Seventh and eighth graders in our area participate in National History Day. Each year there is a historical theme, and students, alone or in groups, choose a topic and write a paper, create a website or display board, make a documentary, or give a performance. If they choose to, they can enter their project in the National History Day competition.
Last year the theme was exploration, encounter, and exchange, and my daughter Natalie created a website all about Route 66. This year the theme is taking a stand in history and she again decided to create a website, this time all about John Muir and his powerful stand to protect and preserve the wild natural wonders throughout the United States. The project requires lots of research and at least one interview. She wasn’t sure where to turn to find someone to interview, so I asked my community of Facebook and they generously provided us lots of ideas and suggestions, one of which was visiting the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California.
I had no idea this historic site existed! When I popped the address into Google maps and found out it’s only a little more than an hour away from our house, Natalie and I decided to visit the park to learn more about this important historical figure, see his home and ranch first-hand, and interview one of the staff at the Visitor Center.
John Muir was perhaps this country’s most famous and influential naturalist and is often called The Father of Our National Park System. The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California was the home of John Muir for the last 24 years of his life. The 1882 home showcases Muir’s scribble den, where he penned many of his famous works, which have been heard around the world.
John Muir, The Last 24 Years
In 1880, after traversing the country on foot and taking odd jobs to get by, John Muir married Louisa (Louie) Strentzel, daughter of a successful rancher in California’s Alhambra Valley. John Muir became partners in the ranch with his father-in-law, Dr. John Strentzel, and for ten years directed most of his energy into managing the large fruit ranch. His partnership in the fruit ranch allowed him to accumulate enough wealth to care for his family, so he retired from active ranching and focus on writing and working toward the protection and preservation of our environment. He wrote and had published more than 300 magazine articles and 12 books.
Muir’s writings caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, who invited him camping in Yosemite. Roosevelt left behind reporters and his Secret Service agents for the company of two park rangers, an army packer, John Muir and the wild. They spent three days exploring meadows and waterfalls and three nights discussing conservation around campfires. One night, five inches of snow fell, and the president arose to white flakes on his blankets.
Inspired by his trip with Muir, Roosevelt set aside more than 230 million acres of public land — an area bigger than the size of Texas — that included five national parks and 18 national monuments.
Muir’s advocacy helped create several national parks, including Sequoia in 1890, Mount Rainier in 1899, and Grand Canyon in 1908. His actions also led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. Muir jointly founded the Sierra Club in 1892, a nonprofit organization promoting outdoor recreation and environmental advocacy, and was its first president until his death in 1914. With more than one million members, this grassroots group continues Muir’s work today.
The John Muir National Historic Site was created in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. While it is managed by the National Park Service, the site is supported by the John Muir Association who works with the National Park Service to preserve the 10,000-square-foot house and surrounding orchards, native plants and grounds, and to interpret the life of John Muir and the history of the home and ranch.
The John Muir Home
The Victorian home that sits at the John Muir National Historic Site is famous for being John Muir’s family home and the location from which he wrote a great many works that influenced how the government and people across the United States viewed the environment. But before it was Muir’s home, it belonged to Dr. John and Louisiana Strentzel. They built the lavish 10,000+ square foot home to live in, and when Muir married their daughter, the Strentzel’s gave their original house to Muir and his bride as a wedding gift. Only when Dr. Strentzel died in 1890, did the Muirs move into this house.
Furnishings in the home are from the period, but did not belong to the Muirs or Strentzels. An exception is John Muir’s original desk in his scribble den, where he penned most of his published works, including his books — writings that paved the way to preserving our nation’s most beautiful natural lands, or wild places.
The home, built by Wolfe and Son of San Francisco, is in the Italianate style of late Victorian architecture, and is constructed mostly of redwood. With seventeen rooms, the home incorporates key features of the Italianate style, including a rectangular, symmetrical shape, wide eaves with brackets and cornices, a porch with balustrades, a square cupola, and high, double-paned windows with hood moldings. The interior, with 12-foot-high ceilings, has retained many of its original features, including the Douglas fir floor and black walnut staircase banister. Note the crack in the transom over the front door, which occurred during the Port Chicago explosion of World War II. Phone service was installed in 1884 by Dr. Strentzel, and the house was one of the first in the area to have it.
Muir and his wife Louie raised their children, Wanda and Helen, in the home and took over the family ranch. When Muir began feeling restless, he left on an expedition to once again explore the natural wonders and wilderness of the United States, and Louie remained at the family home, running the ranch and orchards.
The small balcony upstairs, at the end of the hall, is where Muir slept on many clear nights, seeming to prefer having the stars over his head to a roof.
When John Muir died in 1914 (nine years after his wife), his grown daughters Wanda and Helen sold the house. It remained in the hands of private owners until local citizens, including those who established the John Muir Association, worked for the historic structure’s establishment as a public treasure. The National Park Service bought the house in 1964, along with nine acres of the Muir’s fruit ranch. In 1993, NPS bought an additional 326 acres of the original property, known as Mt. Wanda, which has a 2.4 mile hiking loop trail.
The Martinez Adobe
Thousands of acres were owned by individual families under the Spanish and Mexican land grant systems. The original Martinez grant contained over 17,000 acres and reached past the town of Pinole southwest of Alhambra Valley. Don Vincente Martinez, son of the commandante of the Presidio of San Francisco, built the Martinez Adobe around 1849 and only lived in it for four years before he sold it to Edward Franklin, the first in a series of owners who would change the land again. The foundation of the Martinez Adobe is rough stone, while the walls are sun-dried adobe brick ranging in thickness from twenty-four to thirty inches. The roof was covered with shingles of either cedar or redwood.
Dr. John Strentzel, father-in-law of John Muir, purchased the adobe from an Australian, Thomas Redfern, in 1874. Dr. Strentzel, often called the father of California horticulture, soon replaced cattle with fruit trees of many varieties. Dr. Strentzel used the adobe as a store room and as a residence for his foremen. Contrary to legend, John Muir and his wife never lived in the Martinez Adobe, but it was the home of his elder daughter, Wanda, and her husband, Thomas Hanna. John Muir would often eat meals at the adobe and find time to play with his grandchildren.
The coming of heavy industry to Martinez in 1914, the year of Muir’s death, saw the beginning of the end of orcharding in the lower Alhambra Valley. Population growth meant that the land had greater monetary value for homes than for orchards, and the land changed again. By the 1960s, open farmland was replaced with houses and streets. Concerned citizens organized themselves to preserve the adobe and it became part of the John Muir National Historic Site.
The Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Located on the western edge of John Muir’s historic orchards, the Martinez Adobe, features bilingual exhibits for the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and displays depicting the story of the Anza Expedition, a journey of 240 men, women, and children led by Spanish Lt. Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza up the California coast in 1775 to establish the first non-Native settlement.
Juan Bautista de Anza’s father wanted to find an overland route to the coastal province of Alta California, but he died before achieving this. Anza, following in his father’s footsteps, joined the Spanish military and eventually became a captain. By 1774, Spain had established military and religious outposts in Alta California, but the priests and soldiers struggled in isolation and the sea routes were dangerous.
Like his father, Anza pursued a route across the desert separating Tubac and Alta California. Sebastián Tarabal, an Indian guide, helped Anza identify a desert crossing on an exploratory expedition in 1774. Upon this success, the Spanish tasked Anza to lead settlers, livestock, and supplies to Alta California.
In September 1775, Anza recruited his settlers in Mexican cities with tales of lush lands and plentiful resources in a place far from the desert frontier. Men joined the expedition as paid soldiers on two conditions:
- They would not return
- They would bring their wives and children on the dangerous journey
Anza’s expedition left the Tubac Presidio on October 23, 1775 with thirty families. The families reflected the diverse castes of Spanish society — a mix of Native American, African, and European heritage. With the settlers, their military escorts, support workers (cowboys, mule packers, and Indian guides), and 1,000 head of livestock, Lt. Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza’s group was huge and resembled a traveling town. These men, women, and children put their trust in a man who did not guarantee they would reach their destination. Their reward was the chance at a better life and it was a risk they were willing to take.
Anza ordered his expedition soldiers not to harm American Indian communities along the route, and he forged alliances with several tribes who provided food and helped the families cross the Colorado River. As the empire expanded, the church acculturated American Indians into mission communities. Indians were the required labor that built the missions. Colonization decimated Indian populations. It disrupted Native traditions and changed the landscape.
On June 27, 1776, the expedition families arrived at what is now San Francisco with only one fatality — one of the eight women who were pregnant at the start of the journey died after giving birth. In the new land, many of the colonists and their descendants obtained the better livelihoods Anza had promised. Modern towns and landmarks bear the name of expedition families, such as Alviso, Berryessa, Bernal, Peralta, and Moraga.
The tribal communities whose lands Anza traveled through — Quechan, Ohlone, O’odham, Tongva, and many more — continue to thrive and pass on their traditions.
Know Before You Go
- John Muir National Historic Site and the John Muir Visitor Center is located at 4202 Alhambra Ave, Martinez, California 94553 in Contra Costa County’s Alhambra Valley.
- Admission is free.
- The John Muir National Historic Site is comprised of both the main home property, open 7 days a week from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and the Mount Wanda property located across Highway 4, open from sunrise to sunset. Both properties are closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
- While you are welcome to take a self-guided tour of the home and property at any time, there is a ranger or docent-led tour of the first floor of the Strentzel-Muir House daily at 2:00 pm, with additional 11:00 am tours on Saturdays and Sundays.
- If taking a self-guided tour, there is a cell phone tour of the park grounds available. Look for numbered wooden posts located along the walking paths that provide a phone number to dial, as well as sequential stop numbers. There are no cell stops inside of the Muir home.
- At the Visitor Center, watch the 20 minute film, A Glorious Journey, covering the story of Muir’s life, with a special emphasis on his life in Martinez, and his efforts to preserve Yosemite National Park and Hetch Hetchy.
- Enjoy a picnic atop Mount Wanda or beneath the shade of redwood and pecan trees in John Muir’s historic orchards — just be sure to pick up all of your trash.
- Be sure you allow time to hike up Mount Wanda. There is a 2.4 mile loop trail, climbing 580 feet in elevation, that leaves from a small parking lot next to Franklin Canyon Road about 1/4 mile south of the Visitor Center on Alhambra. Dogs are allowed on the trail, but be leashed.
- The only restroom is inside the Visitor Center. There are no water or restroom facilities in the Historic Home, on the grounds, or on Mount Wanda.
- The Martinez Adobe, located on the western edge of John Muir’s historic orchards, features bilingual exhibits for the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.