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Shirley Sargent, 77; Author’s Books Reveled in Yosemite

Times Staff Writer

Shirley Sargent, the archivist and historian whose books on the High Sierra, the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels and mountaineers ranging from John Muir to modern forest rangers have informed visitors to Yosemite National Park for four decades, has died. She was 77.

Sargent died Friday at her home in Mariposa, said her niece, Kathy Chappell. She had suffered from a rare crippling disease -- dystonia musculorum deformans -- which had forced her to use a wheelchair from the age of 14.

Available mainly through the shops in Yosemite Valley, Sargent’s best-selling book has been “John Muir in Yosemite.”

First published in 1972, the book sold more than 20,000 copies in the first half-dozen years it was in print. One book on the Ahwahnee Hotel sells about 2,500 copies annually, and her others have sold at a steady pace of 1,000 or so copies a year.

Sargent wrote not only about giants like the conservationist Muir, but also about less-known park pioneers: Galen Clark, Yosemite’s first paid guardian; Theodore Solomons, who mapped most of the John Muir Trail; Theodore Parker Lukens, one of the first foresters; and Granny Meyer, who first saw Yosemite in 1883 and became a valuable source of information for Sargent and a character in her book “Pioneers in Petticoats.”

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Sargent also related the history of the places where visitors slept and snapped photographs, in such books as “The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Classic Hotel,” “Wawona’s Yesterdays,” “Yosemite’s Historic Wawona,” “Yosemite’s High Sierra Camp” and “The Yosemite Chapel, 1879-1979.”

“I don’t like just plain history with a lot of facts,” she told The Times in 1985. “I want something that makes the people real to me.... Say you’re a tourist in the valley. You may look up and see a pillar of rock and say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ and then you remember from what you’ve read that a woman first climbed it in 1875. Wouldn’t that make it more singular to you, more exciting?”

Historian Leroy Radanovich, who worked with Sargent on some of her books, told the Fresno Bee in 2003 that Sargent “has done a very credible job of preserving the history of Yosemite for future generations.”

“She has compiled what I consider to be a definitive body of work,” he said, “which in all likelihood will not be matched by anyone soon.”

Sargent gathered her material through meticulous research at San Marino’s Huntington Library and UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and in the newspaper files at the Mariposa Gazette.

She also learned about Yosemite and its denizens from personal experience.

“Yosemite has been my life since 1936 -- my magnet, my lodestar, my home,” she told the Modesto Bee in 1990 after wildfires destroyed her Flying Spur enclave near Foresta in the Stanislaus Forest.

Born July 12, 1927, in Los Angeles, Sargent was only 9 when she moved to Yosemite’s 8,600-foot-high Tuolumne Meadows in 1936 and began her love affair with the park.

Her father, an engineer, had taken his family to the high country while he helped rebuild the park sections of the Big Oak Flat and Tioga roads, and she later described the experience in her book “Enchanted Childhood.”

During the Depression, as her father worked in other national parks, including Kings Canyon and the Grand Canyon, the family moved 24 times in 10 years and Sargent attended a dozen schools. They settled in Pasadena in 1941.

Young Shirley eventually earned a two-year degree from Pasadena City College, and operated the Topsy-Turvy Nursery School from her home.

Sargent began writing fiction for the juvenile market, and her first book was “Pipeline Down the Valley” in 1955, which earned what she considered a remarkable royalty of $200. She wrote eight more youth books before turning full time to history for adults.

The conservationist author returned to the Yosemite area in 1953, when she built a summer cabin in Foresta, on the park border.

Sargent soon saw the nearby ruins of a stone fireplace and chimney -- the homestead of Solomons, who built a house in 1910 and lost it to a forest fire in 1936.

She bought the property in 1961, and built her house around the fireplace three years later.

A year after the 1990 fire razed the house, destroying her files, books, manuscripts and her cat Purr, Sargent rebuilt.

Though she lived in the home 11 miles west of the Yosemite Valley, Sargent typed her books and magazine articles in a pine-paneled office, inspired by her view of Yosemite’s centerpiece El Capitan and Half Dome peaks.

With neighbor and fellow author Hank Johnston, she founded Flying Spur Press to publish many of her books. The company also published calendars and postcards reproducing early Yosemite scenes.

When she wasn’t writing, Sargent served as archivist for Yosemite Park & Curry Co. which ran the hotels and shops in Yosemite Valley.

Always upbeat and dismissive of her physical limitations, Sargent zipped around her property on an adult tricycle, drove her own car and camped in Yosemite’s most remote areas. For many years, she lived in her 4,600-foot elevation forest home year-round, relishing the quiet, snowbound winters.

As her health deteriorated, however, she spent more time at the Mariposa home that had belonged to her parents.

Her family asked that memorial donations be sent to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, 1 E. Wacker Drive, Suite 2430, Chicago, IL 60601-1905.


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