Fannin County Museum of History


One Main Street, Bonham, Texas

Erwin Family Saga Spanned the U.S.

Bonham Daily Favorite, May 15, 1994

​The third generation participant in the Erwin family saga was Louisa Strentzel, daughter of Dr. John and Mrs. Louisiana Erwin Strentzel. Louisa was only a small toddler when her parents decided to join the wagon train from North Texas to the California gold fields.

 Louisa like her parents managed to survived the arduous trek westward including the Indian attack and the near fatal situation in tho California desert. Her young age probably precluded any unpleasant memories of these events.

It is not known whether Dr. Strentzel actually went to the gold fields, for much of the family history in California for the next few years is very sketchy. What is known was Dr. Strentzel's move to the Sacramento Valley section of California between San Francisco and Sacramento soon after the family's arrival.  John Strentzel may not have struck a vein of gold ore. but his mining of a different sort produced an immense stoke of good fortune for his family. After the family settled near Martinez, California, Strentzel, with his scientific background, began to take notice of the ease with which large crops of citrus fruit could be produced almost the entire year around. He began to acquire, inexpensively, large tracts of seemingly unimportant land and to plant large citrus orchards. The annual rainfall and temperate climate proved to be the ideal combination and Strentzel's fruit operation grew at a rapid pate. At his death in 1890, John Strentzel was one of the largest producers of citrus crops in the United Slates. His vast holdings became the nucleus for one of the largest producing conglomerates in world when the operation became the United Fruit Company.

​Perhaps, however, the most interesting aspect of tho Erwin history lies with Louisa Strentzel. Louisa, with her 1880 marriage, brought to the Erwin family one of its most unusual and intriguing members.

About 1867, a former Wisconsin farmboy who was born at Dunbar, Scotland In 1838, walked into the California mountains in his quest for more knowledge of the natural beauties and wonders of the California wilderness.

John Muir, famed American naturalist, was destined in about twelve years to become part of the Erwin history. Muir had enrolled at the University of Wisconsin In 1859 and although he remained there for four years he failed to take a degree because of his dislike of the strictures of required courses. The life of a naturalist had great appeal for Muir and after leaving the university he made many walking trips throughout the Midwestern U,S. and Canada. He walked all the way to the Gulf of Mexico keeping a detailed and informative journal each day of his trek.

In 1888, for the first time, he walked into California's Yosemite Valley, He spent most of the next ten years in the valley exploring all of its treasures. He was among the first white men to see the superb 'Half-Dome' which dominates one end of the volley,

Muir's studies of the valley led to the development of his theory that glacial erosion was the key responsible factor in the development of the valley. Although his theories were dismissed at first, slowly other naturalists and geologists came to accept them. Among all of Muir's important works and studies the one element that stands out is the credit given to him in pressuring the U.S. Congress to preserve the beauties of Yosemite as a national park and for the establishment of the national park service for the Federal government.

John Muir died in 1914 and his wife Louisa died in Martinez a few years later. Louisa returned to her birthplace at least once in her life when she accompanied her mother to Honey Grove in 1892 to attend a meeting of the Old Settlers of the area at a semi-centennial celebration. Fittingly the reunion won held at Erwin Springs south of town.

Not all of the Erwin family fame rested in those pioneering members who came to Texas In the turbulent years of the new Republic nor those family members who continued the family saga as they treked inexorably across the western deserts.

Three generations descended from patriarch Sam Erwin remained in and found fame in Fannin County, The most noted of these, the great grandson of pioneer Sam Erwin, bore the Erwin name not as his family name but as the first of his christened names. Erwin Evans Smith at his birth on August 22, 1886, became part or the second generation of the family to be born in Texas,

Erwin Smith was one of those persons who has enjoyed periods of wide ranging celebrity followed by long periods of obscurity. His fame has been spread by a variety of writers in regional and national publications. Information on his life has appeared in the pages of this journal and even some measure of fame came from one of the photographs used to illustrate a receipt in a Better Homes and Garden cookbook.

The Fannin County Museum of History has a small exhibit of Erwin Smith photographs. It is apparent, from tho comments of visitors to the museum, that Smith is in one of his periods of obscurity. Perhaps it is time to bring before the public, yet again, the story of one of Fannin County's more illustrious sons. Erwin Smith's fame does not rest with his position as a member of the Erwin family. Who was Erwin Smith? Simply, he was a chronicler of life on the plains and ranches of the American West,

Smith was more, much more then a mere photographer of western scenes, He was often called “the greatest photographer of the Old West,” But his photographs are not of the Old West scripted In many a movie or television production. It is not the Old West of legend and folklore. It Is the Old West as it slowly vanished from the frontier, Erwin Smith was born too late to capture the true Old West. An era that didn't exist as long as most people generally Imagine. The true Old West had a short life from shortly after the Civil War to the last decade of the nineteenth century.

What Smith captured were the last vestiges of a tough way of life. A way of life still strongly grasped by those who had been participants in the halcyon days that began to vanish as the new century approached