I Didn’t Know Jack . . . London

by Bob Sparrow

     When someone would say the name Jack London to me I’d think Call of the Wild, and . . . well, not much else.  Maybe because I am from northern California, I’d think of Jack London Square in Oakland and perhaps have a vague notion of something to do with Jack London up around Sonoma.  I had an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to visit that ‘vague notion’ up around Sonoma, which is Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.  It is truly amazing, as was Mr. London.  What follows for some will be ‘old news’, but there are some, me included, who didn’t know Jack!

     He was born in San Francisco in 1876 to a father who didn’t own up to him and an unwed mother, who shot herself, not fatally, shortly after his birth (talk about a disappointed mother!), became temporarily deranged and turned the care and raising of Jack over to an ex-slave.  Not your ordinary start to life, but Jack London was no ordinary person.  From an early age he was an avid reader and definitely had a case of wanderlust.  At 13 he bought a boat (yes, 13) and became an ‘oyster pirate’ (yes, a pirate!).  A few years later he signed on as a ship’s crew member to hunt seals in Japan.  When he returned, the ‘Panic of 1893’ (The forerunner of The Great Depression and whatever it is we’re going through now) was in full swing.  He regularly voiced his opinion about poor working conditions, and for it he spent time in jail which helped him develop his strong political views regarding the value of unions and the virtues of socialism.  At 17, after several years of being on the road and at sea, he returned to Oakland to attend high school!  Yep, he owned a boat, was a pirate, hunted seals in Japan, became a political activist, spent time in jail all before his senior prom.  At 20 he entered college at Cal Berkeley (of course), but stayed only a year as the Klondike gold rush beckoned him north.

     He would always record his adventures on paper and at a very early age realized that he could actually make a living with his writing.  The Reader’s Digest version of his life would look something like this: He got married, but was not faithful (he said morality was a sign of low blood pressure.  Honest!), he was an honorary member of the Bohemian Club, he became an alcoholic, he got divorced and remarried, he built a boat and took off for nearly two years sailing to Hawaii, Australia and several south sea islands, he ran for political office (and lost), he was often accused of plagiarism (and sometimes pleaded guilty), he bought 1,000 acres in Glen Ellen where he tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce new agricultural techniques to the world and through it all he wrote over 20 novels and dozens of short stories and essays, all by the age of 40 when he died, some say by suicide.

     The 1,000 acres he purchased is now the Jack London State Historic Park.  It features miles of great hiking trails, Jack’s man-made lake, his cottage, the house his wife lived in (pictured at right) after his death, which is now the museum holding the artifacts that Jack collected on his many travels, numerous farm out-buildings including the ‘Pig Palace’ and a fancy manure mover, an open-air theater and his gravesite.  But among the many buckeye, fir, madrone, oak and the magnificent coastal redwood is the gem of the park, the ‘Wolf House’

     Jack decided that he wanted to build a most magnificent house on this beautiful property; a place where he could write, entertain and just relax and enjoy the beautiful nature around him.  Construction on the Wolf House started in 1911; it was built of volcanic rock, slate and redwood on an earthquake-proof concrete slab.  There was over 15,000 square feet of living space on four floors with 26 rooms and 9 fireplaces.  The house contained its own generating plants for hot water, laundry, heating, electric lighting, vacuum and refrigeration – not common in those days.  It also had a milk room, root cellar and a wine cellar.  In today’s dollars it cost over $2,000,000 to build.  As you might suspect, Jack London was often criticized for espousing a socialist philosophy, but living a capitalist’s life.

    In 1913, two weeks before Jack and wife, Charmian were to move into the Wolf House, a fire, caused by spontaneous combustion, burned it to the grown, leaving only the volcanic rock of the foundation, walls and fireplaces, which is how it remains today, nearly 100 years later.

Jack was crushed, but vowed to rebuild it, but illness and a lack of money and time prevented that – he died three years later.  But when you’re deep in the redwoods walking around the remains of the Wolf House, you swear you can almost hear the call of the wild.

     If you’re planning a trip to the Napa/Sonoma wine country, I’d recommend taking a break from the lectures about why the Cabernets have such big noses and visit this historic site; if you’re lucky you’ll go at a time when they’re doing Broadway in the open-air theater at sundown.