "No one else around, just the three of us having this conversation," he said.

Later, the Degnans were in Las Vegas, sitting at a table waiting for the entertainment to start when Dolores recognized the couple sitting behind them. "It's Elvis Presley and Priscilla," Dolores told Jim. "Pretend like you're going to the bathroom."

Jim Degnan complied, faked a double-take, and shook hands with the Presleys. "No cellphones then, no cameras, no pen, no nothing," he said, but they greeted him graciously.

In a 2014 Almanac article, Dolores remembered Shirley Temple Black coming into the Degnans' print shop. "She was always very friendly and wanted to meet everyone that worked in the back shop, and visit with my husband, Jim," she told reporter Andrea Gemmet. "She liked to find out about all the different presses."

As a high school student, Jim Degnan met Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in the print shop and was invited to deliver Cobb's future orders to his home in Atherton.

"We'd sit and talk" for up to an hour each time, Jim Degnan said, calling Cobb "one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived." Jim Degnan said he treasures the memento Cobb handed him at the end of one visit, a photo penned with Cobb's signature green ink: "To Jim Degnan, my friend, Tyrus Cobb."

March 24 services for Dolores Degnan

A memorial service for Dolores Degnan will be held on Sunday, March 24, at 2 p.m. in the Woodside Village Church sanctuary at 3154 Woodside Road.

Read her obituary online at or on page 21 of The Almanac's Feb. 27 print edition.


Like this comment
Posted by Jeannine
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Mar 12, 2019 at 7:12 pm

Barbara, you have such a beautiful way with words. Thank you.

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