From Vallejo to London to Benziger
In 1887, Carleton Watkins photographed Joshua Chauvet's Glen Ellen winery and vineyard. The building to the right is till part of today's Jack London Village.
Sonoma Valley Historical Society
In the beginning, in the early 1840s, there was just a sawmill built for Gen. Mariano Vallejo on the creek 10 miles north of Sonoma. The little village of Glen Ellen was originally named for Ellen, the wife of Col. Charles V. Stewart who planted Glen Ellen Vineyards in the lush vale in 1860.
In 1853, French immigrant Joshua Chauvet bought 500 acres and the mill from Vallejo. He added a grist mill, at what is now called Jack London Village, powered by the stream's flow over a large water wheel, at a cost of $14,000. He also planted a vineyard on the hill to the west, and began making wine as early as 1875. He also ordered a brandy still shipped around the Horn from France. The still would remain in production for almost a century. By 1888, Chauvet was annually producing 175,000 gallons of wine and 8,000 gallons of brandy.
Even before statehood in 1850, Dunbar School was built in Glen Ellen, and when the state public schools act was enacted in 1857, Dunbar became the first public school in Sonoma Valley.
Near the junction of Dunbar Road and the stage trail to Santa Rosa (now Highway 12), retired sea Capt. Charles Justi bought ranch lands from General Vallejo and built a tavern and inn in the late 1860s to serve travelers. By 1870, daily stages bounced along the road between Sonoma and Santa Rosa, and in 1872, the federal government appointed the Justi Inn as the post office, with the name Glen Ellen. Therefore, Stewart changed the name of his home place to Glen Oaks.
Railroad promoter Peter Donahue, who had completed his narrow gauge rail line to downtown Sonoma in 1880, extended the rails to Glen Ellen in August 1882. This stimulated the growth of facilities and sales of lots and cabins to tourists and weekenders who could reach the community in half a day from San Francisco, via ferry and then by rail. Originally, the ferry docked at Sonoma Landing at the mouth of Petaluma Creek (now Petaluma River) where passengers boarded the train. In 1890 the Donahue railroad was converted to broad gauge and switched the railhead to Tiburon in Marin County.
Among the dozen hotels that cropped up in Glen Ellen were the Mervyn, the Riverside, Gordenker's, Waldrube and Roma. In 1883, young Charles G. Poppe, son of a prominent Sonoma family, opened a general store, selling "Dry Goods, Groceries and General Merchandise," and thus created the core of a business section. Wells Fargo, originally a shipping and stagecoach company, opened an agency office the same year. A cabin could be purchased for $300, and platforms for tents were built for families to spend a bucolic vacation. Poppe served as Glen Ellen postmaster between 1890 and 1916, and a quarter of a century on the school board.
As a vacation destination, Glen Ellen got a further boost when a second railroad came chugging through the community in 1888 on its way to Santa Rosa. This Santa Rosa and Carquinez Railroad Company was funded by railroad mogul Charles Crocker, of the "Big Four," who arranged for it to connect with the transcontinental Southern Pacific from a junction near Napa, linking Glen Ellen to the national railroads.
Adding a touch of spice to the area was the purchase in approximately 1900, by ex-slave Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant - the richest African-American woman in California - of what is now the Beltane Ranch on Highway 12. Through shrewd real estate investments Mrs. Pleasant had turned her inheritance from her late husband into a multi-million dollar fortune and was thus in a position to become a fearless advocate, first of abolition, then of civil rights and equal advantages for women. Denigrated by the San Francisco press as a "Voodoo Queen" and ex-madam, she was an intriguing personality who attracted fascinating guests from the Bay Area to weekend parties at her ranch.
Glen Ellen continued to flourish as a tourist destination and increasingly attracted permanent residents as well as visitors staying in vacation homes. By 1900, there were eight saloons in Glen Ellen, including Pancrazzi's, The Pioneer, Monahan's, Sobbe's, Thierkoff's, a bar in the Mervyn Hotel and one above the slaughter house. Wine cost a whopping 30 cents a gallon. The need for policing was such that in 1901, the residents asked the county that Glen Ellen be named a township so they would be eligible to hire a constable to keep law and order, but to no avail.
On the sober side, the Congregational Church was meeting at the Native Sons Hall. In 1906 and 1907, old Joshua Chauvet and his son, Henry, built the Hotel Chauvet, beautifully renovated recently after years of decrepit non-use. The Chauvets also made two other brick buildings at their Glen Ellen brickyard, founded in the 1880s.
The year 1904 had been a mixed bag for Oakland native Jack London, America's best-selling young author. His marriage was over, and he had begun an affair with his secretary-typist Charmian Kittredge. After his skyrocketing literary success with books and stories drawing on his experiences as a boater around the bay and the hardship of his fruitless Yukon Gold Rush adventure, he followed in 1904 with his dramatic classic, "The Sea Wolf." It was based on a real villain, the brute Capt. Alex McLean, known to have avoided arrest by throwing overboard Chinese men he was smuggling into the United States.
Charmian's aunt and uncle, Ninetta and Rosco Eames, owned a little house in Glen Ellen, called Wake Robin, where London and Charmian often stayed and worked. Mrs. Eames was editor and publisher of a popular magazine, the Overland Monthly, that had published one of Jack's stories as early as January 1899. With a part of his advance on royalties for Sea Wolf, London purchased 130 acres which became the initial portion of his 1,300-acre Beauty Ranch in the western slopes of Glen Ellen. The day after his divorce was final, he married Charmian on Nov. 19, 1905.
In February 1906, London, an advocate of scientific agriculture, began developing Beauty Ranch with advice from famed horticulturist Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa. Starting in 1911, London spent time with an architect and construction contractors planning Wolf House, his stone dream mansion.
Two years later, London made Glen Ellen internationally famous with publication of his latest novel, "Valley of the Moon," in which he described the area as heaven on earth. Wolf House was near completion, leaving only painting remaining. On the warm night of Aug. 22, 1913, a pile of paint-drenched rags spontaneously combusted, set the house on fire and destroyed the work of two years. The remains still stand today.
An appendectomy revealed that London's kidneys were deteriorating despite his macho image. On the evening of Nov. 22, 1916, Jack London died of uremia and a system weakened by chain smoking, too much drinking, tropical diseases and his habit of trying quack remedies like self-administered mercury. He was only 40 years old. His grave is in Jack London Historic State Park.
The permanent Glen Ellen population reached 400 in 1916. That year an auditorium was constructed which showed the new-fangled movies twice a week. The advent of national Prohibition in 1920 through 1933, was a sharp blow to tourism, but Glen Ellen "speakeasy" proprietors used their wits. For example, Henry Buck disguised his tavern as an ice cream shop with sliding panels behind the soda fountain.
Glen Ellen had its juvenile delinquints. When a few students stuffed sacks in the chimney of Dunbar School in 1928, intending to smoke out students and teachers, the prank went wrong, burning the school to the ground.
By the entry of the United States in World War II in 1941, the railroads had fallen into decline as a source of overnight guests at resorts, replaced by the automobile age. Even that was curtailed by wartime gas rationing. The last rail line north of Sonoma was abandoned in 1942, further isolating Glen Ellen. After the war improved highways and new eating and drinking places like the London Lodge, added to the allure of the picturesque village. The establishment of the Jack London Historic State Park in 1960 at the direction of his widow, Charmian, encompasses much of the old "Beauty Ranch" and continues to draw visitors.
Jack London's literary heritage was carried on by the late-in-life newcomers MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, famed for her stylish volumes on the joys of food and travel ("Serve It Forth," "How to Cook a Wolf") and Albert Kahn, best-selling author of exposés of government secrets like "Sabotage!" and "The Great Conspiracy." The ambience of Glen Ellen also inspired several local writers and poets.
The arrival of Bruno and Helen Benziger and their seven children marked a new beginning of viticulture in the area. Son, Mike Benziger, founded Glen Ellen Winery which gained national prominence before the sale of the label. They soon followed with the Benziger Family Winery and its Viticulture Discovery Center.
Over the years, Glen Ellen and its people - recent arrivals and old timers - have developed a rich sense of community identity and spirit, as reflected in the charming homegrown Glen Ellen Village Fair this weekend.