Jack London: for love of the land
By Lynn Downey
Charmian London (right) with one of the Shire horses in front of the cottage at Beauty Ranch, around 1914. Courtesy of the Jack London Collection, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
When Jack London decided to do something, he threw all of himself into it. From the time he was a young man, he was drawn to the water. He shipped aboard the Sophia Sutherland as a seal hunter, and spent some time as an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay. In 1907 he and wife Charmian set off from Oakland in their ketch called the Snark, and they also owned a sailboat called Roamer, which took them on happy trips into the Sacramento Delta.
In 1905, after Jack bought his first plot of land on what would eventually become his “Beauty Ranch” in the Sonoma Valley, he took his first steps into the next phase of his life as a rancher and farmer. He would devote as much time and affection to the land as he had to the sea or to his writing. As Lou Leal explained in his article, “Jack London and his Beauty Ranch,” Jack used techniques he had observed in Asia to revive the depleted soil on his property. He became what we today call a scientific or sustainable farmer, and he was very much ahead of his time.
But agriculture was not his only interest. He and Charmian loved animals, and kept a variety of pet dogs and domestic livestock at the ranch (a favorite terrier was named Possum). Visitors today marvel over the “Pig Palace,” a sort of circular condo complex for pigs, in which each animal had its own quarters or suite. These were built around a tall feeder with a central valve that fed food and water into the individual pens. This kept the pigs in more sanitary conditions and greatly reduced diseases. One visitor to the ranch during Jack's lifetime said it was “a model of solidity, service, and sanitation.”
Jack read avidly in farm and ranching magazines, especially the Pacific Rural Press, published in San Francisco. In 1911 he sent a letter to the magazine's editor, which was printed in the October 14 edition:
A wail of woe! Where under the sun can I buy a thoroughbred Jersey cow? I have answered the advertisements in your columns, and all the offerings I get in reply to my letters are bulls, bulls, bulls. I haven't learned the art of milking a bull. What I want is a thoroughbred Jersey cow. Can you give me any clew for obtaining of same?
The editor printed a response to his letter just underneath it: “Surely some generous reader will let go a cow at Mr. London.”
Jack and Charmian traveled around California looking for the best cattle, and by 1916 animals from the Beauty Ranch were winning prizes at county fairs.
Pigs and cows were fine, but the Londons loved horses especially. Charmian was a skilled and fearless rider, having grown up riding over the Berkeley hills. She scandalized her relatives and neighbors by riding astride, instead of the more ladylike sidesaddle. Jack had to practice to keep up with Charmian, and they spent many enjoyable hours on horseback taking in the views on their ranch. Jack also thought horses were better than machinery for doing the heavy labor around the property, and bought Shires to do the draft work. He and Charmian had a one-ton Shire named Neuadd Hillside, whom they nicknamed The Great Gentleman.
In 1913, three years before his death, Jack wrote a book about idyllic life in Sonoma called The Valley of the Moon. His Beauty Ranch continued to enthrall him until his very last days. Even as he weakened near the end of his life, Jack kept up with the ranch chores and in mid-November, 1916, he posed for a movie crew who came to the ranch. He drove a team of horses and showed off the Pig Palace, smiling and holding an armful of piglets.
To the world, Jack London was a great writer and adventurer. To the residents of the Sonoma Valley, he was a neighbor and a respected fellow farmer. Those of us who live in the Valley of the Moon today remember him for all of these things, and for leaving us his Beauty Ranch to enjoy as he did.
Lynn Downey is a much-published historian of the West and is a fifth-generation resident of Sonoma. Her latest book is A Short History of Sonoma.
This is one in a series of columns celebrating Jack London's Centennial. To find out how you can discover your own call of the wild, visit www.jacklondonpark.com.