Murmurs from the Montana Collection, Part Two: Idah Meacham Strobridge

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From Nicoletta Beyer, Library Assistant.

“Chasms where the sun comes late, and leaves while yet it is early afternoon.” (Land of Purple Shadows, 2)

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My favorite library experiences are born from the discovery of a new book and following its trail through history. The sleuthing can be more fruitful in some cases than others.

In the case of The Land of Purple Shadows (1909), I unearthed an unexpected history of terrible tragedy and personal rebirth. The author of Shadows was a woman named Idah Meacham Strobridge. Born in 1855, she was a wife, mother, and cattle rancher from the Great Basin desert of Nevada. As her parents ran a hotel that hosted many westward travelers, the landscape of Strobridge’s childhood was speckled with wagon trains, new railroads carrying homesteaders, Mexican vaqueros, Chinese placer miners and Native Americans from the Paiute and Bannock tribes. Come the 1880s, Idah met her husband Samuel Strobridge and they began a family together on a ranch not far from her parents.

The Strobridges’ first son died the day after birth. The severe winter of 1888 – 1889 brought blizzards that killed most of the family’s cattle herd and pneumonia took the lives of Idah’s husband and one other son. The following year her last son died as well, leaving Idah alone on a broken ranch in the solitary Nevada desert.

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After such catastrophic devastation, Idah Strobridge carried on, working as a guide for prospectors of the mining industry while she maintained the cattle ranch. It was at this time that her identity as mother and wife ended and what remained was an empty slate of the future. She began writing under the pseudonym George W. Craiger and completed three novels; tales of a Nevadan love of desert life as well as painful solitude. She established a book binding business in the attic of her ranch house, the Artemisia Bindery.

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In 1901, Strobridge left her Great Basin home behind for a fresh start in Los Angeles, California. Here in Southern California, she recreated her Artemisia Bindery and published her three novels, respectively featuring illustration by Maynard Dixon (see image above) and painting by Frank P. Sauerwen. She was welcomed into the local bohemian fine press and literary culture, becoming close with legends like Mary Austin and Charles Fletcher Lummis, and received awards for her book binding artistry.

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Her works are now regarded as icons of the old western desert culture of Nevada, as well as artifacts of Southern Californian book arts history. The Clark Library came into these three limited editions by way of Ward Ritchie in 1996.

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Published Works:

Strobridge, Idah Meacham. In Miners’ Mirage-Land. Los Angeles: Baumgardt Publishing Company, 1904.

Strobridge, Idah Meacham. The Loom of the Desert. Los Angeles: Artemisia Bindery, 1907

Strobridge, Idah Meacham. The Land of the Purple Shadows. Los Angeles: Artemisia Bindery, 1909

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