I met a man the other day I described to a friend as “a nice wealthy person,” and my friend was curious to know why I called the man nice wealthy? To explain, I gave her a sketchy history of Atherton, California.
Atherton is twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco and surrounded by Woodside, Redwood City, and Menlo Park. Nowadays, 2016, only very wealthy people live there, but in the 1950s and 60s, for a brief time, Atherton was home to a few thousand middle-class folk.
In the 1600s and 1700s and early 1800s, the ground that is now Atherton was part of a huge Spanish land grant known as Rancho de las Pulgas. The famous Alameda de las Pulgas (Road of the Fleas) still runs through the heart of Atherton. Then in the mid-1800’s, Stanford and other Robber Barons, the founding rich white people of the state of California, built their mansions in San Francisco, but since summers in the city were foggy and cold, the barons also built estates in the sunnier climes of what are today Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto.
Stanford bought his thousands of acres of land that would eventually become Stanford University, and he and his fellow magnates traveled from San Francisco to their sunny estates in opulent private train cars attached to trains running between San Francisco and San Jose.
Then in the 1900s most of those huge estates were carved up into twenty-acre estates, and Atherton became home to several dozen wealthy families living in mansions with extensive servants’ quarters. Then in the 1940s and 50s those 20-acre estates were broken into one-acre lots, and hundreds of smaller homes were built, with some of the mansions remaining on multi-acre parcels of land.
My parents and my three siblings and I moved to Atherton in 1955 from San Mateo, and upon our arrival I entered First Grade at Las Lomitas Elementary in Menlo Park. Our modest three-bedroom house stood on the corner-acre of the 20-acre Erman Estate. The abandoned Erman mansion remained standing until I was ten, so I had the extreme pleasure of growing up near a huge haunted Victorian.
My friends and I had many adventures playing on the deserted Erman Estate. There was a still-intact tennis court, massive old oaks, date palms, olive orchards, fruit trees, a huge crumbling swimming pool that became a frog pond every winter, collapsing stables, ruined greenhouses, and several acres of neglected vineyards.
But the biggest attraction was the haunted mansion. One day a friend and I found the kitchen door ajar and went inside. I remember the wood-fired stove was the size of a car. There was a wide staircase rising from the grand foyer, and a narrow staircase behind the scenes for the servants; and there were several steps missing in that servants’ staircase, below which was a vast basement.
We ran home and got flashlights so we could see down into the abyss, and we discovered the floor of that enormous subterranean room was covered with claw-foot bathtubs. Turns out great quantities of bathtub gin were manufactured in that basement during Prohibition, though my first surmise was that the Ermans raised fish in those tubs. Silly me.
Now nearly all the smaller houses in Atherton have been replaced with huge houses owned by people who made their fortunes in the computer business. The creator of Quicken bought dozens of houses near my parent’s home and tore them down to create a huge estate crowned by a palace resembling the Disney castle. Larry Ellison of Oracle bought several contiguous Atherton properties, removed the houses, and built a hundred-million-dollar mansion on the shores of a three-acre lake.
But in the 1950s and 60s, middle class people abounded along with the newly wealthy and the longtime wealthy, and in the 1970’s many Europeans moved to Atherton to get in on the early Silicon Valley gold rush featuring companies such as Ampex, Hewlett-Packard, and other electronic and pharmaceutical companies. When I came home to visit in those days, my mother liked to introduce me to the new families in the neighborhood—the French and German and British wives staying home while their engineer husbands went off to invent the latest circuitry.
Today there are several East Indians living on the street where I grew up, but in my childhood nearly everyone in Atherton was white. There were all sorts of wealthy people: reclusive wealthy people, ambitious wealthy people, snooty wealthy people, and crazy wealthy people. And there were some nice wealthy people, too.
The nice ones I got to know were inheritors of old wealth, and not having fought to earn their money, they were gentler than those who had to claw and scratch and do bad things to make their fortunes.
Before the 1980s, most wealthy people in Atherton employed Japanese gardeners to care for their extensive gardens, and as a boy I learned to prune fruit trees from our neighbor’s Japanese gardener. He allowed me tag along on his pruning jobs in the neighborhood and very kindly taught me how to care for fruit trees. I got my first gardening job when I was eleven and worked as a gardener after school and on weekends through high school—all my gardening jobs given to me by nice wealthy people.
Which brings me back to the fellow I recently characterized as a nice wealthy person. He and I were speaking about my possibly pruning some fruit trees for him, and he reminded me so much of the nice wealthy people I knew as a boy, I assumed he was wealthy.
Unlike most of the other adults I knew, these nice wealthy adults treated me as an adult and spoke to me with respect and kindness. They trusted me with their tools and gardens, and they genuinely liked me and wanted to know what I thought, what I was reading, what I wanted to be, all of which made them remarkable to me.
(Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com)