John Muir and the Family Ranch in Martinez

By Victor A. Walsh

The large, two-story, white Italianate home with an ornate bell tower stands on a grassy knoll near the quiet town of Martinez, California. The bare, tawny limbs of the almond, cherry and apple orchards sparkle in the gray winter light.

We walk up the hillside through a rose garden gone dormant in the winter, canopied beneath beautiful broadleaf evergreens. Two tall Washington palms flank the broad veranda steps leading to the elegant home, where the famed Scottish-born conservationist John Muir lived from 1890 until his death in 1914. A Giant Sequoia stands majestically to the right of the house.

Our National Parks guide, Daniel Prial, a young man with curly red hair and a lean wiry frame, reminds me of Muir in his youth, only without a shaggy red beard.

In the west parlor, Daniel points to a photo on the mantle of a bearded John Muir carrying a rucksack in the Sierras. “What do you think of when you see this photo?” he asks. “His association with the wilderness,” says one person. “The Sierra Club,” says another.

“Well, I don’t want to talk about that John Muir. There’s another Muir, too, few people know about — the mountain-man turned family-man who lived in this mansion for a third of his life.”

“John Muir,” he continues, “became an incredibly successful business man after he married Louie Strentzel (in 1880) and became a partner on her father’s 2,600-acre ranch. Muir became part of the family, replacing a son that Dr. John Strentzel and his wife Louisiana had lost.”

We learned that a warm friendship ensued between the two men. Strentzel, a Polish emigre and medical doctor who fled his homeland to escape Russian incarceration, became an extremely successful and respected vintner and fruit grower in the Alhambra Valley.

Having grown up on a remote frontier Wisconsin farm, Muir brought formidable skills to his new career on Strentzel’s ranch. Daniel explains he was no stranger to toil, “working under a demanding father until he was nearly broken physically.”

Muir was passionate about efficiency and productivity, thrifty and conscientious, very knowledgeable about plants, and eager to learn from his father-in-law. The ranch”s quilt of orchards, always meticulously grafted and planted with new varieties of peaches, grapes and other fruits, were the envy of Alhambra Valley. A gifted inventor and former machine-shop designer, Muir developed special equipment to set out orchard trees and convinced the Central Pacific to build a station and trestle on the ranch to haul his produce to distant markets, including Hawaii.

“If he hadn”t been momentarily blinded (in 1867), which inspired him to become a wilderness guru,” Daniel notes, “he could have been the next Henry Ford.”

By the end of the 1880s, Muir had saved $100,000, a large sum of money at that time, but he never flaunted his wealth. He continued to dress plainly and to carry his deposits to Martinez”s only bank in a white sack marked “laundry.”

Running the family”s business took a toll on his health and psyche, though. Muir often spoke of the ”grind, grind, grind” of the long hours. Louie worried about her husband”s declining health, and pressed him to turn the operation over to others, including his younger brother David. “A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life or work,” she told him, “ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm.”

She understood her husband”s wilderness vision and need to be by himself to fulfill what she once called the “precious value of your work to your own soul.” She wanted him to write his books on Alaska and Yosemite.

In 1888, Muir decided to resume his true calling as a conservationist and wilderness advocate. He and Louie agreed that he would travel to the Sierras, Alaska or other wilderness destinations from late summer through the fall months.

In 1890, Dr. Strentzel passed away, and John and his family moved into the large hilltop home so that Louie could take care of her mother. The home reflects the opulence and architectural taste of an upper-middle class family of that era. The front parlor rooms and library have 12-foot high ceilings, handsome fireplaces, wallpapered or wood-paneled walls, and Persian rugs. California landscape paintings by William Keith, a fellow Scotsman and close friend of Muir”s, hang in the rooms.

Muir felt comfortable in the house. Louie was a superb hostess, avid gardener, accomplished pianist, and incredibly supportive of his needs and ambitions. He often entertained friends and associates who gathered around the east parlor”s massive brick fireplace, a “real mountain campfire,” he called it.

In the second-story study, the “scribble den” as he fondly named it, Muir wrote such classics as The Mountains of California (1894), My First Summer in the Sierra (1901), Our National Parks (1901), The Yosemite (1912), and Travels in Alaska (1915). His cluttered desk sits in front of a large bay window with a wonderful view of the garden and outlying orchards.

The annex behind the study features plant specimens that Muir, a noted botanist, collected with his plant press during his travels. His herbarium, which no longer stands, held one of the three largest plant collections in late 19th-century California.

The first-floor dining room played an important part in family living. When they were home, Muir and his family gathered every evening for dinner. To make sure that his daughters Wanda and Helen would be on time, he told serialized stories, a favorite being the immortal dog story, Stickeen, that lasted a week or longer and were never repeated.

Unlike his abusive father, Muir was devoted to his children. “His daughters were princesses. They wanted for nothing, and had everything.”

The naturalist often took them on long walks into the west hills to look at the trees, wildflowers and birds. These were special occasions for Muir as a father and teacher. On January 23, 1895, Helen”s ninth birthday, he noted in his Ranch Life Journal: “The bright day she says seems to have been sent just for her. She celebrated the day on the hills. She climbs well and is in perfect health. An unspeakable blessing….”

The Ranch Life Journals of his life in Martinez shed light on the other dimensions of his life. Contrary to popular belief, Muir was more than a humble mountain man — or “sheepherder” as the geologist Dr. Josiah Whitney once called him — who descended from the Sierras to spin tales of adventure and speak passionately in defense of wilderness.

He lived well on his Martinez ranch, able to hire workers and other support staff, including a Chinese cook, Ah Fong. He enjoyed the company of rich and influential people whom he often met at the prestigious Palace Hotel in San Francisco or the University Club in Berkeley. He corresponded regularly with elected officials, Sierra Club leaders, scientists and intellectuals as well as editors, publishers and national figures, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

Muir handled business affairs astutely. His diary entrees often note the sale or leasing of the family”s ranch holdings, his fascination with railroads and machines, and the use of sprayed pesticides like sulfur, soap and copper to control pests. “He was a white-collar manager running blue-collar (work) crews,” according to Daniel.

But this is only one side to a complex, multi-dimensional individual. Muir”s marriage, close relationship with his father-in-law, and success as a rancher gave him the financial independence and emotional support to become a full-time conservationist and writer.

Mountaineer, scientist, inventor, fruit grower, conservationist and family man — John Muir was all of these things. But above all else, he was a naturalist. The natural world had been a source of inspiration, recreation, freedom, and perhaps most importantly, understanding and spiritual refuge for him since boyhood.

Although he spent nearly half his life in Martinez near San Francisco, Muir was never far in spirit from nature”s call. His daily entries in the Ranch Life Journals always begin with brief references to the weather — the “long dry clouds,” “rainy drizzle,” “fine, dry sunny day.”

“Rain, wind, black weather with tedious monotony but it matters not as far as my fields are concerned…,” he wrote on January 19, 1895, “I am in Alaska and the mind goes there with marvelous vividness.”

Muir was keenly observant of everything that went on around him, from the wrens nesting in the orchards and gophers running amuck in the fields to the flocks of robins driven from the hills by fierce winter storms; from the oaks in full leaf to the wild flowers bursting in riotous springtime colors.

In the early morning or late afternoon before twilight, he would sometimes stand on a hilltop gazing at nearby Mount Diablo covered in a “…wonderfully luminous, dazzling light…” or the faraway Sierras “…smothered in dust and smoke…”

Muir led a disciplined life at his ranch. “I get up about six o”clock and attend to farm work, go to bed about nine and read until midnight,” he once said. He not only supervised work crews, but worked alongside them, cutting wood, planting vines, pruning trees, hauling hay and building fences.

He spent much of his time writing in his upstairs study — a task or obligation that he found taxing and frustrating. “Busy reading — this I can always do from morn till night and never weary,” he wrote on April 9, 1895, “but composition the devil seems to keep me from it, though I feel that my Day of Life is fast speeding away that I must tell my story to the world.”

The naturalist’s long absences in the wilderness weighed heavily on everyone. He missed his daughters Wanda and Helen greatly: a feeling that was inspired in part by his father”s harsh treatment of him as a child. In her letters, Louie always updated him on their health and activities, and frequently chided him to be careful in the wilderness, once telling him while in Alaska: “John, John, do not go any more where those terrible wolves range and howl.”

But it’s “In God”s wildness lies the hope of the world — the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness,”Muir thought. And so it was: hisappetite for wild places knew no bounds, etched in his spirit like an unconquerable dream.

John Muir was the prophet of a new order that looked to nature for guidance and inspiration. His legacy, along with creating national parks like Yosemite and Sequoia, was largely literary — the classics he left to posterity about the wonders of nature and its importance to mankind; indeed, to all life. That legacy, born and nurtured from sustained contact with nature, bore fruition during his life at the Strentzel ranch in Martinez.

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