When it came time to take a family picture for our holiday card this year, I had the thought to pop up the hill and visit the unassuming white house that sits right alongside Joaquin Miller Road. For the longest time I would glance over at the house on my way up or down, unsure of what it was. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that the house was in fact Joaquin Millers home, known as “The Abbey”. Residing in the cottage from 1886 until his death in 1913, the house was built on the large 100-acre estate he purchased in the Oakland Hills, called “The Hights”. Over time Joaquin Miller planted over 75,000 trees over the deforested land. He also built eccentric monuments dedicated to Moses, John C Fremont, and the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Known to be quite an eccentric character, Joaquin Miller lived a life full of interesting anecdotes, some documented and some embellished by the writer himself. He was lured from Oregon to California as a boy by the Gold Rush. In his early adult life he spent a year living in a Native American village, documented in one of his earlier works “Life Amongst The Modocs.” As the years went by he held titles such as mining camp cook, newspaper writer, Pony Express rider and even judge. In the early 1870’s Miller traveled to England and began to gain acclaim as a poet and writer. It was there that he published his book “Songs of the Sierras’ which then earned him the nickname “The Poet of the Sierras” in his later years. It was in his 50’s that he then returned to California and purchased the barren hillside property in the Oakland Hills.
With a name inspired by both Westminster Abbey and his 3rd wife Abbie Leland Miller, The Abbey was the center of Miller’s hillside enclave that drew a slew of characters and well-known names, creating an East Bay hub for the offbeat bohemian social scene at the turn-of-the-century. Miller was an active member of the Bohemian & Sequoia Clubs of San Francisco, and would spend time traipsing back and forth. Using the Oakland-San Francisco ferry to cross the bay, Miller would then ride the tram to its last stop in the tiny settlement of Dimond, at the intersection of what is now Fruitvale and MacArthur. He would then walk up the hill to his home.
Over time, The Hights became quite the artists retreat, drawing famous names such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Jack London. He hosted raucous, whiskey filled gatherings, and more tame luncheons and picnics; hunting, foraging and then preparing elaborate meals. His property was a home to a slew of occupants over the years, including a stream of Japanese residents, most notable of which was poet & writer Yone Noguchi.
Its believed that some of his fellow Bohemian Club members helped craft parts of the Victorian structure, such as the rising sun set above the door, and the multi-colored glass that used to sit within the 2 peaked windows on either side of the door.
Joaquin Miller died in 1913. The City of Oakland purchased The Hights in 1919 and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962. The house itself is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I find it so fascinating to take a peak back in time to see what amazing figures inhabited our city such a long time ago. I found myself in a hilarious dichotomy yesterday as I was walking up Lincoln Ave and then Joaquin Miller Road. I thought about how Joaquin Miller himself used to trudge up and down as he went about his life over 100 years ago. However, I literally laughed out loud as I thought of how he wasn’t doing it with Dr. Dre’s “California Love” and Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” pumping into his ear buds to keep him motivated :o) Yet maybe the tracks were apropos in their own unique way.
I hope you have a wonderful holiday tomorrow…I thought a lot today about how Joaquin Miller opened his home to all, preparing meals, opening drink, sharing the beauty of his land. I hope you experience this sense of familial community as you celebrate the holiday.
Twilight at the Hights
Poem by Joaquin Miller
Twilight At The Hights
The brave young city by the Balboa seas
Lies compassed about by the hosts of night–
Lies humming, low like a hive of bees;
And the day lies dead. And its spirit’s flight
Is far to the west; while the golden bars
That bound it are broken to a dust of stars.
Come under my oaks, oh drowsy dusk!
The wolf and the dog; dear incense hour
When Mother Earth hath a smell of musk,
And things of the spirit assert their power–
When candles are set to burn in the west–
Set head and foot to the day at rest.
All information above was sourced through online resources such as Wikipedia. Much of the information was found in a fascinating read by Phoebe Cutler written for The Journal of the California Historical Society, called “Joaquin Miller And The Social Circle At The Hights”. The article begins on Page 40 of the PDF in this link.
All other images by Adrienne Schell & Lindsay Haskell