Jack London, Luther Burbank united over farming

Luther Burbank welcomed Jack and Charmian London to his Santa Rosa home several times. During this visit, it's likely that Jack photographed Charmian with Burbank, right, and astronomer Edgar Lucien Larkin. (California State Parks, 2016)


Jack London and Luther Burbank were very different sorts. Burbank was, by most accounts, a gentle soul. This was not the ordinary citizen’s description of London.

The late Beth Winter, a lifelong resident of Rincon Valley, was a child on her father’s prune ranch when Jack would drive by on his way to Santa Rosa. She remembered that “he would be standing up in his buckboard, wearing that ranger hat and whipping his horses. Sometimes hollering, if he had been at some of the several ‘stopping places’ between Glen Ellen and Santa Rosa.”

Wallace Ware, another native Santa Rosan, recalled that London drove “a colorful tally-ho … with four black horses prancing” and gathered crowds as he passed by.

Burbank, on the other hand, was anything but an imposing figure. He disliked travel, preferring to stay close to home. And, although his fellow citizens used him shamelessly to “put Santa Rosa and Sonoma County on the map,” he often became quietly impatient about visitors dragging him away from his planting beds to be photographed with every visiting celebrity and public occasion.

While Jack waved his hat at the crowds, Luther made it clear he did not enjoy the fuss, even posting signs to keep strangers from wandering into his gardens.

But he welcomed London and Charmian on several occasions.

Their friendship began with London’s interest in becoming a good farmer. He wrote to Burbank in 1908, seeking suggestions about what to grow on Beauty Ranch and asking for a “tip as to any kinds of exceptionally good fruits and grapes for me to plant.”

Burbank responded in detail, listing several varieties. Only two were his own creations — the Climax and Wickson plums.

London, in turn, was supportive of Burbank’s experiments. He was one of few ranchers who planted Burbank’s spineless cactus, which was more of a curiosity than a success, intended as cattle feed.

Jack and Charmian visited the Santa Rosa garden at least twice. In 1906, they came with a well-known astronomer, Edgar Lucien Larkin, and Charmian is thought to have taken an oft-reproduced photo of the three men.

Jack must have had a camera as well, for Burbank’s young aide wrote in her journal, “Mr. London took all our pictures while he stood out in the garden. I am quite proud to think my picture is among those in Jack London’s collection.”

After that, London sent Burbank a first edition of “White Fang” inscribed: “In memory of that last invigorating intellectual hour spent with you.”

The guest book in the archive at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens records another visit from Jack and Charmian in the summer of 1910. In his entry, Jack wrote, “I would rather do what you are doing than be Roosevelt, Rockefeller, King Edward and the Kaiser rolled into one.”

At London’s death, Burbank and his wife, Elizabeth, expressed their condolences, and Charmian acknowledged them in a note saying, “It is good to hear from friends like you — friends to whom Jack gave so enormous a place in his intellectual estimate, as he did with you.”