BJ Blanchard: Notes from Glen Ellen, March 29

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There are good yarns and important history in Glen Ellen, and this narrative is one of them.

Up on Warm Springs Road, hidden behind a beautiful overhang of oak branches and nestled against a field where horses, and then llamas, once grazed, is the cabin of Martin Eden. Eden was a loner who resided in Glen Ellen from the late 1880s to the 1930s, living a solitary life in the one-room cabin under the oak trees.

The interesting thing is that Jack London used Eden’s name as the inspiration for his character “Martin Eden” in the well-known novel of the same name. In the autobiographical tale, London describes how a rough seaman of 1890s working-class Oakland – a dodgy oyster pirate and street fighter – met a refined upper-class young woman. They fall in love, but their class differences are apparent, compelling him to use his flair for writing to lift his financial and social status to gain the hand of this refined beauty he loves. Alas, he is still unable to gain her affections and drowns himself in the sea.

This is a story of Jack London’s life – though not the drowning-in-the-sea part – not that of Glen Ellen’s Martin Eden. One wonders if they were friends? Was permission asked to use the name? Did Eden even know his name was used in this fashion?

It turns out that Martin Eden was born Mårten Edin in the north of Sweden Jan. 1, 1866, in the small village of Granvåg, close to the town of Sollefteå in northern Sweden. His father was a crofter, and Mårten had three siblings. At age 21, he and a pal followed his big brother and in 1887 emigrated to America. They headed for Pine City, Minnesota, but Mårten pushed on westward.

How he finally got out west to the tiny crossroads of Glen Ellen is a mystery. Once in Glen Ellen, he became a hired hand of early settler William “Redwood” Thompson. He applied for American citizenship in 1900, and died May 31, 1943. Eden is buried at Santa Rosa Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Redwood Thompson, according to grand-daughter Peggy Thompson, had left Kentucky and rode horseback all the way out west to California, then homesteaded his Glen Ellen property around 1852. By 1877 he owned over 300 acres along the Sonoma Creek when Eden arrived looking for work.

Sue Thompson, Gordon Thompson’s widow still lives on the rise behind the cabin, remembers tales from her in-laws about how Eden, as an old man, used to tramp down to the creek to bathe.

Glen Pursell, born in 1931, recounted in the “Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen” that Martin Eden “lived right across the road and across the field on the Thompson property (and) worked for the Thompsons and lived in a small cabin, probably 8 by 10, pretty small. I always remember Martin as having a white beard and wearing black rubber boots.

“He’d been around for a long time and showed my father how to pitchfork a steelhead. One night he went out with my father, carrying a lantern, and they went down to the creek in back of George Thompson’s house. Martin stood with the lantern in one hand and a pitchfork in the other, and he got two steelhead swimming in circles, until they got right under the lantern, and then down with the pitchfork. He got one of them. ‘There’s my dinner’ he said to my father.”

Peggy Thompson remembered him “cutting wood, hauling hay and doing very heavy manual labor work. He had immigrated from Sweden and lived in a little one-room cabin on Uncle George (Thompson’s) property. He’d walk up and do a day’s work and walk home… He was a very nice person, too.”

Anita Larkin said, “Martin Eden was a frequent customer, and I remember once he came in, and I gave him change for a five-dollar bill. He came back the following week and informed me that he had only given me a two-dollar bill and returned three dollars; I remember that vividly.”

He lived in this neat little cabin, recently underpinned by caring neighbors, until he died. It’s still there if you look hard enough into the shadows.

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