Editor’s Note: April 21, 2012 is the John Muir Earth Day/Birthday celebration at the John Muir National Historic Site. Coincidentally, for one of the few times in the past 40 plus years of John Muir Birthday celebrations at the site it is taking place on the actual date of his birth in Scotland in 1838. It seems an appropriate time to shine a light on his wife and their family life here in Martinez. (HJB)
I was going through the Muir files at the Contra Costa County History Center last week looking for information about one thing (Santa Fe’s Muir Station) when I found something else -- something I would have been looking for if I’d only known it existed.
Helen Muir, youngest daughter of John and Louie Muir, is not as well known in Martinez history as her older sister Wanda because unlike Wanda, Helen spent some of her youth and adult life in Southern California breathing in the dryer desert air she needed because of severe (although unspecified) health problems as a child. She also lived there for some years after her marriage before moving to Spokane where she died in 1964.
On May 22, 1963, the local history columnist of the Pasadena Star-News featured a tribute to her mother written by Helen at the request of a Pasadena friend. “Wife of John Muir Remarkable Woman” is the headline and “Helen Muir Pens Fine Tribute to Mother” is the subhead. The columnist, C. Fred Shoop, wrote that he “would copy closely as Helen continues to call her parents ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’”.
Helen, born in Martinez on January 26, 1886, died in Spokane on June 17, 1964 just 2 ½ months before the National Historic Site honoring her father at the family home was approved by Congress. If she didn’t live to see that happen, she did at least have the chance to set some of the local record straight about her family life and her parents’ relationship.
“Louie Strentzel Muir, a remarkable woman, was a wonderful mother”, the letter begins.
“To her parents, Dr. and Mrs. John Strentzel, she (Louie) was ever a devoted daughter and a great comfort to them in their later years. Mama longed for a son but only had the two girls, and I was a sickly child…”
Shoop wrote that Helen, as a young woman, had come to Southern California with her father because of her health and they lived for awhile in Altadena before going to Daggett which apparently was beneficial to her. Other sources indicate that her father used their unspecified time there to make contacts with those in the area he could count on to help with his various projects and campaigns.
The letter continues, “As to mama’s life with my father – John Muir—she was the perfect helpmate. His interests, lifework and health needs became her own lifework too and she did all she could, gladly and willingly, to help him. Some recent biographers have tended to make a sort of martyr of my mother but that was not the case….”
“Mama did not enjoy traveling and the crude hotel accommodations of that time seemed to upset her. She much preferred to remain at home and look after the ranch. Her father, rancher and physician, had taught her much about fruit raising long before her marriage and she took pride in her ability to ‘carry on’, leaving papa free a part of each year to make his summer trips and continue his studies in Alaska and the Sierra. Though we had a good foreman, papa did nearly all the planting and was home again to harvest the principal crops.
“Mama loved flowers and especially fragrant ones. Never since leaving the old home garden at Martinez have I seen so many lovely, fragrant things in one garden as we had there. Of course, there were roses of all kinds, but the great thicket of single Cherokees were by far the sweetest; and there were jasmine, honeysuckle, lavender, lilies, wisteria, magnolias and heliotrope. On a warm summer’s night, the old garden was heartbreakingly sweet, every flower a favorite of my dear mother’s.
“Mama was interested in astronomy, loved poetry and was quite a musician. She loved to walk in the garden on clear nights, study the stars and point out certain ones to me. When she was a young girl, her father (Dr. Strentzel) bought her a beautiful Steinway grand piano and she learned to plan beautifully. Some of her friends tried to persuade to go in for concert work but she never did.
“After her marriage, Mama played very little while Papa was at time. For a good reason, it seems, he could not endure piano music while he was writing and his study was directly over the parlor where the piano stood. (Before marriage, Papa lived for several months in the home of friends in San Francisco and the young daughter of the family was learning to play the piano. She hated it but, being made to practice, she really pounded it out, near Papa’s room, where he was trying to write for publication.) Mama understood and did not play for Wanda and me, but always when Papa was away. One of Wanda’s sons now has the old Steinway Grand and I have been told his wife plays well.
“Mama loved to read, especially of world affairs and she especially enjoyed the Review of Reviews and the World’s Work magazines. She was greatly interested in new inventions and had a strong prophetic sense of things to come. She was fond of birds, especially hummingbirds and grosbeaks. She never wanted to have her picture taken but we do prize the few we have. Papa always turned to her as his trusted critic and adviser. She lived to be only 58, passing away in 1905. We all grieved for her, of course, and as I grew older I typed all his manuscripts and correspondence as well as keeping house and cooking, though we did employ a Japanese boy for general work.
“Needless to say, I felt the honor keenly of taking Mama’s place as No. 1 critic of his writings, but I fear I was a poor substitute for my mother, truly a remarkable woman.”
In 1909, Helen married Buel Funk who died in 1934. They had four sons: Muir, Stanley, John and Walter. In 1940 Helen and Stanley, John and Walter changed their last name to Muir. The eldest son kept the Funk name because, according to one source, his first name was Muir. But another source states that he would have changed his first name to Wayne and taken Muir as his surname but he was applying for a job at the time and felt it would be confusing. His line retains his father’s last name.
When Faire and Henry Sax bought the house in 1955 and started the restoration project and joined the campaign for the Muir home and property to become part of the National Park Service, they corresponded with Helen and visited her in Seattle at least once to mine her memories of the furniture and appointments of the home when the Muirs lived in it. So although there is little or no original family furniture in the home, similar pieces in appropriate period design were acquired. Soroptimist International of Martinez even purchased a grand piano of the period to place in the parlor under Muir’s study.
The Muirs’ eldest daughter, Wanda, lived most of her life in Martinez residing in the Martinez Adobe and later the Strentzel home farther south in Alhambra Valley where her mother had been raised and where John and Louie Muir lived and raised their daughters until moving into the Muir House after the death of Dr. Strentzel. Born in 1881 and living 61 years, Wanda and her husband Thomas had five sons and one daughter. The youngest, Ross, is the only one of the ten grandchildren of John and Louie Muir still living. He resides in Dixon and will be 90 in October.
His son Michael, who has changed his name from Hanna to Muir, often appears at John Muir National Historic Site events with his signature horse and buggy and has been very supportive of the site, Martinez and the environmental movement so important to his great-grandfather.
To find out more about Martinez and Contra Costa County history:
Martinez Museum – 1005 Escobar Street, cnr of Court Street
Open Tues and Thurs 11:30 a.m. to 3p.m. First 4 Sundays 1-4 p.m.
Contra Costa County History Center – 610 Main Street, Martinez
Open Tues through Thurs, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 3rd Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.