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Why Jack London made Sonoma County his home

Charmian London is believed to have taken this iconic photo of Jack on horseback at their ranch, overlooking the Sonoma Valley. (California State Parks, 2016)

GAYE LEBARON,

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.

The third reason might be termed political. He had a Jeffersonian view of the land. He believed — or wanted to believe — in the redemptive qualities of the rural life. It’s clear from his writings that he shared Jefferson’s belief that an agrarian economy and rural society were part and parcel to what scholars today might term “self-actualization.”

The power of the individual was another favorite London theme. His rejection of urban life, his grasp for the salvation he saw in the land, took hold immediately. Once he found some solace in the forests and hills of Sonoma — first at Camp Reverie and Wake Robin and finally at his Beauty Ranch — he developed that theme again and again in his writing.

Modern scholars and poets spend adjectives liberally on “sense of place.” Jack London’s descriptions of natural surroundings, whether in Alaska or on Sonoma Mountain, make it clear that the place makes all the difference in the man, the woman and even the animals.

So, while he didn’t invent Sonoma County as a tourist destination, a fertile field for agriculture of all kinds or a healing place for urbanites seeking a return to the land, he can be considered the first and most persuasive voice translating the larger California myth into the Sonoma County “mystique.”