In Glen Ellen, a Pig Palace, a Wolf House,
and other wonders

Daniella Thompson

Jack London’s cottage at Beauty Ranch (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2011)

23 June 2009

The hamlet of Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon, numbers fewer than a thousand inhabitants. In compensation, it is rich in scenic beauty and historic interest. Not the least interesting local resident was Jack London (1876–1916), who first bought land here in 1905. In those days, London was America’s best-known and most highly paid writer. His discovery of Glen Ellen came about through a Berkeley connection.

Jack London (San Francisco Call, 29 June 1904)


In 1898, the yet unpublished writer returned from the Klondike with a sheaf of stories. The first one he managed to sell was “To the Man on the Trail: A Klondike Christmas,” which appeared in the Overland Monthly in January 1899.

The Overland Monthly’s business manager was Roscoe Lorenzo Eames, a shorthand teacher and the author of Text-Book of Light-Line Short-Hand. His wife, the journalist Ninetta Wiley Eames, was acting as the magazine’s editor. The couple resided at 2147 Parker Street, on the corner of Fulton. Living with them was Ninetta’s orphaned niece, Charmian Kittredge (1871–1955), who had learned her uncle’s shorthand method and was earning her living as a stenographer.

Although eight of Jack London’s stories appeared in the pages of the prestigious, albeit impecunious, magazine during 1899, Ninetta Eames did not meet the writer until the following year. Charmian had read none of his stories by the time she accompanied her aunt to lunch with the young author. The latter, in a letter dated 10 March 1900, wrote to his friend Cloudesley Johns: “Have made the acquaintance of Charmian Kittredge, a charming girl who writes book reviews, and who possesses a pretty little library wherein I have found all these late books which the public libraries are afraid to have circulated.”

Ninetta Wiley Eames by Arnold Genthe (San Francisco Call, 12 Nov. 1910)

Less than a month later, Jack married his former mathematics tutor, Bess Maddern. Two daughters were born to them in quick succession. In May 1903, Jack made his first visit to Glen Ellen, camping on the grounds of Ninetta Eames’ country house, Wake Robin Lodge. Charmian described that summer in The Book of Jack London (1921): “Here a congenial company of acquaintances met in the summers, making merry in the incomparable woods bordering Graham and Sonoma Creeks, swimming in the pools, tramping, boxing, fencing, kiting, and gathering about the campfire at dusk for discussion and reading.”

It was here, at a rustic table by the creek, that Jack London wrote his novel The Sea Wolf. Returning from Glen Ellen, the Londons separated. A year later, following their divorce, Jack spent a week at Wake Robin Lodge, and “his regard for the beautiful mountainside had only extended,” wrote Charmian.

Jack and Charmian at Wake Robin Lodge (California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

By the following summer, he had committed himself to both Charmian and Glen Ellen. In June 1905, he purchased the Hill Ranch for $7,000. “There are 130 acres in the place” he wrote, “and they are 130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California. There are great redwoods on it, some of them thousands of years old [...] In fact, the redwoods are as fine and magnificent as any to be found anywhere outside the tourists groves. Also there are great firs, tanbark oaks, maples, live-oaks, white-oaks, black-oaks, madrono and manzanita galore. There are canyons, several streams of water, many springs. [...] The place was a bargain, one of those bargains that a man would be insane to let slip by. The entrance is a half-mile from a small town and two different railway stations. [...] Woodchoppers were already at work when I snapped up the place. It had to be snapped up. Twenty years from now I’ll wager it will be worth twenty times what I am now paying for it.”

On 28 June 1905, the San Francisco Call reported:

Author is Camping on His Farm Near Glen Ellen

SANTA ROSA, June 27.—Hatless, coatless and with shirt-collar open displaying a broad sunburnt chest, Jack London, the writer, rode into Santa Rosa to-day. The object of his coming was ordinary enough—to look up the titles of the property he recently purchased near Glen Ellen in this county. He was accompanied by his reported fiancee, Miss Kettredge [sic] of Glen Ellen, the daughter of a former manager of the Overland Monthly. The young lady, who is a sprightly little demiblonde, was dressed as outre as London himself, wearing a khaki suit with leggings. She was hatless. London is so tanned that his entire appearance is changed. His hair, that was once dark, is now almost yellow.

Speaking of his purchase near the pretty little village of Glen Ellen he said he was “just camping on the farm now.” “Some time,” he said, “I will build a shack to live in.” He is writing short stories for Eastern magazines.

The lava-terraced Beauty Ranch vineyards are now cultivated by the Kenwood winery, which produces the Jack London Series with a wolf’s head label. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2011)

Jack and Charmian were married in November 1905. When not traveling, they made their home at Wake Robin Lodge, where an annex had been built for their use. Charmian described her husband’s activities on the ranch:

Jack, with eye to homebuilding, ordered fruit-trees of all descriptions suitable to the latitude, and seventy-odd varieties of table-grapes—orchard and vineyard to be planted upon an amphitheater behind a half-circle we had chosen for the house-site. Johannes Reimers tendered the benefit of his professional advice about the trees and vines, and ordered for us a hedge of Japanese hawthorne to flourish between orchard and house-space, which in time grew into a glory of orange and red berries alternating with a season of white blossoming. The plot was on the lip of a deep wooded ravine which was the Ranch’s southern boundary, ancient redwood and spruce, lightning-riven and eagle-nested, accenting the less majestic growth. We never wearied of riding Belle and Ban to the spot, in our minds’ eyes the vision of a rugged stone house that was to rise like an indigenous growth from the grassy semi-circle. [...]

Jack and Charmian at Beauty Ranch (California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

Our amusements consisted in exploring, alone or with our guests, the infinite variety of the one hundred and twenty-nine acres of Jack’s “Beauty Ranch”; driving or riding to points in the valley—say Cooper’s Grove, a stately group of redwoods; or to Hooker’s Falls across in the eastern range; or to Santa Rosa, as when we drove Professor Edgar Larkin, of Mt. Lowe Observatory, to call upon Luther Burbank; or to the valley resorts to swim, for a change from Sonoma Creek, in the warm mineral tanks.

Ruins of a barn on the Beauty Ranch following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (The Jack London Online Collection)

The great San Francisco earthquake exposed the machinations of their barn builder:

Our beautiful barn—the shake had disrupted its nearly finished two-foot-thick stone walls, and to our horror revealed that the rascally Italian contractor from Sonoma, despite reasonable overseeing, had succeeded in rearing mere shells of rock, filling in between with debris of the flimsiest. Jack’s face was a study.

The two barns on the right were built for Jack London by a Sonoma contractor. The large barn on the left was left over from the Kohler-Frohling winery. (photo: Roy Tennant)

Even in the midst of plans for their ranch and home, Jack began building the yacht Snark, which he intended to sail around the world. The voyage was intended to last seven years. The Londons left with a small crew in April 1907, bound for Honolulu. Although London was an excellent navigator, Roscoe Eames acted as the Snark’s skipper on the cruise’s first leg. Ninetta was left in charge of the ranch and the Londons’ business affairs. Having arrived in Hawaii, Roscoe abandoned the yacht, returning home by ship, while the Londons continued sailing across the South Pacific. In Australia, Jack’s ill health finally curtailed the cruise. They were forced to sell the boat 27 months into the voyage.

Jack London at Beauty Ranch, 18 Nov. 1916. (California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

Back home, Jack hired his stepsister, Eliza London Shepard, as ranch superintendent. He purchased the Kohler-Frohling winery ranch and set about turning the Beauty Ranch into a model of modern agriculture. In 1910 he wrote, “I am buying seven hundred acres of land that rounds out and connects my present two ranches, giving me miles of frontage on three creeks, and some magnificent mountain land, to say nothing of the timber—real wild country.”

The Londons had been planning their dream home for years. In 1910, they retained the fashionable San Francisco architect Albert Farr to transform Jack’s ideas into blueprints. Charmian described their Wolf House as “not a mansion, but a big cabin, a lofty lodge, a hospitable teepee.” Built with redwood logs and local volcanic rock, the house was arranged around a courtyard with a large reflecting pool in its midst.

Jack and Charmian at Beauty Ranch (California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

“The Bank placed an insurance on the Hill Ranch covering half the amount loaned,” wrote Charmian. “There was no other insurance on the huge purple-red pile, since every one agreed that rock and concrete, massive beams and redwood logs with the bark on, were practically fireproof unless ignited in a dozen places, owing to the quadrangular construction and cement partitions.”

Construction lasted more than two years. On 22 August 1913, a week before they were to occupy Wolf House, it burned down to its rock shell. The insurance reimbursed $10,000, an eighth of the amount they had sunk into the house.

Jack and his hogs in the Pig Palace, a few days before his death in 1916. (California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection)

London never rebuilt Wolf House, but he never stopped improving the ranch. In 1914, he built the first concrete silos in California. In November 1915, a year before his death, the Oakland Tribune reported on the palatial pig pens London had just completed at a cost of several thousand dollars. “Those pigs of mine will be cholera-proof just because I have attended to the sanitation and drainage of the place where they will be kept,” he was quoted as saying.

The circular “Pig Palace” Jack London built for his hogs in 1915. In the center is the feed storage tower. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2011)

The pig palace, the silos, the barns, and the ruins of Wolf House are a few of the many attractions in the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park, established in 1960. Others include the cottage in which the Londons lived and wrote, the House of Happy Walls museum, and the Londons’ grave. Ranch, lake, and scenic mountain trails provide access to much of the property.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 25 June 2009.

Architectural Excursions

Essays & Stories

Copyright © 2009–2014 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.