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Artifacts, removed from Jack London State Park in the face of fires, head back home

A sense of normalcy returned to Jack London State Park on Thursday morning as staff and volunteers moved hundreds of priceless artifacts evacuated in the face of the Nuns fire back to their rightful home inside the cottage at Beauty Ranch.

One by one, workers unloaded them: a leather trunk marked “Mrs. Jack London” — his second wife Charmian’s; a desk chair from London’s study, dark wood with a cane seat; the pink mattress from Charmian’s bedroom; large works of art, which became the illustrations for London’s books; woven straw mats, spears and a wooden club from the couple’s South Sea travels.

Most of the artifacts — the top priority items — were removed the morning of Oct. 9 as the wildfires raged, packed inside a 20-foot U-Haul truck that arrived from Sacramento driven by a California State Parks archaeologist, museum curator Carol Dodge said.

Their destination was the Statewide Museum Collections Center in Sacramento, where they were safely stored alongside irreplaceable objects removed from other state parks sites in the path of October’s infernos.

There is a history of fire at Jack London’s Beauty Ranch; the Wolf House, a 26-room mansion, burned to the ground in 1913 just prior to its completion. Visitors can still see its remains a short walk away from the House of Happy Walls, where Charmian London lived after her husband died in 1916, and which now serves as a museum for the property. Inside the museum, beneath glass, are remnants of the couple’s would-be home: charred wooden beams, roof tiles, some nails. Those, too, were removed as fire threatened the park.

“It’s just, if that’s all that’s left of that particular building, it was poignant to think that we could be doing that again with (remnants) of the other structures, if the fire would have come through,” Dodge said.

But the fire didn’t come through. Instead, it stopped about one-third of a mile from the park’s eastern border, according to Cal Fire maps.

“We didn’t want it to be a legacy of everything the Londons have burns down,” Dodge said. “We were determined, really.”

In a matter of two hours that first Monday morning, parks staff went room by room and cleared out items of importance indicated on a pre-made list, one created in the unlikely event of just such an emergency.

“Dictaphones, his hat, his gloves, things that connect him to working on the land,” Dodge said.

She carries the list on her person at all times.

One thing that didn’t make it out of the cottage during its evacuation was Jack London’s desk. Staff couldn’t get the heavy desk out from behind its barrier. Going forward, Dodge said, she’d like to install a barrier that’s easier to remove.

Items that couldn’t be taken out were covered first in blankets to protect them from smoke and ash, then draped in plastic sheets and tarps, in case the building’s rooftop sprinklers switched on or firefighters became involved in a battle to save the wooden cottage.

Kathy Hillback-Ely and her husband have been volunteers at the park for six years. They were on hand Thursday to make sure the items were all in their right place, that the rooms were arranged just so.

“I felt relieved (the artifacts) were removed, but I’m happy they’re back,” she said. “It’s fun to put it all back, too. It’s special. … It’s really a privilege to be here and to touch their things and to take care of them. Mostly we do a lot of dusting. This is more fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.