John Muir National Historic Site: His home, family, writing

John Muir’s home when not wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Originally published July 10, 2015.

In a week, my daughter, Jennie, and I will embark on a long-awaited journey. We will spend a month backpacking in the High Sierra on the John Muir Trail. With a few layover days that will allow for some side trips, our total trip mileage should be about 250 miles.

As our departure date looms, I am excited and nervous.

Excited because of what I know awaits us out there. Sunrises and alpenglow sunsets, stargazing and a Blue Moon and meteor showers, wildlife and wild places, photography and writing and a video diary, swimming, trail friends, peaks and passes, being completely unplugged from the modern world, and following in the footsteps of pioneer Sierra travelers such as John Muir, Orland Bartholomew, and Norman Clyde. Most exciting to me is that every step of the way, I will be sharing this epic adventure with my best friend.

Nervous because of the unknowns. This trek will be three times longer in both time and mileage than any we have done before, so we aren’t entirely sure if we have prepared properly for all situations. Weather, footwear, pack weight, communication with home, resupplies, clothing, meals, and resupplies are a few of the issues we have spent hours discussing and trying to get right.

* * *

As part of the planning for this adventure, which has been in the works for about nine months, we paid a visit to John Muir’s home in Martinez in California’s Bay Area. We were on a quest to know more about this man to whom credit is given for the creation of national parks and who spent much time in some of the areas we will be exploring: the high country of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, as well as the Ansel Adams Wilderness and, of course, the John Muir Wilderness.

* * *

In 1853, Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish-born physician, and his wife bought 20 acres of property in the Alhambra Valley near the community of Martinez. In 1880, John Muir, 42, a family friend, married the Strentzels’ daughter, Louisa “Louie” Wanda.

The hilltop home, which is the focal point of the property, was built in 1882. It was surrounded by Dr. Strentzel’s orchards and other horticulture and in close proximity to the Central Pacific Railroad, which provided long-distance shipping of the produce.

Photos of John Muir, wife Louie, and daughters Wanda and Helen.

Strentzel’s horticultural accomplishments became well known. The family eventually owned 2,600 acres in the area.

John and Louie Muir had two daughters. Annie Wanda Muir was born in 1881. In 1886, Helen Muir was born.

When Dr. Strentzel died in 1890, John Muir took over the maintenance and upkeep of the home and became a successful fruit rancher. When Louie died in 1905, the house was passed to Annie and Helen.

John Muir purchased the home from his daughters in 1912. In 1915, after Muir’s death in December 1914, Annie and Helen sold the house.

There were other owners through the years, but eventually the property was abandoned, and while the city grew up around it, squatters and vandals had their way with the property.

In 1964, an act of Congress created the John Muir National Historic Site and preservation began on the preservationist’s home. Since that time, other acquisitions have been made of what was previously a part of the ranch property, including Mount Wanda and John Muir’s gravesite.

Also located on the property and now a part of the John Muir Historic Site is the Vicente Martinez Adobe, built in 1849. Vicente had a famous father, Ygnacio Martinez, for whom the city of Martinez is named. He was the first commander of the Presidio in San Francisco and the City of San Francisco’s third mayor.

The Muir mansion is accessible to visitors with most rooms open for exploration. Only a few items remain that are original to the home — the coal-burning stove and the soapstone countertop in the kitchen and, most inspirational, his writing desk. The rest of the furnishings are mostly period pieces.

* * *

I have a mental image of John Muir in the High Sierra, perched on a granite dome, beside a river, or by a tree. It was such a contrast to realize he lived in a mansion, had a family, and composed most of his conservation writing in an office on the second story of his Martinez home, which he called his “scribble den.”

John Muir’s scribble den.

But it was the writings that emanated from this room and at this desk that helped people see that nature provided so much more than commodities. It was worthy of protection.

This man had several careers, walked thousands of miles, met presidents, and traveled to the world’s most beautiful places.

Today, many natural formations and manmade structures are named in his honor.

His likeness has appeared on postage stamps and is on the California state quarter.

And there is a famous, scenic 211-mile trail through the heart of the Sierra that bears his name.

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