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This aerial view looks down University. In the first block Wideman's is on the left side and the City Cafe and Thoits Bros. Across Emerson the Bank of Palo Alto is visible. In the distance Hotel Ramona is visible. On the right the Medico-Dental Building, the Cardinal Hotel sign, the Laning Chateau and the Casa Real Apartment are visible. Photo: Palo Alto Historical Association
This aerial view looks down University. In the first block Wideman's is on the left side and the City Cafe and Thoits Bros. Across Emerson the Bank of Palo Alto is visible. In the distance Hotel Ramona is visible. On the right the Medico-Dental Building, the Cardinal Hotel sign, the Laning Chateau and the Casa Real Apartment are visible. Photo: Palo Alto Historical Association

The 1930s is characterized by the Great Depression, during which the people of Palo Alto learned to pull together to make a stronger community.


Profile of Palo Alto in the 30s

In the 1930s, Palo Alto was just a sleepy little burg with fewer than 14,000 residents. By the end of 1939 that had grown to only 16,774.

Palo Alto was not a center of high finance. Rather, it was a pastoral area, with orchards to the south and farms to the east in the neighboring communities of Ravenswood and Runnymede. If you couldn't afford to buy one of the homes (which cost about $4000), you could always rent a seven-room house near schools for about $70 a month.

Churches pulled together to help locals who were forced out of work. In November 1931, the Menlo Park Community Club, which operated the Blue Moon dance hall, gave a series of benefits for the needy families. Soon after, the local newspaper noted that Ena and Florence Douglass, daughters of Victrola inventor Leon Douglass and his wife, assisted Santa by taking 20 baskets of food to needy families.

The community helped its own in many ways: An Unemployment Committee met. A food sale was held at the Piggly Wiggly store on Santa Cruz Avenue in July 1932 to benefit the unemployed. The Trinity Guild made clothes for needy families with material supplied by the Red Cross. Then in January 1933, two jobless men were hired to canvass Menlo Park and explain the need for funds. The money solicited was collected by the water company along with its monthly bills, or could be sent to Earl Hook, relief committee treasurer.

Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto managed to take pretty good care of their own, but being located on a train route meant that signs of the Depression were never far away. Hobos would drop by, looking for a meal or a day's work. Soon a "hobo jungle" developed in San Francisquito Creek, where Menlo Park police ventured only in case of death. Soon, however, these transients found an alternative in the "Hotel De Zink" shelter.

Signs of Progress

In many ways the town was sleepy and rural, but progress was catching up to Palo Alto in some measurable ways. In 1932, Palo Alto architect Birge Clark designed a post office, which had 165 employees, including 60 carriers by the end of 1933. The College Terrace branch library opened in 1936. And the Palo Alto Airport was moved from the edge of Stanford campus to between what was the Palo Alto Yacht Harbor and Bayshore Highway.


On the schools front, the public elementary and high school districts consolidated in 1936. One of the early actions of the newly merged district was to assess its buildings in light of the '33 earthquake damage in Long Beach. After consulting with engineer Walter L. Huber, the district decided to rebuild the Palo Alto High School auditorium, remodel the library and gym and improve Addison and Mayfield schools. Voters approved a $110,000 bond issue to cover the costs.

Another bond issue would cover the cost of the land for what would become David Starr Jordan Junior High School, 16 acres purchased from the Alfred Seale family. Named for a former president of Stanford University, Jordan was designed by Birge and David Clark and cost $322,550. It opened in the fall of 1937.

Private schools also made some headway in the '30s. Menlo School and College incorporated as a non-profit, non-sectarian organization in 1931. The John Carter Ford Country Day School was started in 1935, begun by the man who founded and directed five seasons of the Palo Alto Summer Theatre for children at Castilleja School. A few years earlier, in 1930, the Palo Alto Secretarial School opened its doors with 20 pupils at 180 University Ave.

With the founding of the Palo Alto Community Theatre in 1931 and the Palo Alto Children's Theatre in 1932, Palo Alto was rapidly becoming known as a small center of cultural activities.


Palo Alto was known as a speed trap.

Concerned about an increase in traffic-related accidents and even a death, Police Chief Howard Zink instituted a plan of rigorous and impartial enforcement of traffic regulation. That meant anyone getting off the Bayshore Highway where it ended at University Avenue]] and speeding up University probably would get a ticket before reaching El Camino Real.

Town merchants were not amused. In fact, they feared that this "vigorous enforcement" would hurt trade. But when the local newspaper, the Times, polled its readers, 804 were for the enforcement and only 60 against. So Palo Alto became known as a place where it was safe to drive, and where you couldn't get a ticket fixed.


Not only was Prohibition in effect until 1933, but state "blue" laws limited the sale of liquor within a mile and a half of a university. That meant most folks had to drive from Stanford and Palo Alto to Menlo Park or Whiskey Gulch to imbibe.

But in 1934, after Prohibition was lifted, the legal sale of beer within neighboring Palo Alto's city limits made headlines. While hard liquor still was subject to the mile-and-a-half rule, there was a movement afoot to measure the distance from Stanford's administrative building, rather than the outer edge of campus. The movement lost.


Dr. Russell Lee started an informal partnership with three other doctors in 1930, the Palo Alto Medical Clinic. However, by 1931, the workload for the four doctors had grown heavy enough that they needed another doctor. So Lee talked Dr. Milt Saier into joining the young partnership.

Dr. Saier was thus the fifth of the original founding partners of the clinic. He joined a team that included Lee, Esther Clark, Edward Frederick (Fritz) Roth, and Blake Wilbur, son of physician and then Stanford University President Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur.

Lee and Saier had no way of knowing at the time that the clinic they founded would become one of the largest and most innovative group practices in the country, or that the modern, five-story Palo Alto Hospital would be a precursor to one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world, Stanford Hospital.

The former Palo Alto Hospital, off Palm Drive near El Camino Real, is still in operation as Hoover Pavilion at Stanford Hospital. And the Palo Alto Medical Clinic building constructed in 1931, known as the Roth Building, still is part of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

In July 1931, when Saier joined Lee and the others, the new clinic building wasn't finished. So the doctors set up shop in a two-story former residential building at the corner of Bryant Street and Hamilton Avenue in downtown Palo Alto, site of the Great Western Bank building.

Saier, who practiced internal medicine, was an allergist, the first between San Francisco and San Jose, so he brought many new patients to the partnership. When Saier started with the group, his "office" was the former kitchen in the second-story apartment of the Bryant-Hamilton building, but the five physicians soon moved into the new clinic building.

Although the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the 1930s was far from a bad time to practice medicine. The only thing the Depression affected "was how much we made, not how much we did," Saier said in an interview with the Palo Alto Weekly in 1988. The city had about 15,000 or so people then, and the type of medicine that was practiced was far different from today.

"You knew everyone you took care of," he said. "It was a family way of doing things. It was wonderful." Back then, night house calls were part of being a doctor, and Saier said patients could easily reach him by calling the clinic during the day or his home at night.

The clinic was innovative in several ways. At the time, group practices represented a radical idea that wasn't uniformly popular among other physicians. There was some resentment among members of the Santa Clara County Medical Society, although Saier says those tensions weren't as great as sometimes reported. "The other doctors didn't seem to mind," he said.

At the clinic, decisions were made informally by the partners sitting around a table. Lee, the driving force behind the clinic, had a unique way of determining how much each doctor earned - he let them name their salaries. Lee would tell them to write down how much they wanted to make in the coming year. In a few cases, Lee had to give them more than they asked for because their requests were too modest.

The hospital was subsidized by the city. The city had purchased an older private hospital in 1921 with funds raised through voter-approved bonds, and entered into an agreement with Stanford University to operate it. When the wooden hospital on Embarcadero Road was outgrown by the city's needs, voters passed a second bond measure in 1929 to build a hospital on Stanford land that would be operated by the university under a 99-year agreement with the city.

In November 1934, the City Council voted to subsidize Palo Alto residents to the tune of $2.50 per day toward the cost of hospitalization, then about $5 per day. At the time, clinic patients were charged $3 per office visit, $4 for a house visit, and $10 for a night house call.

During the Depression, both the clinic and the city helped local residents financially. The clinic's doctors either didn't charge for some visits, didn't charge much or didn't worry about collecting the bills.

After the war brought prosperity back to the area, a funny thing happened. Unasked, people began coming in to pay bills owed for eight and 10 years, bills recorded in books that had been buried away in the basement of the clinic and forgotten.

It's kind of hard to imagine something like that happening today, but those days were different. "It was more personal then," Saier remembers. "It was the best medicine you could practice."

Seeds of Silicon Valley


William Hewlett and David Packard first set up shop in Palo Alto at 367 Addison Ave. making all sorts of odd electronic gadgets in 1938. The famous garage that first housed Hewlett-Packard Co. still stands, and in August 1988 it was named a state historic landmark.

In 1934, the two friends graduated with bachelor's degrees in engineering from Stanford University. They vowed to start a business together, but the economic climate was grim. So they followed the advice of Frederick Terman, their mentor and Stanford's world-famous dean of engineering, and went into research to gain time and more expertise.

Hewlett went to Cambridge to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while Packard accepted a position with General Electric at Schenectady, N.Y., studying vacuum tubes.

By 1936, Hewlett was back at Stanford working with Terman toward a graduate degree in engineering. His thesis project was the resistance-tuned audio oscillator, H-P's future meal ticket.

In 1938, Packard left G.E. and came back to Stanford with his wife, Lucile. Towing a Sears & Roebuck drill press, H-P's first piece of machinery, Packard came into town and settled at the house on Addison. Hewlett moved in with the Packards, living in a 12-by-18-foot cottage next to the garage in the back yard.

Since the two still were students, they relied heavily on Terman, who got Packard a research fellowship at Stanford. Then one day Terman gave them $538 to invest in machinery and arranged for a $l,000 loan. They began to tinker in the garage, spending 50 percent of their time experimenting and 50 percent working for income.

They made a diathermy machine, which provided electric heat treatment, for the Palo Alto Clinic, their first sale. They made a device to monitor bowling alley foul lines, a device to drive a telescope at Lick Observatory and an electronic harmonica tuner.

"If Packard's car was in the garage, it meant they had no orders," Terman is reported to have said. "But if it was out on the street, they had some business and were hard at work soldering, wiring, painting--you name it."

Hewlett perfected his thesis project and marketed it at a meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers. Walt Disney Studios, on the cutting edge of stereophonic technology, wanted eight of the devices for the production of its film "Fantasia."

That was the first big sale, and turned out to be U.S. patent no. 2,268,872, filed July 11, 1939. In January 1939, the two formed an official partnership. For the year, they made $5,639 in sales, garnering a profit of $1,653.

That money enabled them to leave the garage in 1940 for a new location in a rented building on Page Mill Road. Government contracts for World War II, expansion, and worldwide recognition followed shortly.

Varian Associates

On July 1, 1948, Russell Varian, a dyslexic but persistent Stanford physicist, and his brother, Sigurd, a pilot, started a shaky little company with four other employees in San Carlos. Within two years, Varian outgrew its ramshackle offices and relocated to Stanford Industrial Park, now Stanford Research Park.

Varian Associates Inc. was the first company to create a commercial link between private business and researchers in the Stanford physics department.

But much of Varian's success is due to one invention the brothers made earlier in their career: the klystron, a vacuum tube that generates and simplifies microwave signals. On Jan. 30, 1939, shortly after their invention was announced, the Palo Alto Times called the klystron "an invention so breathtaking in its possibilities that it may alter the future radio development of aeronautics."

The invention lived up to its billing. The company now has about 10,000 employees worldwide and annual sales of $1.3 billion.

Around Stanford

Meanwhile, down on The Farm, Stanford's major problem for the decade was keeping its endowment from sinking along with the value of its railroad bonds. In 1934, the Stanford Associates was formed by 250 alumni to raise money for the university. Trustees appropriated $10,000 to finance the first annual fund drive, which netted them far more in return.

A group of men formed the tiny Buck-of-the-Month Club, which provided tuition for Stanford athletes.

Money may have been a problem, but Stanford continued building through the decade. The golf course was established in 1930, the women's gym in 1931 replaced an old wooden one, Frost Amphitheater was readied for commencement in 1937, and Memorial Hall, built mainly through student contributions as a memorial to Stanford students and faculty who died in World War I, was dedicated in 1937 as well.



  • Palo Alto: The First 100 Years, The Palo Alto Weekly, 1994.
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