John Muir, the Student

Peter Detwiler MA'72

What can you tell me about John Muir’s time in Madison as a UW student? When I arrived in Madison from California in 1971, to enroll in what was then called the Graduate Program in Public Policy and Administration (now known as the La Follette School of Public Affairs), I heard that John Muir lived and studied in North Hall before he moved to California and founded the Sierra Club. Our graduate program was located in North Hall, and we heard that it was the original campus building. We were told that Muir had to run away from his father’s Wisconsin farm to come to Madison because his father disapproved of too much book learning. Muir paid his tuition by getting up early to start the cooking and to heat fires. All classes were held in North Hall, and the faculty members (and their families) lived in the attic. True or apocryphal?


It seems that you have the gist of the time John Muir x1863 spent in Madison. In 1860 (at the age of 22), Muir left his Marquette County home for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the family farm, Muir was relatively isolated from the world. He rarely ventured outside a 15-mile radius around Fountain Lake Farm and was only able to attend school for two months between the ages of 11 and 22. Though he managed to be well-read, it was a constant struggle for him to find enough good books and, once found, to get them past his father, who believed the only book a person needed was the bible.

But Muir had an incredible talent for inventing that would open the door to UW-Madison and, eventually the world. At the urging of a neighbor, Muir took his “early rising machine” (a combination bunk and clock that would dump its occupant out of bed at a pre-set time) to the 1860 State Fair in Madison. While in here, Muir was envious of the students at the university. Scraping together what money he could from odd jobs, Muir enrolled and studied chemistry, math, physics, Greek, Latin, botany and geology. This wasn’t a “regular course of studies” and didn’t lead to a degree. Muir worked during the term and in the harvest fields in the summer to maintain himself at the university for more than two years. After that, he left for excursions that would last the rest of his life.

Muir was a resident in North Hall. The first building constructed on campus, North Hall opened in 1851. It contained lecture rooms, laboratories, a library, a chapel and living quarters — a university in a building.