In honor of John Muir’s birthday, April 21, 1838, I’ll share the story of my visit to an important place in his life almost two years ago. It was June 26th, 2016, a hot, bright day in Martinez, CA.
The John Muir National Historic Site is just south of the Carquinez Strait, which links San Pablo and Suisun Bays. Benicia, California’s third but short-lived capital city, is just across the strait and was reached by ferry in Muir’s time. A lovely town with a well-preserved historic district, Benicia is well-situated on a waterway that permits easy passage for ships and ferries. In its early years, the strait allowed for easy passage of people, animals, and the products of this agricultural region and later industrial center, so it became a busy, thriving center of commerce. It enjoyed its first big boom with the Gold Rush, as it lay on an easy route between San Francisco and the gold fields.
Martinez was also a hub of Gold Rush activity. The ferry between Benicia and Martinez enjoyed a monopoly on getting all those gold-crazed fortune seekers south to the gold fields and north again to cash in. But Martinez was also an important agricultural town, and this site preserves just a little bit of that aspect of its history. It’s about a thirty-five-minute drive northeast of where I live in Oakland.
The grand house which stands here was first the home of Dr. John Strentzel, a Polish physician who emigrated to the United States in 1840. Like Benicia and Martinez, Strentzel made his early fortune in the Gold Rush, in his case through the practice of medicine. He later took up farming and achieved fame as a horticulturist. Strentzel settled in Alhambra Valley, just south of Martinez, with his wife Louisiana, daughter Louisa, and son John, in 1853. The Strentzels built their final home and grand farm here in Martinez from 1880-1882, with a veritable mansion made comfortable with the most modern amenities as they became available: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, two water closets, and eventually, a telephone and electricity. Louisa, nicknamed Louie, ferried to Benicia daily where she went to school and learned to play the piano expertly. Her brother John died at only nine years old in 1857.
The Martinez house was surrounded by acres and acres of rolling farmland, and several groves remain today. I see grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and much more. Visitors can pluck and eat the fruit freely; the peaches and plums are ripe now, the latter richly red, dripping, and delicious.
John Muir met the Strentzels in 1874; he was already well known as a naturalist and just beginning his career as a writer. The year before, he moved to Oakland from Yosemite and published articles about California’s natural wonders. He often lamented how slowly his thoughts flowed through his pen though they bloomed as naturally and abundantly in his mind as the wild California flowers he loved.
Parts of Yosemite had already been set aside as public land by the federal government, protected by the state of California for public use and barred from development by private interests. Senator John Conness introduced the park bill in Congress in 1864 which passed quickly, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it that summer. Conness is an interesting and admirable person as well, an Irish immigrant who also got his start in the Gold Rush and remained on the right side of history in his political career. His advocacy for Chinese immigrants and for equal rights eventually destroyed his political career, but in the meantime he was respected as a champion of the ordinary American, native and immigrant, over the interests of the few and the wealthy, and was one of Lincoln’s pallbearers.
Yet the bill setting Yosemite aside as public land did not provide funds or the authority to protect it. It took Muir, another immigrant, to reveal the true sacredness of the natural world to the consciousness of his (now) fellow Americans, which in turn gave rise to the political will to care for it. An accident in the factory he worked at in 1867 damaged his eyes temporarily and he began to wander. He walked from Indianapolis to Florida, a thousand miles, and fell in love with the natural world and the transformative power of walking in nature. Muir heard that there were spectacular natural wonders in California, vast, and in many places still unexplored and unspoiled, and sailed to San Francisco in 1868. He walked to Yosemite and throughout the Sierras, writing a journal as he went. He emerged as a prophet, fearless, tireless, and rendered poetic by his baptism of the wind, trees, stones, wildlife, and water.
But he realized that this great inspiration which transformed and ennobled his life would be unavailable to others if the entrepreneurs trespassing into the Yosemite valley and despoiling it were allowed to continue. So, again like the biblical prophets, Muir emerged from the wilderness to share the good news and cry out against those who defiled the great temples of creation for their own gain. He returned to civilization to spread the word, first through newspapers and then through books. 1874, the year he met the Strentzels at a mutual friend’s home in Oakland, saw his first success as a writer with his ‘Studies in the Sierra’ series. Muir had also discovered the evidence that the formations of Yosemite were created by glaciers, not wind and rain as previously thought, and over time, the scientific community were convinced of the truth of his theory.
Muir married Louie Strentzel in 1879. Though her father and Muir had become good friends, the couple did not fall in love with each other on their own. Another mutual friend set them up and convinced each, separately, that the other would make a perfect companion for them. Muir began to help Dr. Strentzel run the Martinez farm when his health declined, and when he died in 1890, the Muirs established a life together here as ranchers with their two daughters. Muir turned out to be an excellent rancher and, like his father-in-law, was a hard and skilled worker, gifted at innovation and invention. Though Louie didn’t share Muir’s central passion for the wilderness, the couple were affectionate and generous with one another, and she insisted that Muir get away and spend time alone in his beloved wilderness when he needed it, which was often, and often for extended periods.
Like Muir, I love to walk, especially in nature, and when the weather and daylight hours permit, I go on hikes, long or short, two or three times a week. I would one day love to have the wherewithal, or lacking that, the courage to give up financial security and my belongings to wander the earth awhile in freedom, taking in what the journey has to offer. I am in the process right now of cutting my moorings and setting off on a new course in life, resuming my studies in Muir’s native Scotland and getting in as much walking and traveling as I can beforehand. I’m happy that I’ve walked in many of the places Muir has, or at least nearby: I’ve ascended Mount Diablo, by foot and by bicycle; I’ve done several hikes in Yosemite; I lived in Oakland for over a decade and spent a lot of time in San Francisco; and on that beautiful summer day in June, I explored his old home and strolled through some of his orchards.
The idea that Americans should own the most beautiful portions of their nation’s land in common is an idea that melds Muir’s belief in the sacredness of nature and Senator Conness’s belief in universal human rights. Each human soul needs and deserves a place of unspoiled beauty to immerse itself in, and everyone, not only the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected, should have the opportunity to fulfill and ennoble themselves this way. The National Parks, then, are among the greatest expressions of this democratic spirit.
*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy
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You can find more photos of the John Muir National Historic Site here
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Sources and inspiration
Burns, Ken. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, and ‘John Muir (1838–1914)‘ from the documentary website
City of Benicia: Historic Context Statement, Sep 27, 2010. By City of Benicia Department of Public Works & Community Planning
‘John Muir National Historic Site: People‘, at NPS.gov
‘History of Martinez‘. From the Martinez Historical Society website
‘John Conness‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘The John Muir House‘. John Muir National Historic Site: People, at NPS.gov
Sierra Club: John Muir Exhibit, various articles: ‘Chronology (Timeline) of the Life and Legacy of John Muir‘; ‘Dr. John Theophile Strentzel’; ‘John Muir: A Brief Biography‘; ‘Louie Strentzel Muir: A Biography by Steve and Patty Pauly‘; ‘Who Was John Muir?‘
Thomas, Donna and Peter. Muir Ramble Route: Walking from San Francisco to Yosemite in the Footsteps of John Muir
Walsh, Victor A. ‘John Muir and the Family Ranch in Martinez‘. July 5, 2011. LiteraryTraveler.com