Wilder Bentley – The Younger and The Elder

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Wilder Mayo Bentley — Wilder Bentley the Younger — passed away in the fall of 2018, and an era ended.

Wilder Bentley the Younger was the scion of a distinguished but largely unknown Bay Area family.  His Great-Grandfather Robert Bentley was a distinguished, progressive Methodist minister who eventually became the Presiding Minister of the largest Methodist District in California, the Sacramento District.  He and his family lived in a simple, elegant Dutch-style cottage in the Berkeley Hills —  one of the few to survive the 1923 Berkeley Fire.  His sons Charles and Robert founded a fruit canning company which became one foundation of the Del Monte brand.

Charles’s son, Harvey Wilder Bentley – Wilder Bentley the Elder – was a poet, a distinguished printer and graphic artist, and a professor of English at San Francisco State.  He was also a painter, well-taught by his old friend and colleague, Chiura Obata.  Always interested in fine printing, Wilder the Elder and his wife founded the Archive Press in Berkeley, now memorialized online by the Berkeley ePlaque Project.  The Bentleys printed the first book of Ansel Adams photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in the late 1930’s.  (You can buy one from the Bentleys’ limited edition of 500 copies here – if you have $8565.  Even the later reprints go for several hundred dollars.) (Copies of the book were sent to Washington to encourage the protection of the Sierra at the southern end of the Muir Trail.   Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes lent his copy to FDR – who refused to give it back.  Ickes had to get another copy.  The book resulted in the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)  Wilder the Elder’s printed works, including his 26 scroll set The Poetry of Learning, are held at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  (To see some  works bythe Bentleys Younger and Elder, visit ABE books.  As of this date, The Poetry of Learning is described at the bottom of the list.)

Archive Press cover

Cover of the later reprint, hard-cover version

Like his father, Wilder the Younger was a gifted artist, taught by Chiura Obata.   He was also a writer, art-glass maker, book-maker, poet, historian, and craftsman.  Some of his works are archived in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley (which also houses the Mark Twain Papers and the papers of George R. Stewart).  His works are also held at the Rosicrucian Museum, UCLA, and the New York Public Library.  His work is sometimes available for sale, as online listings reveal.

He learned to set type at a very early age, working with his parents.  Later he followed their example, establishing San Francisco’s Bread and Wine Press and publishing several works by local poets including Dick McBride.

Later, Wilder the Younger moved to Sonoma County’s Wheeler Ranch where he and his wife Penny lived for many years.  He continued his creativity, including researching, illustrating, and writing a book about bridges in the Sonoma area.

Bentley bridges full cover

Wilder Bentley the Younger’s Book, “Antique & Unusual Bridges”

Although I never met Wilder the Younger, he played an important role in the creation of the George R. Stewart biography.  I was able to interview him by email and mail.  His emails – and his printed autobiography, a copy of which he kindly sent — filled in important gaps in the chapters on Thornton State Beach (where I met George R. Stewart, and Wilder the Elder and Obata and where Ranger Nick Lee educated me about the importance of the two artists.)

In one of those episodes which seem to validate Carl Jung’s idea that there are no accidents, it was Ranger Nick Lee who sent the news of Wilder the Younger’s passing.   In his letter, Nick included a notice about a retrospective of Wilder the Younger’s work that was being arranged in Sonoma County at the end of March, 2019.  In the years since Thornton Beach and the writing of the GRS biography, I had become friends with Jean and Roger Moss and learned that they knew Wilder the Younger quite well. I called the Mosses to let them know about Wilder’s passing and the retrospective, which Roger attended.

Thornton State Beach, now abandoned by the state parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, played a role in the STEAM history (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) of Northern California.   The Bentleys, Obata, and George R. Stewart, and others of their ilk enriched our days there.  Nick, who was the catalyst for the trail named for GRS, also helped engineer the trail, created beautiful poetry and works of art, wrote articles, and played his part the creation of the GRS bio.

Thanks to our small community at Thornton Beach, and Nick, I had the honor and pleasure to know Wilder the Younger through our mail communications. Like Nick, Wilder Bentley the Younger enriched the book about GRS.   When he left us last fall, a chapter in California history closed.

How lucky we were, all of us,  to work there together, that place in which literature, art, printing, and all the rest of STEAM, were enfolded in a small wilderness near a large city, a park of ‘small compass and unusual value.’