Thank you, Eliza Shepard!
By Elisa Stancil Levine
Glen Ellen would not be the same without the tenacity, faith, and quiet strength of one woman, Eliza Shepard. Visitors to Jack London State Historic Park glean some knowledge of her role as ranch manager beginning in 1910 and continuing until her death in 1939. But there is much more to her story.
Eliza and her sister Ida were living in an orphanage after their mother’s death, until her father, John London, married Jack London’s mother Flora when Jack was eight months old. When Eliza was sixteen she married Captain James Shepard, a much older man, and joined Shepard and Company. Eliza became a bonus lawyer, representing Civil War veterans seeking compensation for war injuries.
They had one son, Irving. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake Eliza was appointed by the governor of California to coordinate San Francisco relief efforts of the Red Cross and Salvation Army for women and children. Organized, diligent and caring, she had many skills that would become key to the success of Beauty Ranch. In 1910 Eliza and Irving arrived in Glen Ellen and she managed the crop cultivation bookkeeping and oversaw fifty ranch hands for Jack London.
In 1911, as Jack’s personal lawyer, Eliza negotiated the purchase of Kohler and Frohling Winery, the parcel that today includes the cottage, the winery ruins, and several stone buildings. She oversaw the building of the stone stallion barn and manure pit, the construction of the dam, bathhouse, and lake, and the monumental construction project, the building of the Wolf House. Jack and Charmian traveled extensively during this time, and letters and telegrams from Eliza reflect her attention to detail, including selecting prime breeding stock and Shire horses. In 1913 Eliza’s aging husband arrived at the ranch brandishing a gun, claiming Jack London had stolen his wife. The scuffle that ensued was reported in newspapers nationally. After a short court battle Eliza obtained a divorce and she and Irving remained at the ranch. Eliza and Charmian, two strong women with unique skills, made it possible for Jack to focus on writing, earning money from lectures, and his entrepreneurial ideas. During her tenure as ranch manager, which continued after London’s death, Eliza worked to improve the community, helping establish a home for unwed mothers across the valley, distributing turkeys at holidays, and arranging for struggling families to glean from ranch orchards and vineyards each season.
In 1926 Eliza was elected national president of the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Legion. She lived for a year in Washington, D.C, where she also participated in the Women’s Labor Congress. In 1927 she traveled to London and Paris in this role. Letters to Charmian mention ranch concerns but also reveal how much she enjoyed her travels. Irving helped manage ranch affairs during her long absence. While living in Washington she dated Cordell Hull, former secretary of state and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her commitment to veterans and to the welfare of women and children continued throughout her life. When Eliza died she was heralded as a distinguished, patriotic woman with a merry laugh and a generous heart. Newspapers across the country acknowledge her contribution to veterans’ rights. Hundreds attended her funeral in Sonoma in 1939. Her ashes were placed near Jack London’s, not far from the Wolf House ruins. Her son Irving and his wife Muriel had four children. The Shepard family continued the work of Eliza, managing to keep the 1,400 acres of Beauty Ranch intact through difficult financial times. In addition, the legacy of London’s writing was maintained and furthered by efforts of Irving and his son, Milo.
The park we all enjoy would not be possible without the love and strength of this remarkable woman and her descendants. Thank you, Eliza Shepard! Elisa Stancil Levine is the author of Jack London State Historic Park.
The book is available for purchase at the Cottage and the House of Happy Walls, as well as on Amazon. All proceeds of the book benefit the park.