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American Latino Heritage
The John Muir National Historic Site preserves the house John Muir resided in for the last 24 years of his life, from 1880 to 1914. During this period, Muir was responsible for some of the most influential policies and writings on national conservation ever developed in the United States. In 1892, while living on the site, he also founded the Sierra Club, a renowned environmental organization still in existence today. The historic site preserves two separate houses and Muir’s approximately 9-acre fruit orchard. Although the site’s significance and interpretation generally focus on John Muir and his outstanding contributions, the property is an important reflection of the nation’s Latino heritage. The earliest house on the site, known as the Martínez Adobe, is a simple, two-story building that is one of the earliest examples of adobe construction in Contra Costa County. Built around 1849, the adobe is an intact example of Spanish-influenced Californian architecture from this period. The land on which the John Muir Historic Site sits today was once part of a 17,700-acre Mexican land grant.
Internationally recognized as one of the most important early leaders in the Conservation Movement in the United States, John Muir was instrumental in the creation of national parks and national forests, and the scientific management of Federal forests between 1889 and 1914. During that time, Muir was highly influential in the establishment and expansion of some of the nation’s greatest national parks and sites, including Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Rainier National Parks. Named one of the fathers of the entire National Park System, Muir served as a conservation advisor to Presidents Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.
The history of the Muir site dates to the late 1700s when California was under Spanish rule and heavily colonized. The Spanish established many mission churches in order to bring Catholic teachings to the native people, and also built presidios (large military forts) nearby to protect the churches. Don Ygnacio Martínez was a young Spanish officer serving at both the San Diego and Santa Barbara presidios from 1788 to 1819. In 1819, he became the commandante of the important presidio at San Francisco, a position he held until 1831, when he retired.
While he served at San Francisco, Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and California thus became a part of Mexico. Under Mexican rule, large land grants encouraged citizens to move into unpopulated areas and establish ranches. Martínez took advantage of this opportunity in 1824, receiving a land grant for an area known as Rancho El Pinole, which encompassed a 17,700-acre parcel in what is today Contra Costa County. When he retired from the military and moved his family to the ranch, they were among the area’s very first residents. Martínez began serving as the third mayor of San Francisco in 1837, and had the present City of Martínez, California named in his honor.
When Don Ygnacio Martínez died in 1848, he divided his land among his children. His son, Don Vicente Martínez, claimed the land on which the John Muir National Historic Site sits today. Between 1848 and 1849, Don Vicente built what became known as the Martínez Adobe, a two-story ranch house typical of mid-19th century Californian architecture. The main walls of the house are of thick adobe brick, the foundations of rough-cut stone. An internal adobe wall divides each floor into two rooms. The eastern (front) and southern sides of the house have wooden wraparound porches at each level. Sawn wood shingles of either cedar or redwood originally covered the roof. The Martínez Adobe was the first of its kind in the county.
After constructing the adobe, Don Ygnacio Martínez only lived in the house for four years before selling it in 1853. The house then passed through a series of owners before Doctor John Strentzel bought it in 1874. Strentzel became John Muir’s father-in-law in 1880, when Muir married Louie Strentzel.
Dr. Strentzel was a well-regarded horticulturalist and fruit rancher in California during the mid-1800s and transformed what was once the Martínez land into a large orchard. He used the adobe itself as both an agricultural storehouse and a residence for his ranch overseers. Possibly Strentzel lived in the adobe for a brief period while awaiting the completion of his own mansion nearby. Contrary to legend, John Muir and his wife Louie never lived in the Martínez Adobe.
In 1882, Dr. Strentzel moved into his newly constructed house, an Italianate-style Victorian mansion that overlooked the Martínez Adobe. His house was one of the grandest and most expensive in the area at the time, costing $20,000 to build. The 10,000-square-foot house contains 17 rooms, Douglas fir flooring, black walnut railings, Italian marble fireplaces, and, in 1884, was the first house in the area to have phone service installed. When Dr. Strentzel died in 1890, John and Louie Muir moved into the mansion.
During the next two decades, John Muir played a vital role in the establishment of environmental policy in United States while living and often working on the site. The couple resided in the mansion for the remainder of their lives until Louie passed away in 1905 and John in 1914. Their daughter Wanda resided in the Martínez Adobe until 1915.
In the 1960s, concerned citizens organized to save the Strentzel/Muir Mansion, the Martínez Adobe, and the surrounding land from certain destruction and urban redevelopment. In 1964, with the establishment of the John Muir National Historic Site, the National Park Service purchased the property. In 1993, another purchase added an additional 326 contiguous acres of Muir’s original land that is protected, open space.
While slightly altered over time, both the Martínez Adobe and the John Muir House (former Strentzel Mansion) are still very significant historic properties that are open to the public. The mansion interior has period furniture, including John Muir’s original writing desk on which he drafted some of his most important works. Guided tours are available daily and a visitor center helps orient guests to the site. A 20 minute biographical film of Muir’s life, “A Glorious Journey,” is available to watch on site.
The Martínez Adobe is also open to visitors daily. The two downstairs rooms currently feature a new exhibit highlighting the Spanish heritage related to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. The National Park Service interprets the stories of the 18th century Spanish expedition along the trail in both English and Spanish.
Outside of the houses are many of the original fruit trees and plantings from Strentzel’s orchard and Muir’s time at the property. Trails throughout the remainder of the site are perfect for hiking. Visitors can enjoy regular wildflower walks, bird watching and full moon hikes. Walking throughout the protected land, visitors can experience an historic place that has evolved from its days as a Mexican land grant to the home of one of the most influential men in the establishment of national parks and national forests.