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John Muir Victorian Ranch Day

by Marilynn Terstegge

Exerpted from The View From John Muir's Window, December, 1999, Issue No. 96, Newsletter of the John Muir Memorial Association

Beneath the tall, stately eucalyptus trees surrounding the Muir home, another day in another time and place, were brought to life for a few hours during the Victorian Ranch Day on Sept. 23, 1999. Using a little imagination, as you walked through the front gates, thrown wide in welcome, you were transported to the 1880s of John Muir's time.

Greeted by ladies in elegant Victorian dress, with lace fichu draped over delicate shoulders and sweet faces shaded from the sun by a dainty parasol; feathers and flowers draped over glamorous picture hats, and long taffeta skirts rustling, the sights and sounds of an earlier day were created by members of the John Muir Association and their friends.

Sights, such as the vision of Scottish dancers whirling and twirling in their brilliantly colored plaid kilts to the sounds of bagpipes and lively airs; or the spinning wheels turning steadily round and round as strands of wool were twisted into yarn. Sounds, like the ringing of the blacksmith's hammer as it crashed down on fiery hot steel at the smithy's corner, his muscled arms rippling as he pounded the red hot metal against his anvil, turning it gradually into the shape he wanted.

Sights and sounds of the past, like the crackle of the fierce, flickering flames as they grew hotter when the blacksmith turned the handle of the blower at his forge, forcing oxygen onto the fire to increase its heat; the smithy's body darkly silhouetted against the background of the brilliantly red flames.

There were tastes too, of those earlier times, with nibbles of homemade quince and plum jam, and freshly baked cornbread pulled from a beehive shaped adobe outdoor oven on a long handled wooden paddle, where much earlier in the morning, the oven had been heated by the crimson flames of an open fire.

Inside the Muir home, ladies created beautiful handworked lace, and fashioned intricate smocking on girls' dresses, or worked on exquisitely detailed quilts. Outside, John Keibel described the old-fashioned process of cutting and drying fruit on long wooden trays, while a beekeeper demonstrated how to successfully steal the sweet honey from the bees without being stung, by wearing thick gloves and mesh screened hat. A small boy, trying on the gloves and hat, was dwarfed by them as he practiced squeezing the bellows that would blow a pouf of smoke to stun the bees momentarily as you did your work.

My mother, who was born in 1910, had the privilege of seeing the great man himself, John Muir, in person. As a child, she remembered seeing a tall bearded man when she played while her mother worked in Muir's cutting sheds during apricot season. Later, as an adult, she realized that it had been John Muir, supervising and checking on work being done cutting and drying apricots on the ranch each summer.

My daughter, who was born in 1970, also had the privilege of seeing John Muir in person in the year 1999. This time, in the person of Garth Gilchrist, whose lilting and musical Scots burr brought Muir to life as a younger man, telling the tales of his childhood in Scotland; of his early days in America, working from dawn until dusk on his sternly disciplined father's Wisconsin farm; and of his fateful journey across the United States, to find a final home and resting place, right here in Martinez.

Gilchrist's Muir was brought to life before our very eyes, like magic, erasing the years, the time that has passed, making him a young man again, full of fervent energy and enthusiasm, brimming with joy over the bounties of nature.

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