Jack London lives on: author's works are housed in museum at California ranch.
Born in 1876 in San Francisco, London fought his way out of Oakland ghettos to roam the world. He had been a newsboy, oyster pirate, merchant mariner, railroad tramp, Socialist and Klondike gold seeker before he sold his first story at 22. Eight years later he was America's highest paid, most popular novelist and short story writer of the day.
The ranch is now the Jack London State Historic Park and museum, and it provides an immersion experience into the life and work of this man who epitomized the grit and machismo of pre-World War I America. London left a literary legacy that is a testament to his determination "to create things that live and breathe and grip men, and cause reading lamps to burn overtime."
Friends said London "brought a group sharply to life (and, had) an electric quality that sent a current through people." He married Charmian Kittredge in 1905, his second marriage, and the couple settled on the ranch. It was, their home until London's death in 1916.
The park is open to hikers and horseback riders. A half-mile trail walk leads to the 5-acre Lake London, created as a reservoir and used for swimming parties. Both hiking and horseback riding trails extend up the 2,300-foot summit of Sonoma Mountain. At the end of a 3-mile climb, visitors are treated to a panoramic view of the valley.
A trail from the park's parking lot leads to the sturdy stone farm buildings that represent London's ventures in innovative agriculture. The barns retain an odor of hay and horses. They were home to London's purebred English Shire horses that did not prove practical because their hairy forelegs hampered footing in the wet clay of winter. Here also is the beguiling "Pig Palace," an elegant circular piggery designed by London to save labor, which features individual concrete enclosures for each pig family. Unfortunately the cold cement flooring caused the pigs to die of pneumonia. One of London's editors, hearing of this, commented that it's all right for a writer to own a farm providing he doesn't try 'to farm it.
On a knoll above the barns is the wood-framed house, enlarged by the Londons until it included some 3,000 square feet. They lived in the house for 11 years, and the kitchen and dining room wing seem only momentarily still after the hub-bub of the frequent large dinner gatherings that took place there. The sun-filled room on the west side was where London wrote many of his later stories and novels.
A nearby rambling fieldstone mansion was built by Charmian London in 1919 and named the House of Happy Walls. When she died in 1955 at the age of 84, her will directed that the house be used as a memorial to her husband and a museum housing the photographs and exhibits about his life and work.
Though he never set foot in this wood-beamed mansion, London is a presence from the moment a visitor enters its vestibule. A bust of the writer, sculpted by his friend Finn Frolick, is found on the mantle over a huge stone fireplace in the reception room. Filmed footage of the author is shown to visitors. In the black and white film, which was taken six days before his death, he can be seen driving a manure spreader, feeding the pigs and brushing his horse. In the bust and the film, as well as the numerous framed photos displayed, visitors can see why a reporter, in 1903, described London as "unconventional, responsive and genuine, with a warmth of hospitality which places the visitor on the immediate footing of a friend ... boyish, noble and lovable, made up of qualities that reach straight for the heart."
In the house are the first editions of London's works--more than 50 books, innumerable short stories and essays--and an assortment of letters, documents and clippings tracing his development as a writer and the struggles' to stay afloat financially. Though his writings brought as much as $50,000 annually in his peak years, he was always in debt and under enormous financial pressure since he was generous to a fault with friends, spent hugely on ranch projects, and supported his mother's and his former wife's households.
A collection of rejection notices, including London's first from the Saturday Evening Post in 1901, are on display. The note from the Post turned him down because of the magazine's policy to exclude the tragic from it pages. There is a display of mementoes and reports from London's stint as a war correspondent in Korea during the Russo-Japanese War and in Mexico with the Vera Cruz Expedition in 1914. Here also-is his well-worn Kodak camera and many of the photos he took using it. His study from the cottage is fully replicated in the museum with the low-tech writer's tools of the day--Dictaphones, diminutive typewriter, gramophone, world globe anti a pine roll-top desk. On the walls are enlarged prints of the original illustrations for some of his books, including "The Call of the Wild," "The Sea Wolf," "White Fang," and "Burning Daylight."
Religiously producing a minimum of 1,000 words each day, London often stayed at his typewriter for 19 hours with few breaks, getting along on five hours sleep a night.
If the House of Happy Walls preserves, the life force of London, the massive skeleton of Wolf House half a mile away, stands as a monument to shattered dreams. The ultimate writer's castle, the house was built of lava stone, unpeeled redwood logs and Spanish tile.
"My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years," London wrote.
It had 26 rooms, an interior courtyard with a reflection pool, a fireproof vault for manuscripts and a space designated as a sleeping tower for the author.
Shortly before they were to move in, the house was destroyed by fire.
London spoke only twice as he watched the building burn: "I would rather be the man whose house was burned than the one who burned it." Then, "Tomorrow we will rebuild." But he never did.
Today the ruins of Wolf House stand, smoke-blackened with towering chimneys jutting into the sky and heavy stone walls braced with steel. Nearby is the fenced grave site where London's ashes, according to his wish, were buried beneath "a boulder from the ruins of the Big House." This tombstone, described by London's friend George Sterling, is "a great block of red lava long pitted by time and enriched by the moss of uncounted years."
RELATED ARTICLE: A plaque at Beauty Ranch reads:
Jack London Ranch
Jack London, noted writer, traveler and lecturer, occuiped these premises from 1905 to 1916. Born San Francisco, January 12, 1876 Died here November 22, 1916.
"The Valley of the Moon" One of his best known books is descriptive of this valley Tablet erected by the Historic Landmarks Committee
Native Sons of the Golden West June 1948
For more information, write Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442, or call 1 (707) 938-5216.