Sunday, November 11, 2012

John Muir Home & Grounds

Stentzel/Muir home flanked by California
Fan Palms

A couple months ago I drove to Martinez to help celebrate a house warming hosted by my cousin’s daughter. I drove from Oakland, through the Caldecott Tunnel and took the Pleasant Hill exit onto Taylor, then Alhambra Avenue, and was surprised by what a beautiful drive it was. I feel like I know all the Bay Area roads but somehow this route was unfamiliar and a delightful discovery. On the way we passed the John Muir Home site in Martinez, which I’d visited before but had not been to for many years, so the following day I drove back to Martinez but this time to visit the John Muir National Historic Site – California Landmark No. 312. It is also a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Like so many historic properties what remains of the 2600 acres of land originally owned by Muir has been carved away by urban intrusion. What remains is enough to interpret the site and tell the story of what it had been like historically. A train trestle that can be seen in historic photos is still there and helps create a gateway into town. Forested surrounding hills offer views from the Muir home that are probably much the same as those viewed by Muir and his family while resident at the site.

View from the cupola
 From a small parking area one enters the property through a visitor center. Muir is known for many things – a founder of the Sierra Club, a naturalist, someone who helped convince President Teddy Roosevelt to make Yosemite a national park, and a writer. This site tells the story of each of those roles but focuses primarily on Muir as a husband, family man and on his interest in growing trees and vineyards.

Orchard with Deodar cedar and hills in background

A walking path leads from the visitor center to the Muir/Strentzel Home originally built in 1823 by Dr. John Strentzel, father-in-law of John Muir. The house is filled with memorabilia from the Strentzel and Muir families. Exiting the house paths lead to the carriage house, a picturesque windmill and on to the Martinez Adobe – another California landmark on the same property. A variety of fruit trees are planted in orchard rows - cherries, apricots, figs, citrus, olive and quince. There is also a small vineyard (Zinfandel, Tokay and Muscat grapes) near the carriage house which in September bore sweet, ripe grapes nearly ready to pick. Part of the park service program includes harvesting and processing fruit produced on the land. A ranger shared a story about a regular park supporter who makes jelly rolls from the quince that ripens in October. Out towards the adobe two gigantic pecan trees caste broad shade over a few picnic tables.

John Muir's office in his Martinez home
 In addition to fruit trees there are good examples of a large variety of mature ornamental trees. Most notable are two gangly Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta) that rise above the house at either side of the front steps. Inside the house you’ll see these same two palms appearing in photos – one with the Muir family sitting on the front steps and their dog “Stickeen” - when the trees are only about 10 feet tall. One side of the house is encircled by a row of incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrans). There are sculptural deodar cedars (Cedrus deodara), a specimen giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) and a date palm (Phoenix canariensis) with a very rare, curving trunk.

Muir Family L-R daughters Wanda & Helen,
Muir & his wife and the family dog Stikeen taken 1901. NPS photo

The small town of Martinez has a lot of nice older homes and some of the downtown streets have been redesigned to incorporate outdoor café spaces. Check it out next time you are exploring in the North Bay Area.