A visit with Jack London

BY CLAUDIA NEWCORN

“When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down on a little farm…130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California.” So wrote Jack London when in 1905, he purchased Beauty Ranch in Sonoma Valley as his haven from extraordinary success as an author, news correspondent and political activist. Over a century later, as the Jack London Historic State Park (JackLondonPark.com), it welcomes visitors with hiking trails, historic tours and unique insights into a literary giant.

A Quietude of Beauty
I accidentally discovered the park 20 years ago on a rambling drive up to Glen Ellen. An admitted lover of London’s writings (he wrote over 50 books, and hundreds of short stories), having the opportunity to visit his home was irresistible. My visit was too short, and I promised myself I would return. At this year, I did.

London and his wife Charmian bought what were actually six bankrupt ranches. The volcanic soil of the region was considered “worked out” by poor farming techniques. But in his travels, London had observed how Koreans had successfully used terracing and methods that preserved limited land for thousands of years, and was determined to apply the practice to his new ranch. He succeeded, restoring the sloping hills to produce grapes and other crops. Incorporating innovative concepts would become his hallmark, and many are still used today. His passion for Beauty Ranch actually drove his writing, which he saw as a source of funding for ongoing projects.

In London’s time, the open view from the sloping hills of Sonoma Mountain that overlooked the Valley of the Moon was stunning. A century later, native trees and plants have reclaimed the area, and a quiet forest cloaks much of the ranch’s peaceful 1400 acres.

Time Capsule
In 1916, at age 40, London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning. Charmian remained on the ranch until her death in 1955. At her behest, 39 acres were donated to the State of California in 1959 to create the park. Jack’s stepsister, Eliza Shepard, to whom he was very close, inherited the property, converting it into a guest ranch. Subsequently her family decided to develop a world-class vineyard on a portion of the land, with the rest going to the park.

At the park’s heart are the Museum/Visitor’s Center, London Cottage, Beauty Ranch and Wolf House, each a window onto the early 20th century. Start with the Museum, situated in the House of the Happy Walls, formerly Charmian’s home. The first floor’s video and exhibits provide an excellent orientation; the second floor is as it was in Charmian’s time, showcasing artifacts gathered from their travels.

Make Wolf House your next stop, about a half mile walk on an old dirt road. This was London’s magnificent three-story dream home, built of stone and timber, with a reflecting pool, guest rooms, a great hall. But in 1913, a mysterious fire consumed it just before the Londons were to move in. Nobody knew the source until 1995, when forensic analysts at last determined it was a result of spontaneous combustion from a workman’s linseed-oil soaked rags. On a nearby hilltop are the Londons’ graves.

London’s Cottage anchors Beauty Ranch. Take the docent tour to learn fascinating insights for each room and the Londons. My favorite room was his writing study, replete with books, his typewriter, a globe, golden afternoon sunlight strewn across his desk. I could imagine him, adhering to his strict regimen of writing 1000 words per day, gazing thoughtfully out the large windows as he worked on John Barleycorn or White Fang. Often described as a Renaissance man, he would have been fascinating to speak with.

Close by are the ruins of the Kohler and Frohling wineries dating back to late 1800s, damaged during the great 1906 earthquake. Check out the stone Distillery, Manure Pit and Stallion Barns where London implemented some of his innovative farming practices, as well as the circular Pig Palace, smokehouse and old silos. Throughout the year, events, performances and activities are held at different locations.

I recommend comfortable walking shoes. A free shuttle service is available; reservations should be made in advance. There are also self-guided audio tours. People can even bring their horses to ride the trails. Picnic tables are available, or you can take a 5-minute drive down to Glen Ellen to dine.

In today’s overly hurried world, a visit to Jack London’s ranch provides a welcome respite, an insight onto a man who shaped the literary world, and who inspired me to become a writer.

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