“The air is wine…I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”
Visited: May 2016
Time for a little Northern California love! In all the times we have traveled in and around the Sonoma County area, there was one place I had always yearned to visit, but never seemed to have the time (probably too much wine tasting). Tracy and I (along with friends Kim and Mary) finally heeded the call of the wild to stop in and check out Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen over Memorial Day weekend, and it was well worth our 2 1/2 hours spent in this pristine park.
As the website states: The natural beauty of Sonoma Valley was not lost on Jack London. The magnificent vistas and rolling hills of Glen Ellen were an ideal place for Jack and Charmian (London’s second wife)…
…to relax and enjoy the natural life. “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.” Though the farm was badly run down, he reveled in its natural beauty.
We were quite lucky, because we arrived just a few minutes before a docent-led tour down to London’s famous Wolf House (or what was left of it), so we happily joined the free tour that started from the museum (aka the “House Of Happy Walls”).
The House of Happy Walls, built by Charmian in 1919 (three years after Jack’s death), was constructed with stones from the Wolf House, which I’ll get to shortly. The museum contains artifacts from their years of traveling the globe as well as many of London’s books in various languages. We would explore the museum more after our little hike.
Our docent (a former French teacher from Sweden) gave us a quick overview of Jack’s life..and what a fascinating, adventuresome and ultimately tragic life it was! The park is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Jack London’s death this year.
She told us about London’s turbulent early life including when he was first an “Oyster Pirate,” and then made a quick 180-degree turn and helped authorities capture oyster pirates. Our docent recommended that everyone read (or re-read) The Sea Wolf.
She also recommended the biography by Earle Labor; Jack London, An American Life.
In 1907, London and Charmian (who was also an accomplished pianist, organist and singer) began what they hoped would be an around-the-world adventure on their custom-built sailboat, The Snark (named after Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of The Snark).
Due to a bad choice of picking a relative as the navigator, London had to learn the art of celestial navigation on the fly (or I guess “on the water”) in order to pilot them safely to Hawaii. Sadly for London, this adventure would end up being one of the reasons he would would meet such a premature death. While in the South Pacific, Jack contracted a common mosquito-borne illness called “yaws.” This disease proved the adage that sometimes “the cure is worse than the disease.”
Yaws caused him to have numerous open sores on his hands and arms, and London poured mercuric chloride on those wounds, which caused a terrible case of dermatitis. It is believed that this “cure” contributed mightily to Jack’s early death in 1916 at age 40 from kidney failure (his heavy drinking didn’t help either).
Our docent also told us that in the former-USSR, London (a self-avowed socialist) and Ernest Hemingway were the only U.S. authors whose books were allowed and that London was so popular that even now, 100 years after London’s death, Russian visitors weep at his grave.
Now it was time to head a little more than 1/2 a mile to Wolf House. It was a beautiful walk through the woods, and the numerous trees provided much needed shade on an increasingly hot morning.
London had wanted to build his dream house on the property, and it was going to be something to behold. Construction on the 15,000 square feet home with nine chimneys, modern conveniences including hot water, electricity and even a vacuum cleaning system began in 1911. When Kim read about the size of the home, he quipped, “That’s a pretty big house for a socialist.”
Because Jack recalled the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he had the foundation poured deep enough to hold a 40-story house. Sadly, in August 1913, one month before they were to move in, a fire that was started by spontaneous combustion in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags that were left there by workers, consumed the house in flames, and it burned to the ground.
He never fully recovered from this tragedy, however, and he would die before his dream was fulfilled. We toured the remains of Wolf House, so named because of London’s fascination with wolves. London wrote numerous books about wolves and dogs, so many in fact that his friend George Sterling gave him the nickname “The Wolf.”
Many of the huge chimneys were still standing. Oh, what might have been…London had a reflecting pool built that would have been fed by water from a cold mountain spring. He also was supposedly going to keep some black bass in there.
It would have been quite the home.
We walked another short distance…
…to where Jack’s ashes are buried. “On November 26, 1916, in a silent ceremony, Charmian London placed her husband’s ashes on the chosen knoll under a large rock from the Wolf House. After she passed away in 1955, Charmian’s ashes were laid under the same rock, next to Jack.”
According to the website, “After Jack’s death in 1916, Charmian committed herself to saving Beauty Ranch and promoting Jack’s legacy. She sold his writings and worked with the movie industry to convert Jack’s books into films. She traveled frequently to Europe to work with agents, publishers and translators. She became a well-known personality in her own right and never remarried.”
Across from Jack and Charmian’s grave site are the tombstones of the Greenlaw children, David and Lillie, who lived for a short time on this property in the mid 1800s, both dying before age seven. Their dad had wanted to be in the vineyard business, but phylloxera forced him to abandon that dream, and the family moved, leaving the graves of his young children behind.
Jack and Charmian had a daughter, Joy, who was born with a broken back and only lived 38 hours. He had two other daughters from his first marriage.
We meandered back to to the museum (House of Happy Walls).
Charmian lived here from 1919 until she broke her hip. She then moved back to the London Cottage (we visit it next) where she passed away in 1955. After Charmian’s death, the property was deeded to the State by London’s nephew and opened to the public in 1960.
The park nearly didn’t go on. It was scheduled to be closed by the state, but thanks to the efforts of many volunteers it remained open, and visitor traffic has improved every year; last year receiving 90.000 visitors.
We wandered around the museum where we saw the piano that was instrumental (of course, the pun was intended) at London’s parties at the London’s Cottage on display…
…along with a few of the rooms.
After walking just a few yards, we saw that we might encounter company on the hike, but on we ventured. Shake, rattle and roll baby!
From the website: “By 1913 London owned 1400 acres on the slopes of the mountain and by 1916 employed nearly 50 workers building, farming, and tending prize livestock. Self-taught and inventive, London sought to improve farming methods using common sense, research, and concepts gleaned from travel.”
…we spied an old water wagon, which he had purchased from the city of Oakland…
Soon we entered a part of the park that Kim and Mary know well. Each summer concerts are held at one of the most beautiful venues one could imagine; the remains of the 19th century winery located adjacent to the lush vineyards that seemed to stretch forever. The Kohler and Frohling winery building was damaged during the 1906 earthquake
These concerts (Broadway Under The Stars) can accommodate 800 guests (photo below courtesy of ttc.transcendencetheatre.org). The picnicking among the vineyards and sprawling hillside alone would be worth the price of admission.
London wrote many of his books here, and since Kim, Mary and I are over 62, we were afforded the “Old Geezer” price of $2 to poke around the cottage (youngster Tracy had to pony up four bucks).
We saw some of the artifacts from Jack and Charmian’s travels.
We also saw the room where Jack passed away on November 22, 1916. Cause of death: “gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.” Doctors had pleaded with London to “change his work habits and his diet, stop all use of alcohol and get more exercise.” London refused.
In a column in the San Francisco Bulletin, Ernest Hopkins wrote, “No writer, unless it were Mark Twain, ever had a more romantic life than Jack London. The untimely death of this most popular of American fictionists has profoundly shocked a world that expected him to live and work for many years longer.”
One of the cottage docents then took us over to the adjacent Stone Dining Room (and kitchen).
It would be remiss of me not to mention London’s step-sister, Eliza Shephard. She ran the ranch from 1910 – 1939, making it easier for Jack to be a prolific author.
Jack’s mantra was, “1,000 words per day to pay the bills.” Hey, even a socialist needs to make a buck or two (especially when you own 1,400 acres of land). He once stated, “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
From the website: “The Pig Palace, (so named by a San Francisco newspaper reporter astounded by the $3,000 cost to build it) was designed by London and built in 1915. Laid out in a circle to save labor, the piggery’s central feed house is surrounded by 17 pens. Each family of Duroc Jersey hogs had its own area; a courtyard with feed and water troughs, roofed sleeping area, and a fenced outdoor run. The piggery was designed to efficiently care for prized breeding pigs in a sanitary environment.”
This “Pig Palace” was actually nicer than my apartment in college. Of course, I also didn’t have to worry about anyone taking me to a nearby smokehouse to become dinner.
Lastly, we came upon some Spineless Prickly Pear Cactus that had been developed by London’s friend, Luther Burbank, who had promoted it as cattle feed. That experiment failed, and the cactus was ripped out in 1916, shortly after London’s death.
This patch was planted in 2001 using cuttings from the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa.
It’s not often you get to stop by a park and receive an incredible history lesson at the same time, but let’s face it, there was only one Jack London. So the next time you visit this area, take a few hours away from those wineries and catch a gorgeous part of California and an interesting snippet of literary history, all located in one remarkable setting in The Valley Of The Moon.
Or as London stated so eloquently, “I ride over my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”
Jack London State Historic Park
2400 London Ranch Road
Glen Ellen, California 95442
Days and Hours of Operation: Open Daily
Park Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Museum Hours 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. 1
Cottage Hours: Noon – 4 p.m.
Park Entry Fee: $10 Vehicle entry fee
Cottage Entry Fee: Adults $4 • $2 Seniors (Age 62+)
Students (Age 13-18): $2 • Children age 12 and under are free
Check website for docent-lead tours
Suggestion: If you have one hour: visit Museum, then walk to Wolf House & grave site (grab a docent tour if you can)
If you have two hours (or so): add Beauty Ranch, London Cottage, Old Winery & Pig Palace