Nature writer and conservationist John Muir sat alone at a table in the Leidig Hotel in Yosemite, patiently waiting for the breakfast he ordered to be served. He was a tall, gangly, bearded man deeply focused on a stack of geological surveys in front of him. The hotel kitchen doors swung open and appetizing aroma filled the dining area. Unable to concentrate on his work, John breathed in a cacophony of seasonings and spices and licked his lips.
Isabella Logan Leidig proceeded out of the kitchen carrying a tray of delicious dishes and set them on John’s table. A trail of flavorful smells followed after the carefully prepared food. Isabella placed the meal on the table as John stuffed a cloth napkin in the front part of his shirt and readied his knife and fork. He was served venison, ham and eggs, catfish, and the house specialty, mutton. Using a recipe she acquired from her native home in Scotland, Isabella’s mutton was made with pearl barley, carrots, thyme, and a touch of cider. Fresh soda scones (flat bread cooked in a skillet) accompanied the lamb. John washed the meal down with a tall glass of milk and finished it off with a bowl of strawberry ice cream. After happily paying his tab the satisfied customer left the establishment with a promise that he would be back again and soon.
Isabella’s superb culinary and hospitality skills combined with the location of the hotel made the business an ideal spot for visitors to Yosemite Valley to stay in 1869. According to the July 20, 1871 edition of the Mariposa Weekly Gazette, four of the five prominent hotels in Yosemite boasted “culinary artists who bent over hot wood ranges and brought forth memorable meals.” “Of the four hotel keeper’s wives whose cooking and housekeeping efforts, in a large measure, made their husband’s enterprise successful, Isabella Leidig was one.”
Isabella was known by friends and guests who patronized the Leidig Hotel as a stunning, dark-eyed woman. In 1863 she met George Frederick Leidig, a twenty-five-year-old mine hoist operator living in Princeton, California. The two quickly fell in love and eloped to San Francisco. Popular Gold Rush singer and actress Lotta Crabtree serenaded Isabella and George at the church where they were wed.
George was a short, stout, ambitious German who wanted more for himself and his wife than life in the mining industry. When he was offered the chance to work in the Yosemite Valley on a section of land homesteaded by his friend John C. Lamon he jumped at the chance. On July 1, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that would preserve Yosemite and the Big Tree Grove. Lamon, as well as four other men at various locations throughout the valley, was asked to vacate the property but they refused. Lamon argued that since he had resided on the land since 1856 it was legally his. Until the matter could be settled in court, he wanted to farm and cultivate the one-hundred-sixty acres of land he had claimed as his own and add cottages and a hotel to the scenic spot he called home. He wanted George to aid him in his effort, to develop the land, build and manage the hotel.6
In 1866, George moved his family to the area. Isabella and George’s two children, the oldest all of two-years old, traveled via horseback on the way to their new residence. While Isabella settled into a cave near the site of the construction of the couple’s home, George plowed acreage and planted seeds.
From April 1866 to 1869 George not only worked in Lamon’s fields but he and Isabella operated a hotel owned by Catherine Black. According to the Yosemite Valley guide Galen Clark’s biography, the Leidigs were exceptional caretakers of the facility which was a popular stop for travelers of all ages. “It was a good hotel…only one story high, but one was comfortable,” Clark wrote. “One area contained a kitchen, dining room, and barroom; the other had a parlor and several sleeping rooms. Some of the rooms were floored and had nails to hang clothes on. There were candles, a barrel of water with tin basins, a long towel on a roller at the corner of the house, and fragments of a looking glass in the bath facilities. …I spent a few sleepless hour fearing noises under the moss mattress to be a snake. Close examination disclosed a setting hen under the bed!
The table was first-rate, with the juiciest and tenderest [sic] of mutton from Leidig’s own flock of sheep, fresh trout from the Merced River, excellent vegetables, plenty of fruit and berries, and the richest of cream, with good cooking and neat service.”
Not satisfied with managing someone else’s hotel, the Leidig’s wanted to start their own business. George obtained a lease from the Yosemite Valley Commissioners (a board made up of geologists, politicians, and explorers to act in the best interest of the park for its preservation and tourism purposes) to operate a hotel. Completed in 1870, the Leidig’s Hotel was a two-story structure located near the foot of the Four Mile Trail. A view of Yosemite Falls could be seen from the porch on the first floor and balconies on the second floor.
In addition to the hotel, George built a log home for Isabella and their children north of the Merced River. Shortly after they moved into their house their daughter Agnes and son McCoy ate some peaches that had gone bad. The siblings died and were buried beside one another beneath an oak tree. Despondent over the passing of her children, Isabella withdrew from any activity but that of handling her daily chores. She washed and ironed the cotton sheets used as room partitions, stuffed the hotel mattresses with staghorn lichen (a type of fungus and algae found on trunks of trees), and perfected various dishes to serve hungry guests. Patrons with a keen appreciation of Isabella’s cooking helped her through the difficult time. Their compliments inspired her to make the business the best in the valley. She transformed the fresh milk from their herd of milk cows, fresh eggs from their free-range chickens, and mountain trout caught by George from the Merced River into choice entrees.
Among the many patrons that stayed at the Leidig Hotel were author and suffragette Caroline M. Churchill, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and lecturer and reporter Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to the book Yosemite by Margaret Sanborn, Emerson was struck by the hotel’s beautiful setting, neat appearance, and interesting boarders. “Its’ tidy arrangements,” he wrote, “proved simple indeed. I was awakened in the morning by a cackling hen walking over my bed in search of a good place to lay her egg.”
A number of couples held their weddings and receptions at the Leidig’s Hotel. Guests were served a variety of items for their celebratory meals, freshly grown vegetables, cuts from the finest beef, and berry jam filled tarts. For breakfast newlyweds could feast on catfish, mush (cornbread boiled in water or milk), and ice cream.
Caroline Churchill praised the business in an article she contributed to the Denver, Colorado newspaper the Colorado Antelope in 1879. “Leidig’s is the best place in the line of hotels. Mrs. Leidig attends to the cooking in person; the results are that the food is well cooked and intelligently served. There is not the variety to be obtained here as in places more accessible to market. After traveling a few months in California, a person is liable to think less of variety and more of quality.”
Churchill’s sole criticism about the establishment was about the number of children that either lived at or hung around the hotel. Three months after Isabella and George lost their two children, Isabella became pregnant with a third. The Leidig’s son Charles was born in 1869. He was the first white boy born in Yosemite Valley. During the next eighteen years that the Leidigs owned and operated their hotel, Isabella gave birth to eight additional children. In addition to the Leidig children playing around the property, there were a number of Native American children as well. Churchill referred to them all as “beautiful, but loud and sadly neglected.”
According to a report entitled An Investigation of the Yosemite Commissioners, the Leidig children and their friends were far from being neglected. They were “well-fed, scrubbed, doctored, and loved.” Isabella not only showered her own children with attention but the Indian children, too. She gave them treats for helping her with her chores and tended to their scrapes and cuts and bruises with home remedies. Native children sought Isabella’s help for a variety of ailments. A young boy named Sam Wells was bitten by a rattlesnake when he came to her for a cure. His foot was severely swollen from the bite. Isabella heated a pail of milk and placed the boy’s foot inside the liquid. She kept the substance hot by dropping rocks pulled from a fire into it. Sam survived without incident and from that point on he called Isabella “Grandmama.”
Isabella Dennison, the wife of one of the heads of the Yosemite Valley Commission, W.E. Dennison told a reporter for the July 20, 1881 edition of the Mariposa Gazette that “Isabella Leidig did all the work around the fourteen room hotel, restaurant, and homestead. She cared for numerous children and never had a doctor.”
She was a self-reliant woman who delivered each one of her babies by herself. According to an interview with one of her relatives Elizabeth McCauley Meyer in July 1948 for the book Pioneers in Petticoats, Meyer shared that “Isabella didn’t even use an Indian mid-wife when she went into labor. On one occasion, George didn’t even know she had given birth. He came into the kitchen for coffee,” Meyer explained, “and Isabella said, “see what I have – a blanket with a baby in it – my baby!”
Isabella’s hospitality attracted numerous sojourners to the Leidig Hotel. In January 1878 explorer and author A. P. Vivian was a guest at the Leidig’s and noted in his journal the entire family was welcoming. “Our host was glad enough to us, for tourists are very scarce commodities at this time of the year, and he determined to celebrate our arrival by exploding a dynamic cartridge (similar to a fire cracker), that we might at the same time enjoy the grand echoes made in the Yosemite mountain canyon. There were doubtless extraordinary, but I am free to confess I would rather have gone away without hearing them than have experienced the anxiety of mind, and real risk to body, which preceded the pleasure.”
There were times when the Leidigs had to rescue paying customers who got lost hiking the trails around the hotel. Such was the case with a member of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s party in 1881. According to Harvard Professor James Bradley Thayer’s memoirs “a well-known English woman, Mrs. Yelverton detoured from the trail and got lost in an unexpected snow storm. She was rescued with some difficulty by Leidig, our landlord. Mrs. Leidig helped the frightened hiker recover from the ordeal with a well prepared meal.”
Isabella acquired the majority of her supplies for her family and the hotel guests from stores in San Francisco. The items were delivered by a pack train of thirty or forty animals.
After eighteen years operating the Leidig Hotel, Isabella, George, and all but one of their nine children, relocated to the town of Raymond in Madera County, California. George worked as a hotel keeper there and Isabella cooked for guests and the children who still lived at home. The Leidigs heard often from their son Charles who remained in the valley. He became a government ranger and an avid fisherman, providing the hotels and businesses with trout. He served as a guide to President Theodore Roosevelt when the the politician visited the valley in 1903.
The Leidig Hotel, as well as the Sentinel Hotel nearby, was demolished when a more modern hotel was built in the National Park in 1888. Only a handful of locust trees mark the site of what was once the center of pioneer activity.
George Leidig died on June 13, 1902, from cirrhosis of the liver. He was laid to rest at the Arbor Vitae Cemetery in Raymond. Isabella died on June 27, 1923, at the home of one of her daughters in Fresno, California. She was seventy-six years old.
Isabella Leidig’s Scottish Mutton Recipe
Take a loin of mutton, cut it into small chops, season with ground pepper, all spice and salt; let it stand a night and then fry it. Have good gravy, well-seasoned with flour, butter, catsup and pepper, if necessary. Boil turnips and carrots, cut them small, and add to mutton, stew in the gravy with the yokes of hard-boiled eggs, and forcemeat balls. Some great pickles will be an improvement.