In 1924, Frank and Josephine Duveneck, a wealthy Palo Alto couple, saw a valley they liked in Los Altos Hills. So they bought it. Then they built and ran what would become the oldest operating hostel in the country. They preserved the local watershed by buying up the hills around it.
During World War II, they opened their doors to refugees from home and abroad. And after the war, they started a multicultural summer camp for kids that continues running to this day. It’s called Hidden Villa and includes an environmental education program and working farm.
On my first visit to Hiden Villa, Marc Sidel and Elizabeth Bowden-Smith lead me and some former campers on a tour of the grounds. We walk through a meadow that looks like it could have inspired the setting of Bambi, if not for the herd of kids. Eager campers dart around a patch of dewy grass, awaiting instruction from their outnumbered counselors.
Jean Gize is also on the tour today. She says not much has changed about the land since she participated in the first summer camp here in 1946. Gize’s fond memories of the place actually begin before her first camp session – when she came to live with the Duvenecks under some special circumstances.
In 1942, when the U.S. ordered everyone with Japanese heritage to leave the west coast, Gize’s family (all U.S. citizens) had to leave, too. She and her mother moved to an internment camp in Utah for two years. In 1944, just as people were being let out of the camps, Gize’s mother saw something in the local newspaper. Josephine Duveneck had posted an invitation to live and work at Hidden Villa to ease the transition back to normal life. Gize and her mother took a train from Utah to Los Altos; Gize was six at the time.
Hidden Villa felt like a totally different world than Gize's previous home in Utah. "Like you’ve got to realize in camp we had no eggs. Everything was powdered. Powdered milk, powdered eggs. When we came here and we had that rich cream...Could you imagine?" Jean reminisces.
Today, Hidden Villa sells the eggs at a local farmer’s market along with their organic produce, and they use the farm as a learning tool for campers and participants in an environmental education program that goes on during the school year. But in Gize’s day, farm work was for adults. She spent her time here climbing trees, riding horses, and sometimes doing chores.
Michael Hamilton also came to Hidden Villa in the late forties. Though he hadn’t met Gize before today, the two share some common memories. They recall a man named Julius Wall, who lived at Hidden Villa after escaping the Nazis. Hamilton was also around for another significant visitor – Cesar Chavez. Chavez’ presence is still remembered at Hidden Villa – a goat born in 2010 was named Cesar in honor of the activist.
Hidden Villa’s rich history informs the mission it strives for today – to teach respect for others and the natural world. Sidel says that conflicts stemming from lack of appreciation, lack of understanding, and lack of respect are ones that Hidden Villa tries to address. And until those problems go away, Hidden Villa will be here taking them on, one camper at a time.