By: Douglas Love, Chair, California History Board
Arguably, one of the most famous Californians is not even a Californian. His impact on conservation, naturalism, glaciology, mountaineering and public policy has made him world famous. He has hundreds of streets, schools, lodges and a National Monument named after him, and his love of nature and the Sierra are an inspiration to millions to this day. I am referring, of course, to John Muir who, like many before him, made California his adopted home.
Born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, Muir had an interesting childhood. His father believed that anything that distracted from the study of the Bible was frivolous, yet John preferred to play with the other boys in his neighborhood and hunt for bird’s nests. John said that he was “prone to lashings” as a young boy. Early on he developed a love of the countryside and spent many hours roaming the East Lothian countryside.
In 1849, Muir and his family immigrated to the United States, settling on a farm in Wisconsin. At 22, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began studying what was called “natural science”. John was an irregular student and left the University without graduating. He and his older brother, Daniel moved to what is now Ontario, Canada in 1863 to avoid the draft during the Civil War. It was here, in 1864, that John began his rambling, first hiking and collecting botanical samples along Lake Huron and then hiking the Niagara Escarpment. When the war ended in 1865, he returned to the United States and worked in a wagon wheel factory when in 1867, an accident nearly cost him his sight.
After recovering his sight, Muir decided to devote his life to the study of nature. He took a 1,000 mile walk from Kentucky to Florida and then booked passage to Cuba. He then booked passage to New York and hired on as an officer in the United States Coast Survey and made his way to California and finally to the place most popularly associated with his name, Yosemite Valley. Muir spent two years living in Yosemite and this experience, more than any other, transformed him into the world renowned figure he is today. It was here that he became the John Muir the world knows, co-founder of the Sierra Club, friends with Theodore Roosevelt, and “Father of the National Parks” in the United States.
There is another side to John Muir, however, a side that is little known. In 1880, Muir married Louisa Strentzel, whose father, Dr. John Strentzel owned a 2,600 acre fruit orchard in Martinez, California. Dr. Strentzel presented the newlyweds with a house on Alhambra Valley Road and for the next ten years of his life, John Muir managed the orchard with his father in law. John and Louisa moved into the fourteen room house in 1890 and it was from here that Muir co-founded the Sierra Club, laid the foundations for the National Park Service and wrote most of his major works. John and Louisa raised their children in the house and it remained John’s home until his death in 1914.
Today, the house and remnants of the Strentzel ranch are the John Muir National Historic Site. The site is open year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days. There are drop in guided tours of the home, which is furnished as it would have been in 1914. There are guided hikes of Mt. Wanda Nature Preserve and the Martinez Adobe are on the grounds. There are tours of Muir’s gravesite available by reservation. Unfortunately, the house that was given to John and Louisa as a wedding gift burned down in the 1990’s. The NPS also has a large archive of Muir’s papers and artifacts on site.
GETTING THERE: The John Muir National Historic Site is located at 4202 Alhambra Avenue, Martinez, California. From San Francisco: Eastbound I-80 (Oakland – San Francisco Bay Bridge) to eastbound Highway 4. Exit at Alhambra Avenue, turning left at bottom of the ramp. Cross beneath highway. The park is immediately on your left. The phone number is (925) 228-8860