A History and Tour of Jack London’s Ranch in the Sonoma Valley, California…
Jack London was a prolific writer of the early 20th century, composing famous stories about adventure, survival, the Alaskan experience—stories such as “To Build a Fire” and “White Fang.” He was also a fierce advocate for socialism and workers’ rights.
What many people don’t’ know is that he was also an avid rancher, and passionate devotee and resident of the Sonoma Valley.
North of San Francisco in Sonoma County, west of Napa Valley and adjoining a family winery, resides a large ranch, now part of the Jack London State Historic Park. It is called “Beauty Ranch.”This is where Jack London, the legendary adventure writer, began to take his themes and ideas, which are rooted in his literary work, and put them into action. It would be one of London’s homes and his model for his Jeffersonian ideas on agrarian life.
A New Life in the Valley of the Moon
In 1901, Jack London was invited to a summer-long gathering at a Russian River retreat of intellectuals. He enjoyed the experience and return again with his wife. Later, he would fall in love with the neighboring Sonoma Valley, also known as “The Valley of the Moon,” along with a woman named Charmain Kittredge, who he spent time with there. This would lead to a highly published divorce from his current wife, Bessie, and afterwards a marriage with Charmain.
London would buy his first parcel of land in the valley in 1905 when he asked his editor, George Brett, for $6,500 to finalize his purchase. Eventually, he would buy six more adjacent properties, which he could eventually called “The Beauty Ranch.
London was serious about what this land meant to him. It wasn’t the capricious actions of a rich author building a summer retreat. London was seeking a means to live while raising livestock and crops in a progressive, efficient manner. The ranch was managed by Eliza Shepard, London’s sister-in-law, who would work to implement London’s ideas while he developed his stories and other writings.
“Jack’s ambition was to develop a model farm,” Eliza wrote in 1917, “One of the best all-round ranches in the state, combining a stock ranch, fruit, grain, vegetables, vineyard and the like. He would have accomplished this plan had he lived, for his enthusiasm was unquenchable.”
The Lay of the Land
The original ranch was built for efficiency and comfort. It was a place for London to consummate his ideas on agrarian life and work. It was also a place where he could develop his stories, focused and at peace. The buildings located on the ranch included the cottage, silos, barns, and pig pen—amorously known as the “Pig Palace.” It also it included the ill-fated remains of a winery and what would have been London’s home, which was colorfully dubbed the “Wolf House” in reference to the animals’ common appearance in his stories.
The Cottage was the main home on the ranch for London and his permanent home there after a fire destroyed the Wolf House. Enlarged in 1911 to include an expanded living space, London wrote much of his later work there. While maintaining a steady daily writing schedule, he was able to carrier out his experiments on farm and livestock operation that would quickly become his new passion.
The Silos, built between 1912 and 1915, stood a short walk from the center of the ranch. They stand over 40 feet in height and were made of concrete blocks. They were next to both the Pig Palace and dairy operation to provide quick access for storage.
The Barns consisted of several other buildings. The Sherry barn was already located on the property and London converted it into a stable. The Stallion Barn to built to house six stallions. The Distillery Building was used by ranch hands for storage and repair of farm equipment, which also include an entire blacksmith’s shop bough courtesy Glen Ellen.
The Winery consisted of a series of buildings that predated London’s purchase of the land. Both the Sherry Barn and the Distillery, which became storage spaces, were part of the winery. The winery itself was seriously damaged during the earthquake of 1906. Salvaging the foundation and part of the second story, London used the winery space as a carriage house along with living quarters for the ranch hands, guest rooms, and an office for Eliza to manage the entire ranch. The second story was destroyed by fire in 1965. Today, the area is used as a summer theater, seating over 800 guests.
The Wolf House was supposed to be the main residence for Jack London. Built in 1911, London and Charmain’s home, a place where they could grow old together as London wrote his stories. Unfortunately, the house caught fire in 1913. At the time, no one was living there. Jack was still sleeping at the cottage. The fire began at night. When London was awoken and arrived at the house, it was too late. There were plans to rebuild but London didn’t live long enough for that to happen.
Passion and Endurance
Though London worked on the ranch himself, it was Eliza would be the primary caretaker of the estate. They both would share a vigorous correspondence between one another, sharing ideas and changes in the way the ranch would run. Over 80 letters were written between the both of them, ever seeking to improve the quality of the ranch and its operation. London asked many questions and provided frequent instructions. Eliza responded in kind. From structural inquiries to the most efficient means for feeding cattle and the other livestock, both maintained a steady conversation on how best and evermore capable to increase the value of the ranch.
“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist,” London wrote, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
This was his vision for his ranch. He didn’t buy a ranch to simply say he owned a ranch, but to make the ranch worth something owning. He developed within his lifetime many enduring techniques for raising both livestock and crops. Reading and absorbing as much information as he could from agricultural journals and books, London took the best ideas could find and Incorporated their practice into the development of his estate.
He used techniques of land restoration and conservation, employed for ages in both Japan and Korea to revitalize soil that had been exhausted by previous owners. He favored natural fertilizers, which he stored in one of his concrete silos, while avoiding chemicals and pesticides. He applied Asian crop-terracing practices and would only raise livestock that was suitable for the Sonoma Valley climate.
He created a piggery that could house 200 hogs but only required one person to operate. The piggery was designed so each pig had their own space. These “suites” were built around a feeding structure. There was a central valve connected to a chute system that allowed the piggery caretaker to fill every trough with drinking water in the entire building. Through these means it became know as the “Pig Palace.”
Jack London Historic State Park
Jack London’s ranch now stands as an outdoor museum and state park. It also hosts Broadway Under the Stars, a theater group, in the remains of the winery. Kenwood Winery maintains 125 acres of planted wine grapes. There is a collection of hiking trails around the ranch and behind the vineyards. The park schedules regular tours and special events through the years. More can be found at their website: www.jacklondonpark.com.
Want to Visit? Here is a map to get you started: