Paul P Craig

The naturalist, explorer and public service aspects of John Muir’s life are well known.  Here we focus on lesser-known aspects of his life.Much of his correspondence and many drawings artifacts survive. 

This essay emphasizes his clocks and other inventions, and his life on the Strentzel ranch in Martinez in the Alhambra Valley.

1.     Early Days:

2.     University Of Wisconsin Inventions

3.     Martinez And The Alhambra Valley

4.     Images

5.     References

6.     Compiler’s Note



John Muir’s father, Daniel Muir was a classic Scottish God-fearing Christian.  Muir described his father as domineering [Muir 1912.  He kept his son so busy there was virtually no time for non-farm activities.  One day, feeling he’d been a bit too severe about John’s requests for personal time, Daniel told his son that he could get up as early as he liked to do his own projects. Muir described the event over a half century later in “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth”

“That night I went to bed wishing with all my heart and soul that somebody or something might call me out of sleep to avail myself of this wonderful indulgence; and next morning to my joyful surprise I awoke before father called me.” … In the glad, tumultuous excitement of so much suddenly acquired time-wealth, I hardly knew what to do with it.  I first thought of going on with my reading, but the zero weather would make a fire necessary, and it occurred to me that father might object to the cost of firewood that took time to chop.  Therefore, I prudently decided to go down cellar, and begin work on a model of a self-setting sawmill I had invented...

“There were a few tools in a corner of the cellar,--a vise, files, a hammer, chisels, etc., that father had brought from Scotland, but no saw excepting a coarse crooked one that was unfit for sawing dry hickory or oak.  So I made a fine-tooth saw suitable for my work out of a strip of steel that had formed part of an old-fashioned corset, that cut the hardest wood smoothly.  I also made my own bradawls, punches, and a pair of compasses, out of wire and old files.”

“After completing my self-setting sawmill I dammed one of the streams in the meadow and put the mill in operation.  This invention was speedily followed by a lot of others,--water-wheels, curious doorlocks and latches, thermometers, hygrometers, pyrometers, clocks, a barometer, an automatic contrivance for feeding the horses at any required hour, a lamp-lighter and fire-lighter, an early-or-late-rising machine, and so forth”.

fig01-self-setting sawFig 1.  The self-setting saw.  The saw blade was driven by a waterwheel.  Muir’s mechanism fed wood into the blade automatically.  This figure appears in “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth”.  Muir’s original sketch – shown here -- is in Wisconsin Historical Society [Wisconsin Historical Society Image WHi-4954.  ca 1863].






“After the sawmill was proved and discharged from my mind, I happened to think it would be a fine thing to make a timekeeper which would tell the day of the week and the day of the month, as well as strike like a common clock and point out the hours; also to have an attachment whereby it could be connected with a bedstead to set me on my feet at any hour in the morning; also to start fires, light lamps, etc.  I had learned the time laws of the pendulum from a book, but with this exception I knew nothing of timekeepers, for I had never seen the inside of any sort of clock or watch.  After long brooding, the novel clock was at length completed in my mind, and was tried and found to be durable and to work well and look well before I had begun to build it in wood.  I carried small parts of it in my pocket to whittle at when I was out at work on the farm, using every spare or stolen moment within reach without father's knowing anything about it.”


“Inventing and whittling  faster than ever, I made another hickory clock, shaped like a scythe  to symbolize the scythe of Father Time.  The pendulum is a bunch of  arrows symbolizing the flight of time.  It hangs on a leafless mossy  oak snag showing the effect of time, and on the snath [handle] is written, ‘All  flesh is grass.’ This, especially the inscription, rather pleased  father, and, of course, mother and all my sisters and brothers admired  it.  Like the first it indicates the days of the week and month, starts  fires and beds at any given hour and minute, and, though made more  than fifty years ago, is still a good timekeeper.”   

fig02-scytheClockThe scythe clock, along with the clock-desk (discussed below), are the most fascinating surviving examples of Muir’s whittling.  The clock was instrumental in gaining him his first recognition.  The scythe clock colored sketch shown here is undated.  The Wisconsin Historical Society, which owns the sketch, dates it as circa 1863.  In my judgment Muir could have done the sketch much earlier, or much later.

The sketch shows considerable detail, but it is far from a construction drawing. 

As the quote shows, the clock was moved to Martinez where it ran well.  After Muir’s death the clock and many other artifacts were packed haphazardly and eventually moved back to Wisconsin where they may be examined today.   Photographs of several Muir artifacts are presented later in this essay.

Fig 2.  Scythe Clock (Wisconsin Historical Society)



The 1860 Wisconsin State Fair Exhibit put Muir in contact with faculty at the University of Wisconsin, to which he was admitted.  At the University of Wisconsin, Muir exhibited what one scholar called “a practicable cooperative relation between brains and beds” (Badé 1924 V1.) Muir devised an improvised bedstead. It was connected with a homemade wooden clock.  The clock would raise up the bed and set the sleeper on his feet.  “ To aid him in his demonstrations Muir had secured the enthusiastic assistance of two small boys… the lads pretended to be asleep until the contrivance set them on their feet amid the cheers of the spectators who were attracted quite as much by the young inventors artless and humorously enthusiastic explanations as by the novelty of the mechanism.” [Badé  V1.  p81]. 


fig04-wakeupBedFig 4.  Wake-up bed. Circa 1860.  University of the Pacific collection.  This is clearly a conceptual design.  Details of how it actually work are missing.








Muir’s ‘loafer’s chair’ was a wooden chair with a split bottom over which an awkward crosspiece had been nailed in front apparently to cure the split but really to make the sitter spread his knees.  As soon as the supposed loafer settled down on the chair and leaned back, he pressed a concealed spring which fired a heavily charged old pistol directly under the seat.  The leaps of the victims are said to have been worth seeing.  For decades afterwards the janitor told of the marvels of Muir’s inventions.

fig05-loaferChairFig 5.  A surviving drawing shows a chair which may have been a design upon which the ‘loafer’s chair’ was based.  [Wisconsin Historical Society drawing WHi-32869 ca 1863]

Badé  quotes a letter from Muir’s roommate at the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 1862: “the room was lined with shelves one above the other, higher than a man could reach.  The shelves were filled with retorts, glass tubes, the tackle and geological specimens, and small mechanical contrivances… a young man was busily engaged selling boards and presently the tutor introduced him as John Muir.  … when telling the stories of his early life, or reading [Robert] Burns, he often dropped into a rich Scotch brogue, although he wrote and spoke English perfectly….  Muir’s fare was very simple, consisting chiefly of bread in molasses, graham mush, and baked potatoes… [H]e was by common consent regarded as the most proficient chemical student in the college.   In disposition, Muir was gentle and loving—a high-minded Christian gentleman, clean in thought and action…  He was in no respect austere or lacking in humor, space but bubbling over with fun, and a keen participant in frolics and college pranks…” Badé  V1p90


“One winter I taught school ten miles south of Madison, earning much-needed money at the rate of twenty dollars a month, "boarding round," and keeping up my University work by studying at night.  As I was not then well enough off to own a watch, I used one of my hickory clocks, not only for keeping time, but for starting the school fire in the cold mornings, and regulating class-times.  I carried it out on my shoulder to the old log schoolhouse, and set it to work on a little shelf nailed to one of the knotty, bulging logs. 

The winter was very cold, and I had to go to the schoolhouse and start the fire about eight o'clock to warm it before the arrival of the scholars.  This was a rather trying job, and one that my clock might easily be made to do.  Therefore, after supper one evening I told the head of the family with whom I was boarding that if he would give me a candle I would go back to the schoolhouse and make arrangements for lighting the fire at eight o'clock, without my having to be present until time to open the school at nine.  He said, "Oh! young man, you have some curious things in the school-room, but I don't think you can do that."

 I said, "Oh, yes! It's easy," and in hardly more than an hour the simple job was completed.  I had only to place a teaspoonful of powdered chlorate of potash and sugar on the stove-hearth near a few shavings and kindling, and at the required time make the clock, through a simple arrangement, touch the inflammable mixture with a drop of sulfuric acid. 

Every evening after school was dismissed, I shoveled out what was left of the fire into the snow, put in a little kindling, filled up the big box stove with heavy oak wood, placed the lighting arrangement on the hearth, and set the clock to drop the acid at the hour of eight; all this requiring only a few minutes.” [Boyhood and Youth]


Muir’s clock-desk is the best-known of his many interventions. 

“I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term.  I also made a bed which set me on my feet every morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required.  Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study.  Besides this, I thought it would be a fine thing in the summer-time when the sun rose early, to dispense with the clock-controlled bed machinery, and make use of sunbeams instead.  This I did simply by taking a lens out of my small spy-glass, fixing it on a frame on the sill of my bedroom window, and pointing it to the sunrise; the sunbeams focused on a thread burned it through, allowing the bed machinery to put me on my feet.  When I wished to arise at any given time after sunrise, I had only to turn the pivoted frame that held the lens the requisite number of degrees or minutes. Thus I took Emerson's advice and hitched my dumping-wagon bed to a star.  “

fig06-studyDeskFig 6.  Muir’s clock-desk.  This desk is on display in the lobby of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photograph is copied from one the WHS owns.  It was taken during a National Geographic Society John Muir project.  Undated.


It's well worth a visit to the Wisconsin Historical Society to see this desk.  It's a marvel of innovation and craftsmanship. 

The caption next to the desk reads: “The mechanism controlled a collapsing bed which awoke Muir by sliding him to the floor while at the same time lighting a lamp. After a few minutes allotted for dressing, the desk began ejecting and retracting Muir’s books following a preset schedule of time allowed for study of each subject.”

The front legs are in the form of calipers.  The rear legs are carved to resemble books.  The desk portion is in the shape of a large gear, the two halves of which slide apart so a book can be raised from the box below for study.  The book box below the desk is arranged to slide back and forth so the proper book is an alignment at the specified time.  The detailing is quite remarkable, as the figure illustrates.

fig07-clockDeskDetailFig 7.  Main wheel of Muir’s clock desk on display in the lobby of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Photo by Paul Craig 2002








Many people (myself included) have unsuccessfully attempted to figure out the details of how the desk works.  Unfortunately the desk was carelessly dismantled.  Nevertheless the complexity and elegance of the desk are apparent. 

A letter dated September 29, 1931 asserts that the Clock Desk now on display at the Wisconsin Historical Society may in fact be made of unrelated parts:  

"...  The Muir clock on exhibition in the Wisconsin building at the Exposition [California World's Fair] in 1915 was set up on some kind of a platform or base in order that it might be shown...  you will understand what I am saying better if you look at the drawing [in “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth” ].  The large wheel with cogs some 30 inches in diameter served probably as a revolving disk to measure the time when the books he was studying would be brought around to his seat and likewise as a sort of desktop to carry them.

All that John Muir left of the clock was brought to me by his daughters in a box.  The support or base and shown in the drawing referred to was entirely missing.  These various wooden parts were put together using the drawing is a guide, to show as much of the clock as we could, without the base.  Because some of the parts were missing it could not be made to function as a clock. 

All of these parts, After the Exposition, were presented by Dr. Herbert E.  Bolton of the class of '95 of the University of Wisconsin, now in the history department of the University of California, to the University at a Madison Commencement, in accordance with the wishes of the daughters of John Muir...

My father, Edwin Cornish, was a classmate of John Muir at the Wisconsin University in the early 60s.  Like everyone who knew John Muir, he was greatly impressed with his personality as with his originality and genius.  Of the things which I remember of my early childhood stories of John Muir, told by my father, stand out most clearly....

yours very truly,

Frank V.  Cornish

The original of this letter belongs to the Wisconsin Historical Society.  A copy is on file at the Martinez Historical Society.

Comparison of Muir’s sketch of the clock-desk in “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth” with the artifact at the Wisconsin Historical Society leads me to conclude that the top and the base on display do in fact belong together. The assertion that “The large wheel with cogs some 30 inches in diameter served probably as a revolving disk.”is incorrect.  The large wheel is firmly attached to the rest of the desk, and cannot rotate.  It’s split in the middle and slides apart to allow the books to be raised from below. There are clearly many missing pieces.   Such are the complications of historical research!


We skip over many years of travel and botanizing and rejoin Muir in Martinez, CA where, on April 14, 1880, at age 42, he married Louie Wanda Strentzel.  For the next decade he largely stopped traveling and writing to concentrate on his family responsibilities and to manage the Strentzel ranch.  The following material is primarily from Foley (1999)

Louie Strentzel was the daughter of Dr.  John Theophile Strentzel (1813-1890) and Louisiana Erwin Strentzel (1821-1897). They came overland from Texas to California in 1849.

John Strentzel was born to an aristocratic family in Poland.  Despite a revolution and the partitioning of Poland he obtained a degree in medicine and emigrated to the US, where he successfully practiced medicine and built a cabin along the Trinity River in Texas.  In 1849 Strentzel and his wife heard of the gold rush and traveled by wagon train to California where they established a successful hotel, ferry and general store in LaGrange, in the gold country along the Tuolumne River.  When Strentzel’s wife became ill he sought a better climate first in Santa Cruz, then Benicia and finally Martinez.  

Martinez, along the Sacramento River, had excellent agricultural land and easy access to gold country and to San Francisco.  By 1861 he was producing an enormous range of fruits: apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, figs, cherries, currents, blackberries, gooseberries, strawberries, sugar beets, oranges, almonds, grapes and olives.  He was experimenting with fifty varieties of peaches and at the Contra Costa Fair displayed multiple varieties of many other fruits.  He contributed to the shift of California’s economic base from mining to agriculture. 

Their success lead to visibility.  The Strentzels became well-known in San Francisco as well as Contra Costa County.  This visibility proved to be critical to John Muir’s future. 

Friends in common of Muir and the Strentzels were Jeanne C.  Carr, wife of university Professor Ezra S.  Carr, and Mary Swett, the wife of John Swett, founder of the California educational system.  These two women thought that Muir and Louie were compatible and set out to bring them together.  Muir first visited the Strentzel home in the Alhambra Valley on November 27, 1877.   Muir’s “shyness made him skittish around social introductions, and the first hint of any matchmaking schemes sent him scurrying for the solitude of the outdoors” [Foley 1999:26].  Finally, on June 16, 1879 Muir and Louie Strentzel became engaged.  Louie's mother, Louisiana Strentzel wrote in her journal:

“Mr.  Muir is the only man that the Dr. and I have ever felt that we could take into our family as one of us, and he is the only one that Louie has ever loved, altho’ she has had many offers of marriage.  O, can we ever feel thankful enough to God for sending us this man.’ [quoted in Foley 1999:28]

Muir quickly began to apply his skills to the ranch.  For the next decade he spent virtually all his time space with his family and did very little traveling or writing.  He experimented with grafting and developed new varieties of fruits which matured early and lasted late.  He well understood the value of beating the market at both the beginning and the end of the season.  He increased the efficiency of getting produce to market.   He convinced the railroad to build a station on the Strentzel ranch.   The station was located on what is now Muir Station Road, east of the Strentzel house. 

The Strentzel’s gave the Muirs their house on Alhambra Valley Road after they built a large Victorian mansion.  Dr. Strentzel died in October 1890.   The Muir’s then moved into the Strentzel mansion  so that Louie could look after her mother (Wilkins 1995:179). This house – the John Muir Historic Site -- is now operated by the US National Park Service.   

About 1888, John Muir decreased his ranch working and resumed his traveling and writing.  In 1890, Dr. Strentzel died and much of the land was sold off.  In 1897,  Mrs. Strentzel died, and the estate pasted to Louie.  Upon her death in 1905, the house passed to the Muir's daughters, Wanda and Helen, not John Muir himself, (which created an interesting situation later in Muir's life).

Much has been written about the relationship between John and Louie Muir.   One telling source is a letter Louie sent to John in 1888.  She wrote:

“A ranch that needs and takes the sacrifice of a noble life, or work, ought to be flung away beyond all reach and power for harm… 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.   There is nothing that has a right to be considered beside this except the welfare of our children.” (Wilkins 1995:168)

Perhaps the best statement that exists is contained in a letter from the Muir’s daughter Helen to her son John dated July 26, 1963 . [When Helen married she took on the name of Funk.  Later on she reverted to the name Muir.  Her son, John also took the name Muir. 

The following are excerpts from the letter.

"Dear Johnny -

You have often said that you wanted to know more about your grandmother Muir [John Muir's wife Louie and asked me to write something about her, so this is something of a birthday gift for you...

Like many people who live quiet but extremely useful lives, little was known of Louie Strentzel Muir's life outside her own circle of friends, and relatives in which she was loved and admired by all who knew her... some recent Muir biographers have tried to make a sort of martyr of Mama because she stayed at home and ran the ranch while Papa was away on his trips to study and exploration, but that is the way she wanted it.  She most certainly did not want to camp out on Alaska glaciers, or in the mountains and forests where she feared bears and mountain lions, and even the crude hotel accommodations and early days, where there were any, upset her, and she much preferred to stay at home and look after the ranch and her garden.  Her father, Grandpa Strentzel, had taught her much about fruit grazing long before her marriage and she took pride in being able to 'carry on', and so left Papa free part of the year to explore and follow his studies.  He was always there at planting of new vineyards and orchards, and when the crops were harvested, leaving Mama in charge during the growing season only...

Mama was always ready to give help where needed and helped all good causes one asked.  She and Grandma Strentzel donated lots in Martinez for the Methodist Church and the Library...

Through the years we were living at Martinez many distinguished guests came to our home, and Mama was a charming and gracious hostess, and was remembered with appreciation.  As Papa's work and interests came first with her she always tried to keep in the background, but all who knew her appreciated her own beautiful unselfish character..."

The original of this letter resides with the Wisconsin Historical Society.  A copy is on file at the Martinez Historical Society.

The Muir and Strentzel families are buried near the original Strentzel home in Martinez.  Their graves are a part of the John Muir National Historic Site.


fig15-Muir1863Muir in 1863: (23 years old) Badé Vol 1, frontispiece









fig16-Muir1863Muir about 1863.  University of the Pacific image









fig17-selfPortraitSelf-portrait, 1857 The original is in the Muir Collection at the University of the Pacific









fig18-WandaHelenLouis&John1905Wanda, Helen, Louie and John Muir in Martinez.  The photograph was taken in 1901 by Muir’s friend C. Hart Merriam. It is included in Wilkin’s book, which credits the Bancroft Library  (Wilkins 1995:213).  University of the Pacific image








fig19-Muir1908Muir circa 1908 University of the Pacific image










 Muir 1964 stamp on first-day cover  In 1964 the US Postal Service issued the John Muir 5 cent stamp.






fig21-stamp1998In 1998 the US Postal Service issued the John Muir 32 cent stamp.








fig22-muirQuarterCALIFORNIA QUARTER: In 2005 the US Mint issued the Muir quarter as part of its’ state coin series









[Note: www-sites used were accessed in 2008.  They may change]
National Park Service: 
UOP.  University of the Pacific Muir collection: The chronology on this site notes his awaiting a draft call in June of 1863.  
Wisconsin Historical Society:

Books, Journals and Letters

Badé, William Frederic, “The Life and Letters of John Muir”.  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1924, Vol I and Vol II
Foley, Mark A.  “A Paradise in the AlhambraValley: John Muir and the Strentzels.  Chapter 1 in Miller (1999) pp 14-33
Muir, John “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth”. Univ of Wisconsin Press 1912.  cited above by the title.  Quotes may be found using a searchable textfile which may be found, inter alia, at  
Palmer, Albert W.  “The Mountain Trail and Its Message.  Boston, Pilgrim Press 1911 pp27-28
Polos, Nicholas C.  “The Neo-Californians: John Muir and John Swett and their Inner World. Chapter 3 in Miller (1999) pp36-63.
Taylor, Frederick Winslow. ; ᅠ (I know of no evidence suggesting that Taylor was aware of Muir’s work)
Miller, Sally M.  “John Muir in Perspective”.  Sally M Miller, Editor.  Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1999.  
Richardson, L.  J.  LeonJ. Richardson: “Berkeley Culture, University Of CaliforniaHighlights, And University Extension, 1892-1960” An Interview Conducted by Amelia R. Fry 1962 Universityof California General Library/Berkeley, Regional Cultural History Project.  Typescript digitized by Microsoft 2008.  [find using cited above]
Wilkins, Thurman, “John Muir, Apostle of Nature”. University of Oklahoma Press.  1995. 



By birth a Pennsylvanian, I was lucky to settle, after many moves, in John Muir’s town of Martinez, CA.  The local hills and valleys where Muir farmed and sauntered have been remarkably well preserved.   The Muir homestead – originally the Strentzel ranch – is preserved as a National Park Service site.  The site includes Mount Wanda where Muir picnicked with his family.  Other public land abounds in the area: Briones Park and the Shoreline Park are operated by the East Bay Regional Park District.  Extensive EBRPD land is accessible from the Nedjedly Staging Area on Carquinez Scenic Drive –Snake Road in local parlance.   Sky Ranch and Fernandez Ranch are owned by the Muir Heritage Land Trust.  Rankin Park is part of the City of Martinez.  Land preservation in this area is relatively recent.  Much of the public land noted here has been acquired only within the past several decades.  Acquisition continues today.  It is entirely astounding that so much open space should exist in the crowded San Francisco Bay area.   In many of these areas it’s not unusual to hike for hours without encountering a soul.  As with most of my writing I conceptualized, organized and partially wrote this essay walking or resting under an oak or bay tree on this wonderful public land.  Here I always feel at peace, and in resonance with the spirit of John Muir.

Paul P Craig

Martinez  2008



Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160