Palo Alto History. Org

Anna Zschokke: The Mother of Palo Alto

Palo Altans have always taken great pride in their community.  Sure, every town has its boosters, but Palo Alto residents seem to feel a true interrelationship with their neighbors and the city as a whole.  Watchful parents keep a close eye on the public school system, preservationists keep a close eye on city landmarks, and these days, online bloggers seem to keep a close eye on just about everything else.  These folks really care.

The tradition of caring in our community goes back to Palo Alto’s earliest residents --- in fact, its very first.  (And yes, there actually was a first resident.)  She was Anna Zschokke, a widowed German immigrant and mother of three who first settled in a house along Homer Street.  Zschokke became the city’s first historian, was known as a prominent socialite and was eventually dubbed the “Mother of the Palo Alto Schools.”  And it turns out she was not only Palo Alto’s first resident, but one of its most generous.

In 1896, one of Palo Alto’s early weeklies, the Palo Alto Live Oak, published a “Pioneer History of the Town of Palo Alto” as authored by Mrs. Anna Zschokke.  It would prove to be a remarkable article. 

Reprinted in the Palo Alto Timesagain in 1917, Zschokke’s account was a record of enormous detail about the town's formative years..  It gave a chronological
account of the earliest residents’ arrivals, births and deaths, as well as construction projects, street gradings, housing starts and on and on.  Her memories painted the scene of that still-unsettled Palo Alto --- when just four houses lay scattered along Embarcadero Road, an open shed constituted Palo Alto’s main train depot, and a horse-and-buggy taxi coming from Menlo Park could wander for hours just trying to locate some place known as “Palo Alto.”

Zschokke had actually lived quite an eventful life before ever setting foot in Palo Alto.  Born in Germany in 1849, she moved to America at the age of three, later living in Indiana, Kern County and Santa Clara.  But after the death of her husband Oscar, she took her three children on the road again --- this time north to the new town being laid out in the shadow of the nearly-completed Stanford University.  Along with six other families, the Zschokkes spent many weeks camped under the trees while their houses were being constructed.  It would be the Zschokke residence on Homer Avenue that would be ready first.  When the family trouped over the threshold, Anna Zschokke became Palo Alto’s first resident. 

Still, these were lonely days as the first families waited for a town to sprout up around them.  Anna recalled that in those early months, “we overcame the loneliness of our situation by entertaining each other with tea parties and making a celebration of every child’s birthday.  Christmas Day brought us together at one home, New Year’s at another and Washington’s Birthday at still another.”  Palo Alto enjoyed the utmost in community bonds in that first year.

Zschokke took to recording the town’s early history with the fervent belief that it would someday be an important place.  Zschokke noted all firsts: the first-born baby (Andrew McLachlan, Jr.), the first wedding (Mrs. N. Mosher and Mr. N.W. Harper), the first Sunday services (“held under the trees near the lumber yard for we needed its planks for seats”), and even the first accident, when “On August 30th, 1890, we had the terrible experience of Mr. L. Gillan’s sudden death, caused by the Sunday Monterey Express running over him.”

Also recorded were the deeds of J. Hutchinson’s Palo Alto Improvement Club which was working hard to bring essentials to a town that was growing rapidly --- from a population of just 37 souls at the start of 1891 to 73 on New Year’s Eve, to 300 residents by the end of 1892, and thanks to a great emigration from
Mayfield, to 750 by the close of 1893.  A supply of water, grading of the major streets, sewerage, electric light, street railways, and water works were all on the early agenda for city improvements. 

Zschokke also took note of businesses first appearing in Palo Alto.  Just a sample --- the first book store opened by H.W. Simkins in the old Wigle building on High Street and E.F. Weishaar ran the first grocery store located (rather oddly) in the north room of the Palo Alto Hotel.  And Zschokke recalls the boost in city pride when the first issue of the long-running Palo Alto Timesdebuted on January 3, 1893.  All in all, the Zschokke history provides an interesting glimpse at how a town first came to be.

But Zchokke wasn’t just a passive observer.  She displayed a passionate drive for civic improvements --- especially when concerned with the betterment of children.  And the degree to which she was willing to help her young town would prove remarkable.  As an increasing number of small children moved in, Zschokke reported that “Mothers sighed over the drawback of having to send the little ones so far as Mayfield (two miles).”  And while Zschokke and her supporters were able to convince the County Superintendent that building Palo Alto’s first public school would be a good idea, Mayfield disagreed, claiming that their up-start neighbors to the north were still within their two-mile jurisdiction.

By 1893, after measurements proved that was not quite so, Palo Altans footed the bill for a temporary school house.  In a true show of community spirit, “all able-bodied men” were summoned to come help erect the new two-room schoolhouse.  In four days it was up and ready for reading and writing.    

After a larger school was built at Webster and Channing in 1894, Zschokke became interested in the need for a school for older boys and girls.  For a time, a high school opened in the cramped top quarters of the elementary school, but Zschokke knew this solution was only temporary.  So she mortgaged her house, bought a lot herself, hired a contractor and built a three room schoolhouse with good plumbing --- with help from a family trust in Switzerland.  Taking bits of cardboard cut to scale to represent furniture, Zschokke then worked out how to make the small structure serve as a working, if only temporary, high school. 

Her friends thought she had gone off the edge.  They tried to convince her that the plan was financially doomed, that high school students would damage her property and that she was mortgaging away her future.  But build it she did.  And when she ran out of space as enrollment grew, Zschokke built another shack behind the house to serve as a science lab.

That little house served four years as the high school while the city procrastinated about building a real high school on Channing.  When they did, she was able to turn the old classrooms into her new living room and bedrooms.

For her extreme generosity in the early years of the city’s education, Anna Zschokke has often been called the “Mother of the Palo Alto schools.”  From those early days of shacks and bungalows, Palo Alto’s schools would grow to be admired across the state.  But it all began with Resident Number One. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"Thank you for this article and pictures.  Many of these pictures I have not seen!
Anna Probst Zschokke was my great, great grandmother. She was the grandmother of my grandfather, Fremont Older Zschokke.

Anna's deceased husband, Oscar Zschokke, was from Switzerland. The Swiss Zschokke's have a family reunion every five years, which I've attended since 1980. Unfortunately, my Palo Alto history of Anna is sketchy - I am deeply appreciative of your knowledge and recognition of her.I am told that the site of the first school she built is now the PAIX - Palo Alto Internet Exchange. Last year I learned there are two small homes still standing, which Anna's son Theodore built, on Homer Avenue. Martin Bernstein restored and lives in one of these homes, which was also used as a boarding house.

I was fortunate to meet the elder Garrod's who are close to 100 years old. They knew Fremont Older when they were kids. It's like touching history."

"I remember a  blond girl named Chauntelle Zschokke who was a class or two behind me at Paly in the late 80's - early 90's. I didn't really know her, but I definitely recognize that unusual last name. I had no idea at the time about that family's connection to Palo Alto history.

How cool that there are still Zschokkes in Palo Alto - or at least, that there were while I was growing up (which I suppose isn't all that recently anymore, but it feels recent to me!)."


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Anna Zschokke and her sons Arthur and Theodore, and her daughter Irma. (PAHA)

The two-room schoolhouse built in 4 days by the able men of Palo Alto. (PAHA)

The first Palo Alto High School. (PAHA)

Anna Zschokke's house as seen through the Paddleford Garage, now Whole Foods. (PAHA)

University Avenue as seen in 1893. (PAHA)

Early Palo Alto students had to walk 2 miles to get to Mayfield School. (PAHA)