Jack London and his Beauty Ranch
By Lou Leal
Jack London was 27 years old when he discovered the beauty of Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain. He had recently achieved high fame as a writer with the publication of The Call of the Wild. It was in 1903 that he first visited our Sonoma Valley and stayed at Wake Robin Lodge, a resort in Glen Ellen, owned by Ninetta Eames, Charmian Kittredge’s aunt. Charmian was to marry Jack two years later. Jack’s visits during those two years included horseback riding on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain during which the beauty of the area convinced him that this was where he would like to live. In 1905 he purchased the 129-acre Hill Ranch at the end of Hill Road in Glen Ellen. In a letter to his editor he wrote, “In fact, it is impossible to really describe the place. All I can say is this – I have been over California off and on all my life, for the last two months I have been riding all over these hills, looking for just such a place, and I must say that I have never seen anything like it.” The poet George Sterling, his closest friend, bought land in Carmel about the same time and urged Jack to move there on his property. The offer came too late, as London was already in love with the beauty of Sonoma Mountain. Sterling and his circle of artists formed the nucleus of the artist colony in Carmel that has remained to this day. Jack and Charmian London visited the colony, but never became a part of it.
Jack hired a ranch superintendent for his new ranch to care for a small farm operation that would include animals and crops. At the time, Jack mainly wanted a beautiful place as a retreat from his busy life in Oakland and San Francisco. Through the years he expanded the ranch by buying six more parcels for a total of 1,402 acres that extended almost to the top of Sonoma Mountain and was bordered by Asberry Creek and Graham Creek.
As Jack and Charmian London anticipated the building of a dream house on their “Beauty Ranch,” they decided to delay the construction and, instead, build a sailboat that would take them around the world. The Snark voyage, planned to last seven years, started in April of 1907, and ended in December 1908 due to Jack’s failing health. After leaving the Snark for sale in Sydney, Australia, Jack returned home in 1909 and began to learn more about farming in order to put his expanding ranch to better use. In 1910, he hired his stepsister, Eliza Shepard, to become his ranch superintendent. As work on the ranch continued, Jack found that he was building a passion for farming that was beyond any he had felt for writing. He threw all his energies during the last few years of his life into creating an agricultural showplace for California. Combining the ancient farming techniques he had witnessed in Asia with modern scientific methods, he proceeded to develop his ranch through what we now call “sustainable farming.” He planted cover crops, used both composted and liquid manure, and rotated crops. He refused to use commercially produced amendments and pesticides, and banned barbed wire from his ranch. The local farming practiced in the past had been wasteful. Jack was determined not to repeat the failures of the past.
Although he began buying land in 1905, Jack did not live on his ranch until September, 1911, when he purchased the parcel that included old stone winery buildings and the cottage that had been part of winery pioneer Charles Kohler’s Kohler and Frohling winery property. The cottage allowed Jack and Charmian to finally live directly on their ranch. The cottage was to be temporary quarters until their dream home, Wolf House, was completed. With stepsister, Eliza as ranch superintendent, Jack and Charmian could enjoy getaways on their sailboat, Roamer, which was docked at the Vallejo Yacht Club. These water excursions typically started with a stop in Benicia, his old haunt from teenage oyster pirate days, before leisurely going into the Delta and up the Sacramento River. Writing was always done in the morning while the afternoon was devoted to fishing, swimming, reading, and card games.
The year 1913 brought heartache and tragedy. That summer Jack suffered appendicitis, the magnificent Wolf House burned down, and he learned that he had a deteriorating kidney condition that would cut his life short. His response to the situation was to go into high gear in ranch development. He lived only three more years.
Medical doctors who have studied Jack’s death agree that a major factor which caused his kidney failure was the mercury chloride which he had used in 1908 in the Solomon Islands to treat yaws, a severe bacterial infection. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered. The mercury applied to open sores would have gone directly into his bloodstream to settle mostly in the kidneys. Four months were spent in the Solomon Islands. Other contributing factors to the kidney failure include smoking, a high protein diet, and alcohol consumption.
On November 22, 1916, Jack died at age 40. He achieved much in his short life, truly living up to his credo that the purpose of man is to live, not just to exist.
Lou Leal is Park Historian at Jack London State Historic Park and has been a docent there for 20 years. He is a member of the Volunteer Council, leads tours, trains docents, contributes to Jack London documentary video productions, and writes and presents papers to historical associations.
This is one of a series of columns celebrating Jack London’s Centennial. To find out how you can discover your own call of the wild, visit www.jacklondonpark.com to learn more about park programs and activities.