On Leland Stanford’s orders, PA was dry for a really, really long time.

Oh man…if Leland knew: Stanford students drinking up (presumably on a remote section of campus) in 1938. (Courtesy of the Stanford Photo Archive)

A few months back I was chatting with my father-in-law, who grew up in Palo Alto back in the 1950s. It’s funny talking with him about the area back then, because he doesn’t so much tell me stories about it as he kinda randomly blindsides me with fascinating bits of history that I just didn’t see coming. Like when I mentioned Kepler’s Books one time and he said, “Yeah, you had to be careful who saw you coming out of Kepler’s.”

“Wait, wha?”

“It was pretty much an anarchist bookstore way back when,” he explained. “I always worried my neighbors would see me walking out of there and tell my parents.”

See? I just never knew that kind of thing. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was talking to him this past autumn about working in Palo Alto and he said, for no particular reason: “Yeah, it used to be a dry town.”

‘Wait, wha?”

“There was no booze. There were no bars. You couldn’t buy it within Palo Alto,” he said nonchalantly.

“You mean…like….100 years ago?”

“No, fairly recently. Certainly throughout the ‘60s.”

Wet blanket, dry town: a portrait of the wine-producing teetotaler Leland Stanford. (Courtesy of the Stanford Photo Archive)

“The Nineteen ‘60s?”

I had to look into that one. So I asked some of the veterans around our editorial office and to my surprise it wasn’t very well known with them either, but more of a foggy notion that people had heard about. Eventually I was sent to our book shelves to consult History of Palo Alto: The Early Years, by Pamela Gullard and Nancy Lund.

Looking through the glossary there were no entries for beer, wine, or whiskey. Temperance? Nothing. Dry-town? Lame-ville?Ah-ha! “Teetotalers—pg. 84.” And there in a special boxed-in section, the opening paragraph reads like this:

Whiskey may not be the root of evil, but it—or rather its absence—was certainly the root of Palo Alto. For his greatest project, Stanford University, Senator Leland Stanford and his wife Jane Lathop wanted to create a healthy, moral environment for the incoming students. This meant no liquor in the college town where the students would live, shop, and find recreation.

Wow. So not only was it true, but it traced directly back to Stanford himself. According to Gullard and Lund, he struggled to get neighboring towns (such as Menlo Park) on board with this idea, particularly the rough-and-tumble saloon-heavy haven of Mayfield (to the south, along California and El Camino Real) who laughed off his efforts to dry them out.

If you had to guess which location sold alcohol: the La Peire and Sons Grocery (at left), where Stanford faculty were known to shop in the early days of the university; Rehfeld’s Place in Palo Alto circa 1923 where the drinks advertised are non-alcoholic. (Courtesy of the Stanford Photo Archive and the Palo Alto Historical Association)

Looking through the rest of this insightful “…Teetotalers” section, I scanned for the date when this all finally came to a close. 1909— “a California state law forbade the sale of liquor within a mile and a half of Stanford University.” Ok. The ban continued after Prohibition ended in 1932. Ok. And then I found it—1972. This non-alcoholic tyranny didn’t fully end until 1972? Jeez…makes you want to drink.

More recently, I got some clarification on this sober legacy courtesy of the Palo Alto Historical Association’s Steve Staiger, who waded into the nuance for me: “While Palo Alto was indeed a “dry town” (of sorts) in the beginning, it was not because the Stanfords were temperance people. This is a common misconception. Leland Stanford was the world’s largest wine grape grower around the time that the University opened. But he was also a politician (US senator representing California) and realized that a temperance-like environment around his new university would be a positive stance for the parents of prospective students.”

And there you have it—the biggest wine producer in America had built an “island of sobriety” (at least, in theory) here in Palo Alto. Of course, as is always the case with any kind of prohibition, it comes accompanied by numerous stories of how people skirted these rules, such as how professors at Stanford would have booze shipped to them in packages marked—“BOOKS.” Or, as one of my colleagues explained, that the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park (which opened in 1966) was one of the key local spots for students sneak off to for a drink. Lingering current day references to East Palo Alto as “Whiskey Gulch?” You get the idea.

Crist gets a glass of water…..with an olive. (Courtesy of the Palo Alto Historical Association)

This history —as many sources point out—explains why Palo Alto essentially has two downtown areas, along University Ave (Leland’s once-sober district) and to the south, around California Ave (the formerly saloon-heavy area that shrugged him off).

There’s also a great post script to it all as well. Staiger was kind enough to point me towards a photo in the association’s archive, which shows local hotel owner Frank Crist—the key figure in the final repeal of the local prohibition against hard alcohol—having what looks to be a martini poured for him during the moment of repeal in 1971. Yet as Gullard and Lund explain in their book, the booze still hadn’t actually arrived yet, even though the law had just changed. So the photo is staged really, with the bartender just pouring water into Crist’s glass. Talk about a dry martini.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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