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Days of Future Past
By David Blackburn
Recently, I was sitting at my desk compiling information for a report summarizing the interpretive activities and events around the Site from the last fiscal year. Having compiled this report for four years now, I was struck by the sense of continuity to the activities offered here at John Muir National Historic Site. There is such a sense of constancy, it is easy to assume this is the way it has always been. Yet, as per the old cliché, the only constant in our lives is change. To get a sense of the past here, I began reading past issues of The View. Indeed, there have been significant changes in programming and perceptions!
Whether it is a bird walk, squirrels scampering throughout the orchard or telling Muir's story Stickeen, animals are part of daily life around the Site. Twenty-three years ago, farm animals also roamed the grounds! Chickens, roosters, turkeys, pea hens, rabbits and even guinea pigs were all full time residents.
The menagerie began in 1974 with a coop of tumbler pigeons. Why pigeons? Did they belong here? It is hard to say. There is an unconfirmed account that Strent Hanna (one of Muir's grandsons), raised Tumbler Pigeons. Our flock was brought here by Gary Ware, the former Administrative Clerk. Gary was a pigeon enthusiast, raising and racing homing pigeons. The View reports: "Every morning [the tumbler pigeons] are released from their loft for exercise. The flock soars several hundred feet into the air and then begins the tumbling action that makes the breed famous."
The menagerie grew in 1975. The June 1975 edition of The View reported: "The addition of the guinea pig hutch and the acquisition of a matched pair of peacocks just about completed the Ranch Pets exhibit. (The Superintendent [Doris Olmudsen] was always a bit worried that Gary Ware and myself [former park historian P.J. Ryan] might ease a Rhinoceros thru the gate one dark night.)"
Once again, it was reported that Strent Hanna had recollections of both Guinea Pigs and Peacocks on the fruit ranch. The article continued: "Peacocks, as John Muir could have told us, are not the smartest of God's creatures, but they are some of the fastest, plus they have a homing instinct that would shame a carrier pigeon."
"We released the peacocks with the idea they would walk about and look regal. It took them 30 seconds to locate holes in the park's fences that we didn't know existed."
"The peacocks took residence in the Gordon Way area of Martinez for about a month until neighbors began noticing some 'strange, prehistoric looking' birds stalking about and gave us a call. It was a several stage orientation to trap the peacocks. The project was carried out by Peg Plummer and Gary Ware (Occasionally the regional office of the park service would call Gary about some fiscal matter and we were able to tell them that he was recapturing the peacocks, he was temporarily unavailable. This always resulted in a sort of audible double-take over the telephone!) At any rate, the peacocks are back and ruling the roost."
What was the fate of the Ranch Pets exhibit? Throughout the late 1970's, the staff faced several problems. The chickens were let out of the coop in the morning, would wander the grounds during the day, and were corralled by the staff in the evening. Imagine, chasing chickens at the end of every work day! It was quite a chore. Ultimately, the local raccoon population discovered the coop and continually killed and ate the park's poultry. We also discovered that Peacocks, especially males, can be very noisy. It got to a point that the park's neighbors complained about the early morning serenades of the pea hen. Ultimately, in the early 1980's the Ranch Pets exhibit was discontinued.
Over the past year and a half, the wheels were set in motion to begin planning and raising funds for a new visitor center at John Muir National Historic Site. Twenty-three years ago, our current visitor center underwent quite a transformation, generating a tremendous amount of excitement. The interior flourishes of the lobby and auditorium, as well as the exhibits, were installed in 1974 and reported in The View.
"Ever since the park visitor center opened, the visiting public had the vague feeling they were entering the dentist's office; they were not far from wrong. The visitor center is a converted veterinary hospital and its interior design reflects this purpose. The interior decor could only be described as Early Jurassic (cinder block painted beige). In addition the visitor was treated to an inspiring picture window view of a Pizza parlor and a used car lot as he entered the building. Should the visitor be of a philosophical or ironic turn of mind, such a sight might alone be worth a trip to John Muir NHS, but we feel that the visitor would like some immediate respite from 20,000 car-a-day streets."
The article describes what we currently see: the paneling, the painted profile of Muir and the collage of photos. There is an interesting story attached to the large redwood burl displayed in the lobby. In 1974, the 700 pound burl, donated by Muir Woods NM, was identified as "Big John." The burl "was washed down Redwood Creek and was in the process of getting wedged underneath one of the footbridges of the monument when it was winched out of the creek. Superintendent Hardin kindly agreed to donate the burl to John Muir NHS."
"Getting the burl from Muir Woods to John Muir NHS proved to be an interesting task. It proved necessary to block off one of the Muir Woods trails and set one of the maintenance men in a tree with block and tackle to give the needed leverage to get the burl up the slope. I imagine it looked somewhat like a scene from the TV series "Sierra" as I over heard this puzzled conversation from two visitors "George, what are they doing?" "I'm not sure Martha, but I think one ranger is marooned at the top of that tree and the others are trying to rescue him."
I'm sure 25 years from now, the future staff will marvel (or chuckle), reflect or ruminate on our current staff's accomplishments.
Exerpted from The View From John Muir's Window, December 1997,
Newsletter of the John Muir Memorial Association.