Jack London didn’t “invent” Sonoma County. However, he chose it as the only permanent home he ever had, which suggests that he was a factor in establishing its place in the wider world.
So, how did he find this place and what kept him coming back?
First, he came as a tourist.
Sonoma County had been “discovered” by the last half of the 19th century. The new railroads of the 1870s and ’80s brought Bay Area visitors to the natural wonder of the Geysers, many hot springs and the resorts along the Russian River and throughout the Sonoma Valley.
London’s first visit was to Camp Reverie, a summer-long gathering of Bay Area intellectuals located on the Russian River near Mirabel. Jack was invited to lecture there in 1901 and spent nearly a month at the camp with his wife, Bessie, and their first-born, Joan.
He returned to the Russian River three years later with his poet friend George Sterling as a Bohemian Grove camper. The Bohemian encampment was still purely an artists’ and writers’ club in those years, although patrons of the arts were beginning to join in. The San Francisco club members had been spending two weeks each summer at their spectacular redwood grove near Monte Rio since the 1880s.
But the resort that provided London with his first strong link to Sonoma County was Wake Robin Lodge in Glen Ellen. Ninetta Eames published Jack’s work in her magazine, Overland Monthly, and acted as his agent, and when she established a summer home on Warm Springs Road in Glen Ellen, she also built some cabins for rent.
In the summer of 1903, Jack was writing “The Sea Wolf.” Fond of working outdoors in good weather, he came with Bessie and his two daughters, Joan and baby Becky, to spend the summer at Wake Robin.
It turned out to be a fateful summer. Jack fell in love with the Valley of the Moon and with Charmian Kittredge, Eames’ niece, who was also spending the summer there.
The next year Jack returned to Wake Robin without his family. After a highly publicized divorce, he and Charmian were married.
London also was drawn to the county by a new and vital interest in the agricultural resources pioneer settlers wrote home about, describing valleys where wild grasses grew taller than a horse and “February was as lovely as May.”
London wasn’t seeking a summer retreat. The land itself attracted him. Most Sonoma County residents were farmers at the turn of the 20th century, with more than 3,000 small farms averaging 240 acres each. And, as the saying goes, they were living in tall clover.
As a man who loved a challenge, he found the prospects of what could be grown and nurtured on such fertile land irresistible. In 1905, he bought the Hill Ranch for $7,000, the first of seven properties that would eventually make up his Beauty Ranch.
He had plans for a ranch community for his workers, including a store and a school. He took great delight in trying new ideas, however expensive. His joy at what he could attempt with the money he was making seems almost childlike.
Between 1905 and 1916, he was enjoying phenomenal success, becoming the first American to make a million dollars writing. He plowed those dollars into his Beauty Ranch — his ill-fated Wolf House, the Pig Palace, the silos, the irrigation dam and lake, the futuristic waste disposal system and converting the old stone Sherry Barn from the Kohler & Froehling Winery into a stable for the Shire horses he and Charmian bred.
Inspiration from the Valley of the Moon
Jack London, at 29 and already world-wise and travel-worn, found the home he had been searching for. His Glen Ellen Beauty Ranch was a metaphor for rebirth. His feelings for the region flowed from his pen.
In a letter to his publisher, extolling his new life as a farmer, he wrote: “I am building, constructing, making the dead soil live again... I see my farm in terms of the world and the world in terms of my farm.”
His rejection of urban life, his grasp for the salvation he saw in the land, was under way even before he began to assemble his ranch properties.
In “The Golden Poppy,” published in 1904, he wrote, “I have discovered that the relation of city folk to country flowers is quite analogous to that of a starving man to food.”
He never got over the wonder of it all.
On the flyleaf of a story collection, he wrote to his sister, Eliza Shepard, “Say, isn’t it a fine as well as a funny thing that these yarns herein can be transmitted by you and me into horses and cows and pigs and fecund soil?”
Nor did he ever doubt the rural area’s redemptive powers.
Burning Daylight, title hero of his 1910 novel, “took off his hat, with almost a vague religious feeling. ... The atmosphere was one of holy calm. Here man felt the prompting of nobler things.”
Three years later, London’s epic “The Valley of the Moon, paid tribute: “It stretches ahead — dotted with farm houses, varied by pasture land, hayfields and vineyards; when I look out over it all, it kind of makes me ache in the throat with things in my heart I can’t find the words to say.”
In Eliza’s copy, he wrote: “Dearest Sister Eliza, We know where lies the Valley of the Moon, you and I. And the Valley of the Moon, in our small way, yours and mine, will be a better valley for our having been ...”
— Gaye Lebaron
Special Section: Jack London Centennial