“I write a book for no other reason than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me…” What happens when you learn Jack London wrote his astounding novels to support sustainable agriculture on his farm? Well, you head to his Beauty Ranch in Sonoma County’s Glen Ellen to see it for yourself.
Jack London State Historic Park is a tribute to the prolific writer and determined agriculture researcher; it’s been a National Historic Landmark since 1963. It’s surprising to learn that the same man who wrote those rugged stories about the wild outdoors also built the first concrete silo in California and designed a manure pit to fertilize his fields. (Side note: I’ll never forget the panic when I read “To Build a Fire” in high school and realized how the story would end…)
Jack London and his unusual path to writing
London’s early life (he was born January 12, 1876) got off to a rocky start when his spirit-channeler mother, Flora, who may or may not have married his astrologer father, handed her baby over to Virginia Prentiss, a former slave. Flora had shot herself in a moment of despondency during the pregnancy and needed time to get over the suicide attempt. She bounced back later that year to marry John London; Jack (birth name John Griffith Chaney) adopted his stepfather’s last name. Virginia Prentiss would remain an important influence throughout Jack’s life, even loaning him money for his first sloop.
Jack went to school in Oakland, California, with informal breaks as a hobo, sailor, cannery worker, and oyster thief. He was in college at the University of California, Berkeley, when news of the Klondike Gold Rush arrived. Who needed college when becoming an instant millionaire was possible?
He didn’t strike gold, but he gathered something better: Ideas and material for Call of the Wild and White Fang. Returning to California, he realized his way to wealth was to write. Magazines were the new rage, and he began to churn out short fiction. In 1900, he earned $2,500…about $75,000 today. In 1903, Saturday Evening Post bought serial rights to Call of the Wild for $750; Macmillan then bought the book for $2,000. Jack London was suddenly famous.
Things moved quickly: war correspondent for the William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle, marriage, two daughters, divorce, marriage. In his second wife, Charmian, London found the perfect companion; she matched his intelligence, humor, and sense of adventure. They set out to sail round the world for seven years, but had to return home after two years, when malaria hit the crew and cut the journey short. But that led them to Beauty Ranch…
Beauty Ranch: A model for the future
Jack London felt that cities trapped men. He wanted “a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and to get out of nature something which we all need, only most of us don’t know it.” He wanted to farm in the way he’d witnessed in Japan: managing natural resources and conserving the land for the future. He bought 129 acres in Sonoma County, expanding it to 1,400 acres by 1913.
He and Charmian moved into a cottage on the land and together they followed “crazy” practices like rotating crops, terracing and banning commercial fertilizer. They also began to plan their dream home, a 15,000 sq. ft. stone residence that could hold their massive library. They called it “Wolf House.” Jack continued to write to finance the effort.
The farm itself was an economic failure. Not the farming part–it would prove to be on the ecological cutting edge of the future. Some would say Jack London was ahead of this time. Others would say the cause was a combination of poor management and Jack’s alcoholism. He was absent six months of every year (1910-1916) and his workers lacked respect for their employer; they called Beauty Ranch “a rich man’s hobby.”
The end is sad. Wolf House burned down two weeks before the Londons were supposed to move in. His spirit broken, Jack London died on the porch of his cottage on November 22, 1916. Age 40. Debate continues whether the cause was suicide. At the time of his death, he’d published 46 fiction and non-fiction works. Five more would come out posthumously.
Charmian said, “He was really far more interested in introducing better farming in Sonoma County and the country at large than he was in leaving behind masterpieces of literature.”
His best works were always about conquering challenges. They’re about survival of the fittest. In his writing, there is no place for cowardice. Did he beat the odds? Was he strong? Or did he see himself as weak? You’ll have to decide for yourself. A visit to his home may persuade you…
Allow 2-3 hours to visit the Cottage, Wolf House remains, London’s grave, the House of Happy Walls Museum…and to walk some of the 29 miles of trails. Bring a picnic. During the summer, the “Broadway Under the Stars” series is held in the old winery.
Jack London State Historic Park
Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California
Open every day: 9:30 am – 5 pm
$10 vehicle fee
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