By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This post is an updated chapter for the next release of my book Northern California History Weekends.)
The title for this chapter in the book is
The Socialist as Literary Entrepreneur: Jack London’s Valley of the Moon
In Brief: One of the most widely read fiction writers from Northern California, Jack London, achieved fame with his Arctic tales, most notably Call of the Wild (1903). He also wrote gritty reports about growing up in Oakland, such as his 1909 novel Martin Eden. During that period London built a retreat (Wolf House) in an area of Sonoma that he called The Valley of the Moon. That area is now a state historic park named after him.
The Historic Story: Tragedy dogged Jack London’s life, ultimately ending it far too early. One of the tragedies was the accidental burning of his handsome Wolf House in Glen Ellen in 1913. London lived in Glen Ellen from 1905 until his death in 1916.
A visitor today can ponder the stone ruins and London’s gravesite. At the Visitor Center, artifacts tell the story of bootstrapping London, who worked his way up from a kid robbing oyster beds in Oakland to becoming a literary author with international fame. The Visitor Center was built by London’s widow, Charmian, who lived here and called it the House of Happy Walls until her death in 1955. Today the Visitor Center functions as a museum for mementos of London’s Alaska and South Seas adventures. Appreciators of London can also see book editions of his works.
Aspiring authors can peruse some of the 600 rejection slips that London received before he became famous with the publication of Call of the Wild. After that, editors were tripping over themselves to get him to contribute something, just anything, to their periodicals.
The most poignant artifact of all is a 1916 newsreel taken of this gifted and relatively young man a few days before his death. London died at age 40 of kidney failure, partly induced by his alcoholic excesses.
For London, the Valley of the Moon was a retreat. “When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down on some of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California,” he wrote.
London was a paradoxical man with many sensibilities. His man-against-the-elements tales brought him fame. He was an entrepreneur, but also a socialist. He is famous for the life statement, “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.”
Jack London State Historic Park now comprises 800 acres and has ample hiking trails for the traveler who wants to enjoy the rolling oak-and-grassland hill country that is a signature of Northern California geography. The current park is part of the author’s original 1,500-acre ranch, which he called Beauty Ranch.
In his final years the energetic London was an active agricultural experimenter, building an elaborate barn for his stallions and a “pig palace” for his efforts in pig breeding. So it is fitting in the current vineyard emphasis of land use in Sonoma to explore a major agricultural experiment near the Jack London Park.
The winery doing revolutionary “biodynamic” farming on a large commercial scale is the Benziger Family Winery (1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen; 707/935-3000; www.benziger.com/verify). The Benziger property provides an engaging tractor-trailer ride with narration through their property, showing the techniques of pest management and soil amendment that are “organic.” For example, predatory insect populations are enhanced to combat aphids. The organic debris from vine trimming is ground up and composted as a soil conditioner. Fruit successfully grown without pesticides and herbicides commands a higher price in these health-conscious times. After the tour, you receive a tasting of Benziger wine.
Getting There: Drive north from the Bay Area on either Highway 101 or I-880. Take the smaller Highways 116 or 121 until you reach the juncture with Highway 12, then drive north on Highway 12 into Sonoma and beyond to Glen Ellen. Jack London State Historic Park is in Glen Ellen.
Be Sure to See: Make your first stop the Jack London State Historic Park. Afterward, if you have time, visit the nearby Benziger Winery.
Best Time of Year: Any time of the year is good. Spring is particularly inviting because the cool grasslands display an abundance of wildflowers.
Lodging: The Gaige House Inn is a contemporary B&B for travelers who like stylish furniture with an Asian flair rather than teddy bears. The accommodation features sleek furniture, hearty breakfasts, a spa, and an outdoor pool. The Gaige House Inn is at 13540 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 707/935-0237 or 800/935-0237; www.gaige.com.
Dining: The Glen Ellen Inn Oyster Grill and Martini Bar specializes in steaks, fresh seafood, hand-cut pastas, house-made breads, and locally grown produce. Try the house-made ice cream for dessert. The Glen Ellen Inn is at 13670 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 707/996-6409; www.glenelleninn.com.
For Further Information: The Jack London State Historic Park is in Glen Ellen at 2400 London Ranch Rd.; 707/938-5216; www.jacklondonpark.com.
The overall visitor resource is Sonoma County Tourism (400 Aviation Blvd., Ste. 500, Santa Rosa; 707/522-5800 or 800/576-6662; www.sonomacounty.com).