Wild Women Wednesday: Louisa Muir


louisa muir

Louisa and John Muir (left) and their two daughters (right).

The light from a spectacular full moon spilled into the windows of the parlor at the Strentzel Ranch near the town of Martinez in the Alhambra Valley in California.  The room was filled to overflowing with well-dressed guests, owners and operators of farms in the area and their wives and family.  All eyes were on Louisa “Louie” Wanda Strentzel, a petite, thirty-one-year-old woman playing a piano.  No one spoke as the melancholy tune she offered filled the air.  Louie played well and had a voice to match the exceptional talent demonstrated.  Midway through the mesmerizing performance, forty-year- old John Muir, an explorer and naturalist from Wisconsin, quietly entered the home and stood in the shadow of the door leading into the parlor.  With the exception of a quiet greeting from Strentzel family friend Mrs. Jeanne Carr, his presence went largely unnoticed.

John’s eyes were transfixed on Louie.  She had high cheek bones, a firm mouth, and clear, gray eyes.  He gazed at her with an unfathomable look of admiration and longing.  At the conclusion of her song the gathering enthusiastically applauded.  John followed suit as he ventured into the light.  It was June 1, 1878.

This was not the first time he had seen Louie.  The two had been introduced in 1874 in Oakland at a meeting of homesteaders and farmers organized by her father, horticulturist Dr. John Strentzel.  John and Louie had many friends in common, and many agreed they would make the perfect couple.  Jeanne Carr had tried in vain to arrange a date between John and Louie, but John always had travel plans that conflicted with a rendezvous.  In April 1875 Jeanne sent Louie a message letting her known that the “chronic wanderer,” as John was often referred to, could not be distracted from an expedition to the Cascade Range in Siskiyou County, California.  “You see how I am snubbed in trying to get John Muir to accompany me to your house this week,” Jeanne wrote Louie.  “Mount Shasta was in opposition and easily worth the choice.”  Jeanne would not be defeated, however. She was convinced the two had so much in common their paths were bound to pass eventually and forever.

Louie Strentzel was born in Texas in 1847.  She was an only child and according to Louie and John’s daughter, Helen, “she was a devoted daughter and a great comfort to her parents in their later years.”  Her father, a Polish physician who fled to American in 1840 to escape being drafted into the Russian Army, settled in the southwest near the city now known as Dallas.  In 1849, he left Texas for California.  Strentzel moved his wife and child to the Alhambra Valley north of Oakland.  He purchased several hundred acres of land and began educating himself on how to grow various crops.  According to the May 5, 1974, edition of the Joplin, Missouri, newspaper the Joplin Grove, the main product at the Strentzel farm was peaches.

Louie inherited her father’s love of plants and flowers.  In addition to her affection for growing things, she was interested in astronomy, poetry, and music.  She was extremely bright and excelled at her studies at Miss Adkins’ Young Ladies Seminary in Benicia.  Louie became a music scholar while in attendance at the seminary, and her teachers boasted that she had a bright future ahead of her as a concert pianist if she so chose.  Once she graduated in 1864 she decided to return home to the ranch in Martinez and focus on fruit ranching and hybridizing.  

The stunning and talented Louie was not only the pride of the family, but according to the January 5, 1975, edition of the Long Beach, California, newspaper the Independent Press Telegram, “she was known widely for the grace with which she dispensed the generous hospitality of the Strentzel household.”  

John Muir was a frequent guest at the Strentzel homestead.  He enjoyed conversing with Dr. Strentzel about his trek from Texas to California.  Strentzel had been the medical advisor for a wagon train of pioneers called the Clarkesville train.  He kept a journal of his travels and happily shared the experience with John.  The Spanish name for the Alhambra Valley where the Strentzel’s settled was “Canada de la Hombre.”  The English translation being Valley of Hunger.  “Mrs. Strentzel was displeased with the name,” he informed John.  “Remembering

Irving’s glowing description of the Moorish paradise, I decided to re-christen our home Alhambra after the palace at Granada Spain.”  Strentzel’s interest in plants and raising crops best suitable for the terrain prompted him to grow citrus fruit on the more than six hundred acres of land he had purchased.  

Although he appreciated farming, John’s main interest at the time was the exploration of the western territories of the United States.  According to Louie’s mother, Louisianna, John was “shy and quiet.”  When he wasn’t hiking across the mountains of Northern California or embarking on wilderness adventures through Alaska, he spent time in the Alhambra Valley learning about agriculture.  

It wasn’t until the summer of 1878 that John saw Louie as more than just the daughter of the man he admired.  The two began a courtship that lasted more than a year.  They were polar opposites in many ways.  John was outgoing, and Louie was timid.  Her manner of dress was prim and proper, and John’s look was disheveled and like a field worker.  Louie was a member of the Methodist church and regularly attended.  John did not.  They did share a love of botany, astronomy, politics, and current affairs.  “Mr. Muir is the only man that the Dr. and I ever felt that we could take into our family as one of us,” Louisianna Strentzel wrote in her journal, “and he is the only one that Louie has ever loved, although she has had many offers of marriage.  O, can we ever feel thankful enough to God for sending us this man.”

The day after the couple announced their intent to marry, John left on a trip to Alaska.  While he was discovering ancient glaciers, Louie was planning their nuptials, planting a variety of flowers, and tending to a vegetable garden.  The two exchanged numerous letters.  John wrote his fiancé about how he made his way through part of the region in a dugout canoe using members of the Tlingit Indian tribe as his guide.  Louie, who was overcome with worry for her betrothed’s safety on the trip, crept into her parents’ room at one o’clock in the morning to tell her mother the good news.  “Louie came to me, overcome with emotion, threw her arms around me and said, ‘O, mother, all is well…,’ Louisianna Strentzel included in her journal.

In another letter John wrote to Louie in October 1879, he shared with her the spectacular beauty of the frozen terrain he was exploring.  “Every summer my gains from God’s wilds grow greater.  This last seems the greatest of all.  For the last few weeks I was so feverishly excited with the boundless exuberance of the woods and the wilderness, of great ice floods, and the manifest scriptures of the ice-sheet that modeled the lovely archipelagoes along the coast, that I could hardly settle down to the steady labor required in making any sort of truth one’s own.  But I’m working now, and feel unable to leave the field.  Had a most glorious time of it among the glaciers, which in some shape or other will reach you.”    

John returned to California in early 1880, and he and Louie were married on April 14 that same year.  The two exchanged vows at her parents’ home.  The makeshift altar was decorated with white Astrakhan apple blossoms.   

According to the January 15, 1975, edition of the Independent Press Telegram, John suspended his personal exploration journeys from
August 1881 to March 1889.  He decided to stay put and write about the travels he’s experienced and to manage the Strentzel’s large fruit ranch.  On March 25, 1881, Louie gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Wanda.  Five years later the Muirs had another daughter, Helen.  She was born on January 23, 1886.  

In addition to raising their children, Louie and John raised a variety of apples, peaches, grapes, and cherries on the farm.  John used the vast agricultural knowledge he acquired attending Wisconsin University and through his extensive travels to cultivate plants that ripened early and lasted beyond their season.  The Muir’s diligence and innovation resulted in substantial profits for the ranch.  It was John’s goal to earn enough money to support his family when he returned to his life’s work which he considered to be conservation.  Louie was in favor of his returning to the wilderness to study.  The January 15, 1975, edition of the Independent Press Telegram reported that Louie recognized John was not delighted with the routine of ranch work.  She knew it was not his life’s dream to supervise the forty plus Chinese laborers employed by the Strentzel Ranch.  She also knew John would never be completely happy unless he was able to spend time in solitude in the mountains.  

John usually entertained thoughts of travel between July and October while the grapes were ripening and there was a lull in the ranch work.  In the eight years he had devoted himself entirely to the ranch, he had earned more than one hundred thousand dollars.  In July 1888 Louie urged John to “throw some tea and bread in a sack, jump over the back fence, and take up his studies of the wild again.”  Fortified by his wife’s unselfish gesture, John bid Louie and their two children farewell and made his way to Mount Rainer in Washington.

Any doubts John might have had about continuing on with his trek through the Northwest was set to rest in a letter he received from his wife while he was in Seattle which was dated August 9, 1888.  “Dear John, a ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all reach…,” Louie wrote.  “The Alaska book and Yosemite book, Dear John, must be written, and you need to be your own self, well and strong to make them worthy of you.  There is nothing that has a right to be considered besides this except the welfare of our children.”

According to Louie and John’s daughter Helen her mother worked hard to maintain the ranch in her father’s absence.  She preferred home life over traveling.  Staying in rustic hotels while en route to out of the way locations made her uncomfortable.  Louie enjoyed ranch living and, with the help of the ranch foreman, was able to make sure the cultivating and planting was done in the spring.  John would return by the fall to harvest the crops.  When Louie wasn’t overseeing the daily duties at the ranch she was working on her garden around the farm house.  “Mama loved flowers, especially fragrant ones,” Helen recalled in her memoirs about her parents.  “Of course, there were roses of all kinds, but the great thicket of single Cherokee roses were by far the sweetest; and there were jasmine, honeysuckle, lavender, lilies, wisteria, magnolias, and heliotrope.”  

Louie accompanied John only once to Yosemite in 1884, and the trip proved to be a regrettable one for both.  She did not like hiking, had no aptitude for fishing, and was terrified of being attacked by bears.  John felt Louie over-packed for the expedition and was annoyed with having to take her numerous trunks of clothes with them.

Louie was content reading John’s letter about his travels.  He offered brilliant descriptions of the locales, and Louie could envision the spots without the distraction of luggage, crude transportation, and wild animals.  “Sunshine dear Louie,” John wrote his wife from St. Michael’s, Alaska, on June 21, 1881, “Sunshine all the day, ripe, mellow, sunshine, like that which feeds the fruits vines.  It came to us just illegible days ago when we were approaching this little old fashioned trading post at the mount of the Yukon River. How sweet kindly reviving it is after so long deep a burial beneath dark sleety storm clouds.” 

When John had encountered the spectacular Yosemite landscape for the first time in 1868, his plan had been to familiarize himself with every mountain peak, waterfall, and canyon.  In order to fulfill his objective and support himself financially, he worked as a shepherd leading livestock through the alpine meadows.  He hired on at a saw mill, too, and studied the giant trees from the Mariposa Grove that had fallen naturally; trees he would use to build cabins for hikers.

John’s desire to explore and research the vast region only increased after he and Louie married.  When she sent him off to the Sierras in 1888, her only request was that he would supply her and their children with sketches of the area, samples of flora, and specific information about the fields and mountains that could be passed on from one generation to another.  John was happy to comply and moved to preserve the integrity of Yosemite not only for his daughters, but for the nation as well.  From the tiny trails maintained by grasshoppers and the birds that took up residence in the forests, to the measurement of the rain and snow and the way thunder echoed in the rocky canyons, John never failed to record his findings.  It was largely due to his dedication to documenting nature and his drive to keep the land intact that led government officials to make Yosemite a National Park in 1890.21  Its’ boundaries were based on John’s recommendation.  “I am bewitched and enchanted by Yosemite Valley’s allure,” he wrote in a letter to Louie in October 1890.  He was convinced that the region was “not valuable for any other use than the use of beauty.”  The published article he wrote about his venture called “The Century” echoed the sentiment he had so long shared with his wife.      

According to Louie and John’s oldest daughter Helen, life at home with her parents was happy.  “Mama was the perfect helpmate,” she told a reporter with the Pasadena Star-News in May 1963.  “My father’s interest and lifework became my mother’s own lifework too and she did all she could, gladly and willingly, to help him.”  When John returned home from Yosemite in early 1891, he spent time working on his first book entitled The Mountains of California.  Louie made sure nothing interrupted John’s writing, including her piano playing.  “Papa could not endure piano music while he was writing,” Helen told the Martinez Patch reporter.  “His study was directly over the parlor where the piano stood.  Mama understood and did not play for my sister and me.”

According to Helen, Louie was very well read.  She enjoyed books and newspaper articles about inventions and inventors and was particularly fond of two specific publications, the Review of Reviews and the World’s Work magazines.  Both focused on the academic world and the individuals who aspired to make changes politically and in education.  John valued Louie’s opinion and had her review everything he wrote.  He thought she was a “most intelligent woman” and she was his “most trusted critic and advisor,” their daughter shared with the Pasadena Star-News.  Louie reviewed the books John wrote as well as the petitions he penned for charter members of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization founded in 1892 by artist William Keith, journalist Robert Underwood, John Muir, and several Stanford University professors, to name a few.

Louie was responsible for teaching Wanda and Helen reading, writing, math, history, and religion.  John took charge of teaching the girls about nature.  He referred to it in his memoirs as “wild knowledge.”  “Less arithmetic and grammar, keeps the heart alive, nourishes youth’s enthusiasms, which in society die untimely,” he insisted.  

At the end of a work day or at home again after a long journey through the Sierras, Louie and John always made time to play with their children.  They enjoyed a variety of outside games and especially liked listening to John tell stories about bears, wolves, and deer, and his encounters with them.  “Father [was] the biggest, jolliest child of us all,” Helen remembered about her father in an interview with the Pasadena Star-News.

In the spring of 1893, John traveled to Europe to study the glacial fiords of Norway and Switzerland, the mountains of northern Italy, and the Lakes of Killarney in Ireland.  His absence was keenly felt by his daughters and Louie.  They exchanged numerous letters expressing their feelings and sharing information about home and trip through foreign lands.  “Your charming letters…have been read and enjoyed by all the family, and oh how well all wanted to be there with you,” Louie wrote to John on June 21, 1893.  “The magnolias are in bloom here, to the children’s delight,” she added.  “Wanda and Helen will write tomorrow.  Many kisses and much love from us all.”  

Between 1894 and 1903, John and Louie celebrated the release of two books John wrote, The Mountains of California and Our National Parks.  The cherry and peach crops grown at the Strentzel Ranch were bountiful; Louie finally had the music room soundproofed, and their daughters completed school.  

On May 15, 1903, John Muir was en route to the Yosemite Valley with the Governor of California, George Pardee, and President Theodore Roosevelt.  The President wanted to know more about the Yosemite area and requested that John escort him around.  John hoped President Roosevelt would approve a grant to fund the management and upkeep of the National Park.  The trip was a success.  The President agreed that Yosemite needed constant care and protection from visitors who mistreated the land.  John then shifted his focus to Congress and trying to persuade them to accept the idea.  During the legislative process John received news from home that Louie was desperately ill.  

John was by Louie’s side when she passed away from lung cancer on August 6, 1905.  She was fifty-eight years old.  Her death devastated John.  Friends close to the Muirs described her as “the mainstay of the Muir household” and noted that “if not for her understanding and willingness to unselfishly forgo demands on John’s time, the work he did for Yosemite Valley might have been diminished.  John regarded Louie as a “loving, sympathetic wife.”  “We all grieved for her,” Helen told a reporter for the Pasadena Star-News.  

Louie was buried in the Strentzel-Muir Cemetery a mile from the family’s ranch home.  John died on December 24, 1914, of pneumonia, and his body was laid to rest next to Louie’s.      

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