Since visiting Jack London State Historic Park last November, it continues to be at the top of my list of recom-mendations for others to visit. It is located in the town of Glen Ellen in the heart of the Napa/Sonoma wine country. My late autumn visit found the surrounding vineyards burst-ing with color, often leaving me stunned and breathless by their beauty.
It is easily the most versatile park that I have visited to date, offering hiking, history, a museum, architecture, agri-cultural experiments, and of course much about the com-plex, literary, Renaissance man himself, Jack London. A writer, photographer, farmer, rancher, socialist, humanist, racist and adventurer all roled into one, London is best known for his rugged novels such as Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea-Wolf. Before becoming the most successful and most wealthy writer of his time, he made a hard living putting in long hours in factories, mining for gold in Alaska, and as an oyster pirate in the San Francisco Bay, drawing his colorful rough and tumble characters from his own experiences.
London began purchasing land in the Sonoma Valley in 1905 on what he referred to as his "Beauty Ranch", until eventually he had 1350 acres. This was his home until his tragically early death at the age of forty in 1916. His second wife, Charmian, continued to live in their cottage until her death in 1955.
This modest cottage and small guest house are preserved with many of the original furnishings, including Jack's writing desk. The severe work ethic that he adhered to in his days as a impoverished laborer followed him into his writing craft. He did not believe in waiting for the muse. Rather, he sat and wrote on a daily basis for at least six hours. I found myself envious of his discipline.
From the cottage you can see vineyards, livestock pens and examples of agricultural experiments. A small cactus garden sits where he and Luther Burbank unsuccess-fully tried growing a new variety of spineless cactus to be used for cattle feed.
Another failed crop were the 80,000 Eucalyptus trees he imported from Australia. With California's population increasing, wood was in short supply for furniture and hous-ing. London hoped that these trees would finance some of his other experiments. Alas, they were only useful for firewood.
As charming as this cottage was, it was not the building where Jack and his wife had hoped to reside. The Wolf House, designed by architect Albert Farr of San Francisco, was to be their dream home.
Construction of this 15,000 square foot home began in 1910. A four story building with twenty-six rooms and nine fireplaces, it was built with local materials including volcanic rock from the nearby Valley of the Moon quarry, Mexican style tile made in Oakland and wooden beams from his own property.
It was nearly completed when it burned down in August 1913. Forensic experts have since concluded that the fire was started by spontaneous combustion. Jack vowed to rebuild it but was financially unable to.
A 3/4 mile walk through a damp, mushroom laden redwood forest brings you to the lake and dam that Jack created for crop irrigation. With the addition of a bath house and pier, the lake was used for fishing and swimming for 75 years. Today the lake is shallow and filled with silt. The dam wall is leaking. The Jack London Lake Alliance is fundraising for the restoration of the lake and dam and to preserve the water quality for local wildlife. Nonetheless, folks still enjoy walking along the top of the wall.
Perhaps the most entertaining structure at Beauty Ranch is Jack's infamous Pig Palace. London hoped that this circular, luxury accommodation would "make anyone who is interested in the manufacture of pork sit up and take notice."
Indeed they did, but not necessarily with any respect. It was a great amusement to other ranchers who thought London best stick with his novels and short stories.
Nearby stand two silos of hollow core concrete blocks, the first of their kind as London continued his dream of the perfect farm. They stored green silage from corn stalks, which was fed to the cows, while the pigs ate the harvested corn.
A third and final building was built by Jack's wife Charmian. The museum - "The House of Happy Walls," is a two story stone structure built in a redwood grove as a memorial to her husband’s life and work. Displayed here are many of the artifacts the London's collected on their world travels abroad while circumnavigating the globe on their yacht, The Snark.
The voyage that was intended to last seven years saw the Snark sail to Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, the Solomon's and ended on the Island of Guadacanal. Ill health and ill fated problems for The Snark ended yet another adventure.
Jack London was found dead one morning of unknown causes in his cottage at the age of forty. Forty! Given that the first half of his life was filled with poverty and hard labor, I found the quantity of his endeavors amazing. It made me briefly wonder what I'd done with my own time.
As Jack wished, his ashes, and later those of his wife, were spread near the grave of some pioneer children who had been buried on the property decades before. The day I visited happened to be the anniversary of his death, and a small ceremony that included readings of some of his work was being held at the gravesite.
The Jack London SHP was established in 1960 in accordance with the wishes of his wife. My money is on this park staying open. School children who visit often write letters to the Governor. I spoke with several individuals who were actively in the process of setting of cooperating organizations to keep the park open. So, I think next November I'll be making another trip here. While you can easily log four-five miles of walking just to see the sights I've described here, I think next time I'll to hike the 8-1/2 miles on Sonoma Mountain and view the turning vineyards from a higher vantage point.
I hope to see you at the state parks.