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A Californian Artist's Land Yacht (1896)

Yosemite Valley by H J Breuer (1912) as used on the cover of 'Ode to Yosemite' by George Sterling (1915) (Source Library of Congress)

Henry Joseph Breuer (1860-1932) was an important American landscape artist. As a 'plein air' artist he would often sketch and paint in the open country. To allow him to spend more time in the midst of his scenes, he lived at separate times in a wagon and a house boat, both commissioned and designed with Breuer's painting needs in mind.

On American Independence Day 2022, I thought it would be worth reproducing a 1896 newspaper article about the 'land yacht' of Mr. and Mrs. Breuer - two very independent travellers. It's an important early account of 'RVing' in North America because it describes in detail the joys and perils of the first 'caravanners'. The Breuer's rationale for following such a lifestyle - good health, the enjoyment of the countryside, creativity and low cost - were typical reasons for early RV pioneers to go 'vagabonding'.

from The Sun, 31 May 1896 (source Library of Congress)

Cruising in a Land Yacht

Two Years Spent in a Wagon by Mr. Breuer and His Wife

They Began Their Odd Voyage in California in Search of Health and They Have Found It - Pleasures of Life in a Wagon - Uncomfortable Now in a House

San Francisco, May 23

A woman who has lived two years in a land yacht should not lack uncommon experiences. Mrs. H. L.(sic) Breuer calls her abiding place a land yacht because in it she has skimmed all over California, and from her narrow door she has seen the beauties of the land. She knows the life of a land-yachtswoman, and she says that it is good. The yacht is the neatest and most complete house on wheels that has ever journeyed an American road. Lately it has been over in Moraga Valley, in Contra Costa County, Cal., lying at anchor in the shade of the live oaks. Mrs. Breuer would have liked to stay there for a long time, but her husband wanted to move on. He is an artist, and moving on is a way artists have.

"Mr. Breuer designed this house wagon," said Mrs. Breuer to her inquisitive visitor, "and helped to put it together. It cost $500. We put about everything we had into the enterprise. It has been a most excellent investment. Sickness drove us away from the city out into the pure air of inland California, and we did not know any better way of keeping up a steady system of oxygenating the blood and regaining health than to get into a land yacht and sail all over. We have not done as much sailing as we intended at the first, but what we have done has driven away all disease. We are both as healthy and strong as athletes, and we never dream of such a thing as taking cold."*

The land yacht is about five feet wide by eight in length, and in it are chairs, a stove, a bed that you can let down from the side of the wall, a hundred little convenient cubbyholes, and shelves that will hold all manner of things needful to keep house on wheels. The stove is big enough to bake bread in, and a set of aluminum pots and pans goes with it for utility and lightness. There is a carpet on the floor, a few water colors on the walls, among them a Stohl horse picture, and yes - a library. It was a marvel of cleanliness and order, this house wagon, when it was seen by the visitor, and there was not from attic to wheels a cobweb or speck of dirt.

"And you have lived in this wagon for two whole years?" was asked. "Yes, two whole years. Of course we have gone visiting on occasion, and once or twice we have slept in the house of friends. Now, we were well entertained, and we would not like to have them know it, but we were really uncomfortable in the bedrooms of our friends. We missed the free flow of air that we always have about our heads in the wagon. A house of the regular sort seems insufferably stuffy to you after you have lived twenty-four months in a wagon."

"That's true," back up the husband. "I wouldn't give two cents for the best kind of house now, if I had to live in it."

"You see, it doesn't take but a few minutes each day to do the ordinary housework, so we don't have to keep servants," went on the lady, smiling, her pretty face slightly browned by the sun during her long land cruise, softening with interest and enthusiasm as she talked.

"We live very well for nomads, and I am sure nobody on the whole coast leads a freer life than we do. Of course our artist has to work, but he is devoted to his art and would not be idle for anything. Let me show you some of the pictures he has made in Moraga Valley."

Henry J. Breuer (1860-1932), Sketch for Arroyo Seco, 1907, 16 x 20 inches, Gift of William Dossonville, Saint Mary's College Museum of Art Permanent Collection, 0-243

A number of excellent pen-and-ink and pencil and water-color sketches, as well as a few finished pictures, were whisked out of a big portfolio and held up proudly by the woman of the wagon.

The exterior fittings and general utility were shown to the visitor, and Mr. Breuer expiated on the strength of the wheels and of the iron axle, and showed the cellar where food was kept and the stow-hole for the tools and bedding. What lent picturesqueness to the outfit was the broad canopy that was spread over the wagon to keep off the rain and the hot sun. The fact that it was never too warm for comfort inside of nights and that the rain was more enjoyable than otherwise was dwelt upon.

"I like to lie awake at night and hear the rain beat upon the canvas and hear the wind sweep by through the trees," said Mr. Breuer. "Yes, people who live in houses, and particularly in city houses, miss some fine experiences."

There were hammocks and a swing hung under the trees. The hammocks were for the wagon dwellers and the swing was for their childish visitors. The wagon people liked to have children about. They had none of their own.

"We have great fun out in the country," said the lady of the wagon. "what people say about us amuses us vastly. They are particular to ask where we get our meat, and they to think that it's quite natural that we should be eternally foraging for our food. The chicken roost joke is a common one with us. It has afforded us no end of amusement. If ever I am cooking a fowl in my oven and a countryman gets sight of it, he invariably asks some questions that shows his suspicious nature with respect to travellers by wagon.

"People are very kind to us. Men and women hang about and seem to be quite proud to do us little favors. They can't get over the idea that we are some sort of show. One old man where we camped awhile used to come down to the wagon and insist on carrying water for us. He was so big that he could hardly get through the door, but he was so anxious to be of service that we couldn't object to his intrusion.

"I am alone in the wagon a good deal, while Mr. Breuer is out sketching. The other day a big negro, very black and very lumbering, came up to the door of the wagon and nearly frightened the life out of me. He mumbled something I did not understand and I began to think of the gun hanging on the wall there, when he raised his voice and said he wanted his fortune told. He was very much disappointed when I told him I did not tell fortunes. He insisted upon it that just because he was black I ought not to discriminate against him. His money was as good as anybody's.

"When we came to this place and stretched our canvas out over the top of the wagon, as usual, with the guy lines pulled out and tied to the stakes, an old Frenchman who lives just over there, stuck his head over the fence and asked:

" 'When do ze show have begin?' "

" 'This is not a show' ", I replied.

"'I buy two ticket for ze circus if you have ze pretty Circassian girl,' " he insisted.

" 'We have no circus,'" I said.

"He was slow to accept the reply.

" 'It no is circus? Zen you have ze puppet. No? Ze Punch and Judy?" he continued.

"Nothing of the kind," I replied.

" 'Zen I wish you good morning. I zink you are ze grand fraud.' and away he went.**

"His chicken house is just over the fence there, as you see. A few minutes afterwards he was out there with hammer and nails, boarding up the doors. He looked over the fence once or twice with profound disgust written on his face. He is about the funniest specimen of the lot, but he means well.

"Yes, we have a great many visitors. They ask us thousands of questions. Mr. Breuer wants to have some cards printed with a list of answers to the commonest queries. These cards he wants to pass out to people who come around with their interrogations, but I won't let him do anything of the sort. I think people have a right to be curious, and I don't mind their queries when they are sarcastic. It is only natural that people should want to know how we live in a wagon. Most of them think the idea a very good one, at least they say so. We have had a good many offers for the outfit from people who were enchanted by this mode of living. There are a great many who would build such wagons if they could get the pattern, and what is more, if they had the leisure to go travelling. As for me, I am perfectly satisfied with the life. It has saved us a good many doctor's bills."

The visitor was invited to stay to dinner. It is surprising how quickly that meal was got together. The handiness of everything made the task a very light one. It was not twenty minutes after the smoke began to pour through the little joint of pipe that stuck out of the wagon cover, and Mr. Breuer had not got half way through his story of the hunter and the squirrels that fairly covered the ground, when dinner was announced.

Sitting at the table with the two health-flushed faces opposite, and the free air moving in through the open doors and windows, the visitor made a meal such as only an outdoor appetite deserves. And the wagon dwellers averred that they had that sort of appetite for every meal cooked on the little stove in the corner.

"Your average house-dweller's appetite is a puny thing alongside mine," said the hearty Mr. Breuer. "Are we going to keep up this sort of life? Indeed we are. Who wouldn't?"


* Volume 5 of California Art Research (1937) adds that the chief motive for living in a wagon was to improve Mrs. Breuer's health, and that Mr. Breuer would make quick sketches of farmers in exchange for eggs, chickens and other provisions.

** Confusion with travelling circuses and fortune tellers was a common hazard for early caravanners. In 1886 Dr. Gordon Stables made a long list of people or professions that he was mistaken for when travelling through the English countryside in The Wanderer, including a Salvation Army general, a travelling artist, a photographer, a menagerie, an eccentric baronet, a madman and 'King of The Gypsies'.

Andrew Woodmansey

4 July 2022


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