How Stanford's Desire for a Booze-Free Town Gave Birth to Palo Alto

14 min
Downtown Palo Alto along University Avenue in the early 1930s. Even before Prohibition, there would be no liquor you could buy along this main drag. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

When you think about a college town, chances are good the abundance of alcohol springs to mind. But Palo Alto owes its entire existence to the want of a college town without booze.

It's also why Palo Alto has two downtown-like districts: the "official" downtown along University Avenue that leads into Stanford University, and California Avenue a few miles to the south.

"Palo Alto has two separate downtowns because it was originally two separate towns," said Steve Staiger, the historian for the Palo Alto Historical Association.

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Mayfield, California

Before there was Palo Alto, there was Mayfield.

Founded in the 1850s, it was one of several small communities interspersed among the rural farmland of the 19th century Peninsula.

The corner of Main and Lincoln in Mayfield (present-day El Camino Real and California Avenue) in 1908. This is the intersection where Leland Stanford met the leaders of Mayfield in 1886 to see if they would close their saloons.
The corner of Main and Lincoln in Mayfield (present-day El Camino Real and California Avenue) in 1908. This is the intersection where Leland Stanford met the leaders of Mayfield in 1886 to see if they would close their saloons. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

"There was a small downtown of general stores, blacksmiths, saloons and lumberyards that served the farming community that surrounded it," said Laura Jones, Stanford archaeologist and president of the Stanford Historical Society.

That small downtown was present-day California Avenue, or Lincoln Street as it was then known. And in 1886, when Leland and Jane Stanford were looking for a college town to support the new university they were building nearby, they turned to Mayfield.

There was just one condition: Mayfield would have to go dry, ending the sale of liquor within the community.

Mayfield's Main Street in 1902.
Mayfield's Main Street in 1902. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

This was during the heart of the Temperance Movement, and the Stanfords knew that associating their school with an alcohol-free town would be enticing to many of the parents of prospective students. (The Stanfords themselves had no issues with alcohol production. They owned the world's largest winery just north of Chico, and they even operated a winery on Stanford's campus for a time.)

Going dry was going to be a hard sell in Mayfield, though, because much of the community's economy was built on the back of its 13 saloons and two breweries.

"This is a place where the population of predominantly single men would come off the farms or the ranches or the sawmills on Friday, come to town and spend their week's wages drinking," Staiger said.

In the end, Mayfield's leaders decided that booze was more profitable than books and rejected the Stanfords' offer.

But the couple quickly turned to Plan B. If Mayfield wouldn't become their dry college town, they would create their own.

The Birth of Palo Alto

Palo Alto in 1896.
Palo Alto in 1896. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

The Stanfords asked Timothy Hopkins, one of Leland Stanford's friends and colleagues in the railroad industry, to buy 700 acres of farmland a few miles north of Mayfield and start selling lots.

"If you bought one of the lots from Timothy Hopkins, you were not allowed to sell liquor on it," Jones said. "And if you did the property reverted to Timothy Hopkins. And so they established a dry town, which is now what we think of as Palo Alto."

(Due to a combination of local bans, nationwide Prohibition and a state law restricting the sale of liquor near college campuses, you couldn't legally buy a drink on University Avenue — Palo Alto's original downtown — until 1971.)

The two towns coexisted for a few decades. Stanford University opened in 1891 with Palo Alto as its dry college town, attracting mostly transplants from the East Coast and Midwest. Mayfield, on the other hand, remained a blue-collar town that offered cheaper housing to Stanford students and, of course, a steady supply of alcohol.

A Jan. 2, 1905, San Francisco Examiner item commiserating with the drinkers of Stanford that nearby Mayfield could no longer provide their libations.
A Jan. 2, 1905, San Francisco Examiner item commiserating with the drinkers of Stanford that nearby Mayfield could no longer provide their libations. (Newspapers.com)

Mayfield was such a popular destination for Stanford students and faculty that the president of the university reportedly closed the gate on the road leading to Mayfield in hopes of preventing students from making the libatious pilgrimage.

But the steady stream of customers from Stanford wasn't enough to keep Mayfield afloat. The farmhands and lumber workers who had kept the saloons filled were increasingly being replaced by young families who were less interested in a community built around alcohol.

When Mayfield officially incorporated itself as a town at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the first things the new town's elected leaders did was follow Palo Alto's lead and close down its saloons.

"They realized their old economic model was no longer viable," Staiger said.

But a dry Mayfield turned out to be just a poorer, less impressive version of Palo Alto, which was continuing to grow in size and success.

In 1925, the residents of Mayfield voted to merge with Palo Alto, and on July 6 Mayfield officially ceased to exist. Palo Alto already had a Lincoln Street, so they rechristened Mayfield's downtown as California Avenue.

University Avenue in Palo Alto after 1906.
University Avenue in Palo Alto after 1906. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)
Main Street (present-day El Camino Real) in Mayfield in about 1909.
Main Street (present-day El Camino Real) in Mayfield in about 1909. (Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association)

The Palo Alto government did its best to scrub its new addition of the name Mayfield, renaming everything South Palo Alto. But Staiger said that the people who lived in Mayfield never lost their sense of where they were truly from.

"There was a woman on our board who grew up in Mayfield for the first five years of her life, and she had lived in the neighborhood ever since," Staiger said. "She was not a Palo Altan in her mind. She was a Mayfieldian."

University Avenue in Palo Alto on March 27, 2019. You could not legally buy a drink on this street until 1971.
University Avenue in Palo Alto on March 27, 2019. You could not legally buy a drink on this street until 1971. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)
California Avenue in Palo Alto on March 27, 2019, at the intersection with El Camino Real, where Leland Stanford met with Mayfield leaders in 1886.
California Avenue in Palo Alto on March 27, 2019, at the intersection with El Camino Real, where Leland Stanford met with Mayfield leaders in 1886. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

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