Louie Strentzel Muir
A Biography by Steve and Patty Pauly
Louie Strentzel Muir - An Expanded Chronology
Louisa Wanda Strentzel was born in Texas in 1847. She came
to California in 1849, the same year that John Muir was
coming to Wisconsin from Scotland. So much has been made of
Muir's life that Louie's life and contributions are hardly
known. This brief paper is a tribute to Louie and to the
help and support she gave her husband in his work. Louie
was a wonderful musician, wife, mother, ranch manager and
helpmate. Muir did not relegate Louie to an anonymous life
in the background -- this is what she herself preferred.
She stayed close to home because she wanted to, preferring
not to be away more than a day or two. Certainly she was
not inclined to camp out on an Alaskan glacier or even to
take a walk in the hills nearby their Alhambra Valley home.
Daughter Helen's July, 1963 letter contains a rare look at
Louie and forms much of what we know about Louie.
In 1849 the Strentzel family came to San Diego, California
by covered wagon and then settled along the Merced River.
The family operated an inn and then a farm where Louie's
father, John Strentzel, began horticultural experiments.
After three years in that area, they moved to Cantilde;ada del
Hambre (Valley of Hunger) in 1853 and camped out until their
first house could be built. Louie's mother, Louisiana
Strentzel, disliked the name of the valley (Spanish soldiers
had been unable to find food and nearly starved) and renamed
it Alhambra Valley for the popular story published in the
mid-1800s by Washington Irving about the Alhambra palace in
In 1859 Louie's formal education began as a day student at
Miss Atkins Young Ladies Seminary across the Bay in Benicia.
The Young Ladies Seminary (YLS) opened with 25 students in
1852, founded by local citizens. Miss Mary Atkins became
the principal in 1854 and was placed in full control in
January 1855. Later in 1855 she paid $2495. for the
buildings and property and became owner as well as
principal. Mary Atkins was born in Jefferson, Ohio, in 1819
and was an 1845 graduate of Oberlin College. She came to
California via Panama in 1853. The seminary was located in
an old residence built by a Captain Randall at 153 West I
Street between First and Second Streets. Young ladies in
search of culture and grace arrived by steamship and horse
from various cities in the U.S. including the gold mining
towns and from South America, Hawaii, and Mexico. At YLS a
neat personal appearance was important notwithstanding the
admonition that "no student is to tarry before a mirror for
more than three seconds." The 1863 YLS catalog lists
departments in English, Language (Latin, French, German, and
Spanish) and Fine Arts (Music, Painting, and Drawing). The
1868 commencement audience included Samuel Clemens.
Cyrus Mills, a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in
New York, met Miss Atkins in Hawaii while the latter was on
vacation there. Apparently she wanted to sell the school,
for Mills inspected the property later and purchased it for
$5000. on October 7, 1865. By that time Benicia had four
schools: the Episcopal School for Boys, the Catholic School
for Girls, C.J. Flatt's Benicia College, and the Young
Ladies Seminary. Mills' friend Dr. I.E. Dwinell, pastor of
the Sacramento Congregational Church, accompanied Mills on
his inspection visit to YLS. In 1880 Dwinell married Louie
and John. Mills had purchased property in Alameda County
and in 1870 broke ground for Mills College there. In May,
1870 he announced that the next YLS semester would begin
August 2 at the new location. Eventually Dr. Dwinell became
a trustee of Mills College.
In 1877 Mary Atkins returned to Benicia from Ohio and
reopened the old Randall house as a school for girls. This
year there were 25 students, the same as when the school
first opened in 1852.
Louie Strentzel took the ferry "Carquinez" each day over and
back. At the YLS she studied everything from English to
Entomology and became a music scholar on the piano. Each
day each student was graded, and Louie's report from March
12, 1860, by Mary Atkins, survives. Louie was graded on 22
different subjects and scored a perfect 10 on virtually all
of them. Miss Atkins noted that the "Examination passed
very creditably. It was an honor to the school."
Among the classical piano pieces Louie learned was
Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique. This piece requires
considerable musical talent, and we can appreciate the skill
on the piano which Louie possessed. If Louie hadn't married
Muir, she possibly could have had a career in music had she
wanted to. What we know about Louie's music comes from her
mother's diary and from some of Louie's sheet music returned
to the John Muir National Historic Site by granddaughter
Jean Hanna Clark. Louie graduated in May, 1864. A copy of
the Strentzel's invitation to the Annual Examination of the
For the next fifteen years after graduation from YLS in 1864
Louie was at home with her parents. During that period she
learned a great deal about fruit ranching, hybridizing, and
flowers, and she continued her study of the piano.
Louie first met John Muir on September 15, 1874 at the home
of Dr. and Mrs. Carr in Oakland. That same year Dr.
Strentzel was organizing the Alhambra Grange, an association
of local farmers. In 1876 he built Granger's Wharf and
warehouses into the Carquinez Straight portion of the
Sacramento River off the Martinez shore. Music was a
central theme at the semi-monthly Grange meetings on the
first and third Saturdays at 2 pm in the Hall, and Louie
played from the Grange song book at those meetings and for
her father. One song he particularly liked was named "Hold
The Fort." The melody for that song was used in England by
the Transport Workers Union and known as "Storm the Fort, Ye
Knights of Labor," and by the labor unions in the Eastern US
in the 1800s.
On June 1, 1878, Louie played the piano for the Strentzel
family and John, and they all sang several Grange songs.
Muir commented to Mrs. Strentzel that they almost made a
Granger of him that day, and she recorded that in her diary.
But in 1882 Muir stated his opposition to the Grange.
Between 1875 and 1879 Mrs. Jeanne Carr was a frequent
visitor to the Strentzels. Mrs. Carr was the wife of one of
Muir's professors at the University of Wisconsin and the two
corresponded for several decades. She had for years been
trying to match up Louie and John, and in 1879 the pressure
became intense, with Mrs. Carr working over the two of them
separately. Eventually Muir gave in to her perseverance and
on June 17, 1879 they became engaged, the day before Muir's
first trip to Alaska. On a very stormy April 14, 1880, they
were married in the Strentzel's white house with white
Astrakan apple blossoms decorating the home. A copy of
their Marriage Certificate, signed by Dr. Dwinell and
witness Mrs. M.A. Hatch, survives. Dr. Dwinell was known to
both families: He founded the Sacramento Literary Institute
to which Muir lectured in 1876 and 1879; and he was a good
friend of Cyrus Mills who purchased the YLS from Miss Atkins
in 1865 and who later founded Mills College in Oakland.
Muir would have liked Dwinell because of his literary and
scientific interests -- he also founded the Agassiz
Institute in 1872 following a visit of Louie Agassiz to
The Muirs' daughter Wanda was born March 25, 1881, and
daughter Helen on January 23, 1886. Helen's room overlooked
the train track, tunnels, and trestle, on the side of Mt.
Wanda. She became fascinated with trains and plastered her
room with posters from the train companies, learned the
timetables, and watched for expected trains coming around
the mountain. Both girls accompanied their father on walks
in the nearby hills, and Muir named two of the peaks Mt.
Wanda and Mt. Helen.
Eventually the girls wanted music lessons. They were
interested in the violin, guitar, and piano and needed to
practice. Muir was distracted easily from bookmaking in the
upstairs Scribble Den and couldn't stand the sounds of
nearby practicing. Eventually he relegated the girls'
practicing to the soundproof brick room supporting the water
tank at the rear of the house. Later that became known
facetiously as the Music Room. Probably Louie couldn't play
the piano when he was working, and likely she did most of
her playing while he was gone. Also while Muir was gone,
Louie managed the fruit ranch very capably, handled the
finances and bookkeeping, and even sent checks to cover
Muir's hotel bills.
In 1884 Louie accompanied her husband to Yosemite Valley.
It was her first and only trip there and was a mistake from
the start. She mistook trout for catfish, didn't like
hiking about, and saw bears behind every tree. Muir also
grumbled about the cost of transporting her several trunks
At the end of the '80s when Muir had been home quite a bit
of the time, his literary output vanished, and so did his
enthusiasm for most everything else. He needed more time in
the mountains, away from civilization. Louie recognized
this and unselfishly encouraged him to follow his heart.
Among her letters which encouraged John back to the
mountains is the one from August 9, 1888 letter which he
received in Seattle just after a climb of Mt. Rainier:
"Dear John, A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a
noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all
reach... The Alaska book and the Yosemite book, dear John,
must be written, and you need to be your own self, well and
strong to make them worthy of you. Ever your wife, Louie."
Soon Louie began to sell off the ranch property to lessen
Louie Muir died on August 6, 1905 and is buried with John,
her parents, a brother, a sister and Uncle Henry in the
Strentzel/Muir cemetery about a mile from the National
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