Meet the author of
Survival With Style: The Women of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Joan B. Barriga
Mountain Historian

Marlene Wiley

In 1999, the Mountain Network News serialized an essay authored by Joan B. Barriga about mountain women. The series was entitled Survival With Style: The Women of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I first met Joan Barriga through the Mountain History Study Group I organized in the mid-eighties. It wasn’t long before I realized this lady knew much about mountain history. She gave a fact-filled, funny presentation on Holy City based on an essay she wrote in early 1988 called The Holy City Sideshow. In addition to the Holy City essay, Joan has donated to the mountain history collection two more essays—Ambrose Bierce: The Devil Takes a Holiday and The Raucous Bluejay: C. E. S. Wood.

Who is this lady with sparkling eyes and great laugh? Although she would probably modestly disagree, I favorably compare her to the women she wrote about. She is a mountain woman—capable in a power outage, a volunteer at Lexington School, a 4-H club leader for twelve years, a hiker and lover of the outdoors, goat herder who spun sheared mohair, a poetry and fiction writer, and a craftswoman making baskets and miniatures. Her volunteer efforts at Lexington and other local schools included teaching local history and a science project based lumps of coal.

The Barriga’s children first joined a 4-H club at Lakeside in 1971. The interest in the Lexington area led Joan and George to form the Lexington 4-H Club. At one point they had forty children in a sheep project. The Barriga’s switched to raising goats because they did not have to sell them. After twelve years, they turned the 4-H club over to others.

Joan was also a docent at Forbes Mill Museum in Los Gatos and a participant in Living History Days sponsored by the San Jose Historical Society. She counts among her many friends two ladies prominent in mountain and Los Gatos society—Mary Foster and Wilma Thompson. (Mary Foster and Joan had children at Lexington when Mary set up the poetry contest.) William A. Wulf, Los Gatos Historian, is also a friend and a history consultant. Although Joan’s activities and contributions are limited due to a stroke she suffered a few years ago, she has recovered well.

Joan and her husband George moved to Aldercroft Heights when son Carl was six months old in July 1960. They still live in their mountain home. Her husband taught engineering at San Jose State while Joan raised their two children, Carl and Bridget. Both children are married and have given Joan and George four grandchildren. In addition to being a full-time "mom," Joan earned a master of arts degree in English from San Jose State to accompany her bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of New Mexico.

I asked how she made the transition from writing poetry and fiction to writing historical essays. Joan’s answer in her own words.

"As a long-time resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains it was probably inevitable that my interest and curiosity would be aroused when I came across abandoned cabins, crumbling settlements, sealed-up railroad tunnels and the faint but persistent traces of the old South Pacific Coast’s overgrown roadbed. John V. Young’s tales of the early settlers (Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains) and Bruce MacGregor’s very readable South Pacific Coast started me off on what turned out to be a fulfilling and fascinating study of this area and the pioneers who made their homes here. Where had they come from? How did they get here? And why did they choose to stay in the mountains, when life would certainly have been easier in the more settled and ‘civilized’ regions? Occasionally, as I read on about the loggers, hunters, railroaders and stagecoach drivers, there was a fleeting allusion to a wife or mother, to the proprietess of a stage stop, or to Southern Pacific’s first woman station agent. A persistent question began to form in my mind: who were these pioneer women, and what sort of lives did they lead? Who was cooking the dinner while Mountain Charley was out doing battle with the grizzly bear? (As it turned out, nobody was, because Charley was still a bachelor at this time.)

"This was the point of departure; I began researching the lives of the women pioneers. From bits and pieces of information found in larger works, diaries kept by some of the families (Birney Burrell’s "Diary"), letters written to relatives back East (Clarissa Burrell’s letters were a particularly rich source), and published writings (Josephine McCrackin and Eliza Farnham), a more complete picture of their lives began to emerge. One of the most detailed … and thoroughly enjoyable … depictions of day-to-day life in the Santa Cruz Mountains was Emma Garrod’s autobiography, One Life, Mine. I found that the contributions these pioneer women made to the development of this area were an important, though frequently overlooked, contribution to the history of California."

Joan’s favorite woman in her "Survival" essay was probably Mt. Charley’s wife, nurse Barbara McKiernan.

Joan has another skill that immediately tells you she is a historian. She maintains history scrapbooks—seventeen now—that contain primarily newspaper clippings of local history. These books are not only in chronological order, but carefully indexed. Each volume is labeled.


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