Who was Julius Starke?— Deanna Gregg
By Michael Redmon
For more than a century, Santa Barbara
has been home to a thriving artistic colony of stunning diversity.
Painters, sculptors, ceramists, metal and leather workers, and
other artists and craftspeople have chosen to make this city their
home. Numbered among them was Julius Starke (pictured far left),
who did wondrous things with wood.
Starke was born in Dresden in 1837. Not much is known of his
early life. He apparently learned woodworking from peasant
neighbors near his Dresden home. He traveled around Europe as a
young man and spent quite a bit of time in Paris and London. While
fine-tuning his woodworking skills, he also studied botany and
conducted research in the botanic gardens of Paris.
In the 1870s, Starke came to the U.S. and journeyed to
California by horseback. He had reportedly undergone a number of
financial setbacks and his health had suffered, so he sought out
the healthful climes of the West Coast to recover. He eventually
made his way to Yosemite and was captivated by its grandeur. For
the next few years he “led the life of the hermit” as one newspaper
account put it, studying the flora of the region and collecting
specimens. Some of the latter were unknown to science and Starke
was given the honor of naming one of his discoveries — Garrya
fremontii, after John C.Fremont, commander of the California
Battalion during the Mexican-American War.
For a time, Starke and a partner ran a woodworking studio near
Yosemite and it was there Starke developed his reputation for
working with woods of the high Sierra Nevada. He became especially
adept at marrying woods of different colors and grains into a
harmonious whole. One table he created included no less than 14
native California woods.
In addition to furniture, he made a wide variety of smaller
items including canes, cuff buttons, riding crops, napkin rings,
and all types of boxes, most utilizing numerous woods with
beautiful, detailed inlay work. Among his most interesting pieces
were a series of small boxes. One was a miniature mountain cabin
with a giant sequoia, done to scale to show just how huge these
trees were out in the wild. The cabin was actually a matchbox,
while the tree contained a cigar case.
Starke came to Santa Barbara in the early 1880s and for most of
his years in town, his residence and shop were in the first block
of East Sola Street, positioned to be near the tourist trade at the
Arlington Hotel. Toward the end of his life he relocated to the
first block of West Haley Street. In addition to his wood
masterpieces he sold any number of “curiosities” including Indian
artifacts, sea shells, basketry, pottery, and engraved
silver — anything he felt would be of interest to the tourist. In
1905, he published California Woods, a paean to the beauties of
Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and his own work. In the booklet he cited
41 woods he used in his creations.
A lover of the outdoors, he often could be found in the Santa
Barbara backcountry. His last hike came just three years before his
death when, at age 78, he ascended the Cold Springs trail with
friends. Starke died in March 1918, and was eulogized as “one of
the best known characters in Santa Barbara” whose woodworking
skills “gained a nationwide reputation.” Sadly, it appears that few
of his works survive, although the Santa Barbara Historical Society
has in its collection one of his California wood tables. As Starke
put it in California Woods, “Those artists who go to Nature to seek
for the beautiful always come back full-handed.” His craft embodied
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara
Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa
Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 West Figueroa
St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.