MAKING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING – George R. Stewart in the Donner Summit Historical Society Newsletter

October’s issue of The Donner Summit Heirloom has a series of articles about George R. Stewart, or topics that relate to Stewart’s subjects.  There’s a good article about the search for the California Trail route over Donner Pass, which includes some information about the Lincoln Highway route – think Stewart’s U.S. 40 and The California Trail – a review of Stewart’s landmark work, Ordeal By Hunger, a description of the new George R. Stewart interpretive sign.

There’s also my article about Stewart, with an emphasis on his connections to the Donner Summit area.  It gives a good overview of the man and his work.  If you’d like a quick introduction to GRS, you’ll find the article – and the other articles – useful.

Here’s the October 2015 Heirloom:

By the way, if you have an interest in GRS, or Donner Summit, or Lake Tahoe, you might want to join the Society.  It costs little, but supports the historic preservation and interpretation of the area.

The Donner Summit George R. Stewart Interpretive Sign

Thanks to several sponsors and the hard work of Bill Oudegeest of the Donner Summit Historical Society, the George R. Stewart interpretive sign, which will be part of the Twenty-Mile Museum, has gone to the manufacturer.  The base will be installed soon; the sign, late next spring when the Pass opens.  Here’s the final (or nearly final) sign:

  The almost final sign

Bill chose the location with care, and it’s perfect:  A parking area which overlooks Donner Lake, Donner Peak, the historic “Rainbow Bridge” on U.S. 40, and the Summit of Donner Pass – which would have been the route of the first covered wagons over the Pass.

Here’s a photo from Bill, showing where the sign will be placed:

photo of GRS sign location

Stand by the sign, face northwest across old U.S. 40 to look directly at George R. Stewart Peak.  Here’s a photo from a kind soul who posted it to Google Maps:

parking area - grs peak

The parking area is close to the Pacific Crest Trail, too,  The PCT crosses U.S. 40 not far beyond the left (west) side of this photo.  Here’s a map from Bill which shows the PCT crossing – yellow arrow – in relation to the sign location at the parking lot – black arrow.


It’s a short walk – always face traffic! – to the Trail Crossing; from there, it’s a short hike and scramble to the summit of George R. Stewart Peak.  The directions are on the new sign.

Let’s all hope to meet there some day in the summery future, and do the hike.  Afterward, we can have a picnic – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart loved picnics – and read from Stewart’s books.

Thanks to Bill Oudegeest, and the sponsors who made this possible:

  • Alan Kaplan, Naturalist, Founder of the National Association for Interpretation, Stewart Scholar;
  • Paul F. Starrs, distinguished geographer, University of Nevada, Reno, Professor, author of books about California agriculture, the Black Rock Desert, and other topics;
  • Willie Stewart, George R. Stewart’s grandson, who accompanied GRS on trips;
  • Joyce Colbath-Stewart, wife of GRS’s son Jack Stewart, inveterate hiker, and caretaker of Stewart family history;
  • Steve and Carol Williams.  Steve – who went to school with Lennon and McCartney –  is a Stewart scholar, artist, teacher; Carol is his partner in all things;
  • Denise and Milton Barney, campers extraordinaire, who have walked the GRS journey with me for many years.  Denise is a poet, Barney a scouter encouraging young folks to explore the outdoors like Stewart;
  • Beth Lapachet and Brian Byrne, also campers and colleagues for many years.
  • John and Angela Lucia, former Rangers, who have also walked the GRS journey for decades, and helped support it;
  • Bob Lyon, Founder of The Friends of George R. Stewart, Stewart Scholar, and Encourager of all things Stewart, who first introduced Steve Williams to the Friends of GRS.

The Value of a Small-Town Bookstore

For years, I kept my house in Deer Lodge, Montana, hoping to be able to move back some day.  Whenever the roads permitted, I spent time there, catching up with friends, fixing up the house, and seeing the changes that were taking place.

One of the best changes was the opening of a small, independent bookstore, Browsing Bison Books.  There are two owners; the one I’ve worked with is Cris.

When I told Cris that I was working on the George R. Stewart biography, she invited me to join the next meeting of the BBB Writers’ Group.  I agreed; and it was well worth the time.  In that small town in southwestern Montana, there was a vigorous small group of writers, some published, all interested in what other writers were doing.  I learned about their work, and experience writing.  One was a postman; others were students or local residents of various types.  They were interested in GRS,and his classic work Earth Abides  I was interested in what they were publishing.

BBB also has active book clubs, which gives local readers a place to meet and share their literary adventures with each other.

The juggernauts on the internet, like Amazon, seem to be destroying independent bookstores.  Yet, ironically, it is the ability of bookstores like BBB to sell through internet companies like ABE  that is helping keep them alive, even prospering.  As BBB tells readers on its Indie web page, they’ve sold books on six continents – something not possible before the internet gave the small bookstores that pathway to a global market.  It opens up a new world for independent bookstores, one were they can be intimate and neighborly parts of their communities, but also part of the larger community of readers on the Earth.

And it is through such sharing of literate knowledge across borders that enlightenments are born. It’s a practical, business-like version of the slogan “Think locally, act globally.”

George R. Stewart would be happy with this new model for selling books.  He’d also be pleased to learn that Browsing Bison Books, for a time at least, had new copies of Earth Abides for sale in the bookstore, in Deer Lodge, Montana.

Here’s a photo of the bookstore’s front window, from their facebook page.  (The building reflected in the window is the historic Deer Lodge post office, across Main Street.)

browsing bison books

George R. Stewart joins the Twenty-Mile Museum

In a recent post, I described the Twenty-Mile Museum – the interpretive signs that line the historic route of U.S. 40 over Donner Summit – placed by the Donner Summit Historical Society.  Next spring, a sign for George R. Stewart will join the Twenty-Mile Museum.

Looking over the various pages on the Historical Society’s website, a few weeks ago,  I found a link to their Newsletters.  Since there was none with an article about GRS, I contacted the Editor, Bill Oudegeest,to volunteer to write one.

After receiving the first draft, Bill suggested the Society would be interested in placing a GRS interpretive sign along the old highway, if financial sponsorship and help with the sign’s research and writing were available.  I sent in some photos and text, posted a message to the GRS group, and soon the design was underway, the cost fully sponsored.  Thanks to Brian and Beth, Steve and Carol, Bob and Sandra, Paul F., Denise and Barney, John and Angela, Willie, Joyce, and Alan, the sign will be installed next spring. Caltrans has approved the sign’s location; Bill has done a fine layout.   The sign will be installed very near the Historic U.S. 40 access point for the Pacific Crest Trail – which is also the closest access to George R. Stewart Peak.  This means that hundreds of hikers on the PCT, day hikers in the Donner Summit area, drivers sauntering over Historic U.S. 40 (the subject of a legendary book by GRS), or anyone who visits the Society’s small museum in Soda Springs will learn about George R. Stewart and his remarkable books.  Hopefully, many of those people will take the short side-trail and scramble to the top of George R. Stewart Peak (named in honor of GRS by the Board of Geographic Names).  The round trip from Historic U.S. 40 is only about 3 miles.

Those interested in George R. Stewart and the Donner Summit area owe thanks to all those involved in this successful project.  The Donner Summit Historical Society is always looking for members; one way to show your thanks is to join!

Below is the current draft of the GRS Interpretive Sign.  It will be placed next spring, after the old road reopens.  Some of us are already dreaming about a dedication celebration.  Stay tuned.


GRS sign latest



In the late 1920s and early 1930s, George R. Stewart found himself at the mercy of a new Head of the English Department.  Department Head Montague and Stewart did not get along; and Montague refused to give Stewart a promotion he’d earned.  In hindsight, it was a gift – Stewart turned to writing outside the traditional field of English because he needed the extra income.  (It took an underground effort by several of Stewart’s colleagues to get him his promotion; GRS did not know of their efforts until Oral Historian Suzanne Riess told him about it decades later.)

Stewart  went on to become the star of the Department, writing bestseller after bestseller, inventing new kinds of literature, teaching well, and helping with Department and Library work.  He had an independent, somewhat crotchety view of Department and University affairs; so he was surprised when the Department of English asked him to write its history,for the University’s Centennial in 1968.

The Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus is a remarkable consideration of what makes an English Department good, or not good, based in large part on a discussion of the personalities of the Berkeley Department.   It is thus part history, part biography, part educational philosophy, part poetry.  As expected, the history is beautifully written, in Stewart’s usual fine style – which itself, with its restrained tone, reflects the methods of earlier days in the Department.

He writes at some length about the curriculum which an English Department should follow.  This may have been partly inspired by ongoing attempts by the University’s upper management to insist that the job of the English Department was to teach composition, not literature.  Stewart insists that the teaching of literature is key, and core to the mission.  The deep meanings of words, for him, carry the history of the values and the experiences of Mankind; literature, also, preserves the values of its time.  So to teach literature is to teach the history of human values over the millennia.  Thus, literature is as important as composition in an English Department.

The ideal English professor, Stewart once wrote, is a political liberal and an educational conservative.  The professor must have a ‘generous and tolerant’ – that is, “liberal” –  attitude toward books, and work  to conserve the literature of the past as a repository of the values of history.  He viewed the curriculum as a hearth – lovely image – around which faculty members gather.

One wonders how he’d feel about the current Berkeley English curriculum, which seems to downplay the work of 20th century American authors, like himself – there is no course at Berkeley which considers his work or that of his Berkeley colleagues.  But as he points out in his book, the Department goes through periods of greatness and mediocrity, times when composition for employment takes precedence and times when the idea of literature as the conservator of values comes to the forefront.  And as his own life shows the Department sometimes enters a Golden Age when someone like Stewart breaks out of the mold, changes human thought, invents new types of books, and otherwise shows the kind of work a Department of English OUGHT to be doing.

Golden Ages are rare, and hard to sustain, and Stewart realized that.  So he finished the work by calling The Department of English a testament to The Department in its first century. He wrote, “Few people, I think, will read this small book, and even who those will be, I  scarcely know.”

Yet this is a book which every member of an English Department and every English major should read, for its careful consideration of the purposes of an English Department, as illustrated by the history and personalities of the first century of the Department of English of the University of California on the Berkeley Campus.

Writing the history, Stewart  got the last word about the Head of the Department who had kept him from his deserved promotion (and thus propelled him into his writing career).  He described  the years under Montague as the “11 bad years.”   And his description of those years presented a place of fear and suspicion, under the “leadership” of someone almost dictatorial in how he ran the Department.  It’s Stewart’s take on things, of course; but since it was in a Department-approved publication it’s safe to assume that it has truth to it.

The book was elegantly printed by Lawton and Alfred Kennedy, fine printers in San Francisco.  Relatively few copies were printed, so it’s hard to find now.  But for those interested in Berkeley, its Department of English, or the study of English, it’s worth seeking.  For anyone else, it’s a good read, and provocative.


Follow up on Migrant Mother

To refresh your memory:  The famous portrait, Migrant Mother, has a George R. Stewart connection.  Stewart knew Dorothea Lange, the photographer, and her husband Dr. Paul Taylor.  Stewart may have written part of STORM in the Taylor-Lange arts and crafts cottage in Berkeley.

(See earlier post for the famous photo and more detail.)

Thanks to a local citizen, Tobie Charles, I discovered that the photo was taken not far from where this is being written – in the small rural town of Nipomo.  Now, with help from a local museum fellow writer Brian Byrne found the actual location of the Nipomo pea pickers camp where the photo was taken.

Here’s a location shot, which shows the Migrant Mother’s family in her tent.  Notice the Eucalyptus trees in the background:

MMother locale shot

If you look carefully at those trees, and imagine  the same location a 80 years later, this is how it would look:


The exact location won’t be published, to protect the site; but it is certainly one of the most important places in American and world history, and the birthplace of a milestone in photographic art.

Stewart was not alone in his ground-breaking work and ideas.  He was part of a group of scholars, writers, artists, and thinkers who helped create a small enlightenment with big effects, centered around UC Berkeley, and the Central California coast.  Steinbeck, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and many others – including Dorothea Lange and Stewart – helped change the world.  Such changes require a Fellowship of great minds, like these.

The TWENTY MILE MUSEUM: A “Linear Museum” at Donner Summit

There’s a legendary story about museum design that comes from Grand Canyon National Park.  The designer apparently did a wonderful job putting together a state-of-the-art museum design.  But when he showed it to the park’s superintendent, he got a rebuff. The superintendent said something like this:  “The Grand Canyon is out there.  Your museum keeps visitors inside and away from it. Open the museum up and let it lead them out into the Canyon.”

That’s also the philosophy of the Donner Summit Historical Society.  The Society operates a small visitor center near the summit and publishes a fine newsletter.  But the bulk of its energy seems to be site-focused.  It sponsors a series of hikes into the area which help interested people learn about the place in the best way, perspiring as they are inspired. But it is the Society’s unique linear museum, placed along the historic route of U.S. 40 (and the Lincoln Highway) which educates the bulk of visitors about Donner Summit and the surrounding country.

The Twenty-Mile Museum is a fine collection of interpretive signs placed along old US 40. Visitors to the country made famous by George R. Stewart in Storm, Ordeal By Hunger, and other books can thus learn about its history on site.  The panels interpret human connections with the area from ancient petroglyph-making eras through the Overland Migration period, the work done by Chinese Americans on the transcontinental railroad,  and early highway eras.   Here’s an example:


If you’re planning a trip over Donner Pass to Lake Tahoe or Reno, allow time to stop by some of those interpretive signs.  They encourage exploration; so plan enough time for a short hike or two as well.  You can prepare for the adventure by downloading the text version of the Twenty-Mile Museum Brochure here.

George R. Stewart educated the world about Donner Summit country, in the more than 20 languages in which his books were published.  The Twenty Mile Museum adds the critical field experience to that GRS education.  It’s a great concept and a highly recommended experience.