GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, White Fang, and Iron Heel... chances are you were required to read these classic novels in school. They are tales of courage, adventure and politics.
Many of these classics were written on the front porch of Jack London’s house in Glen Ellen, California. Today, you can visit his home and the ranch he lived on at Jack London State Historic Park.
In his short life, Jack London wrote more than 50 books and hundreds of short stories. Jack was a Bay Area native, a world traveler, war correspondent and thrill seeker, but at heart he was a farmer.
“His goal was to create a regenerative, biodynamic balance," said Matt Leffert, president of Jack London Park Partners, a nonprofit helping manage and educate visitors at the park.
Jack London was one of the first authors to earn a million dollars for his writing.
“He was also the first writer to spend a million dollars,” said Leffert. “You are going to find a lot of odd things at Jack London State Park.”
If Jack wasn’t spending his money on lavish trips or building sail boats, he was spending it on odd projects around his 1,400-acre Sonoma County farm.
“Jack was notorious for not being afraid to fail, so he really tried a lot of things, and one was he wanted to breed spineless cactus to feed to livestock,” said Leffert.
To be fair, spineless cactus was only a partial failure. The cactus did grow but not very well.
“A couple things. One, the cows didn’t like to eat it and after a couple breeding cycles, the spines came back,” explained Leffert.
TAKE A TRIP ON BARTELL'S BACKROADS:
► See an interactive map of everywhere John has visited on the backroads
► Watch all of the Backroads videos
► Follow John on Facebook
There are dozens of experimental innovations on the farm, including his Eucalyptus tree forest, his vineyard and his most prized innovation, the Pig Palace.
The Pig Palace was Jack London’s specially-designed pig pen. The rounded structure made it easier and more efficient to feed and clean up after the animals.
“He was incredibly innovative,” said Leffert, describing the Pig Palace as both innovative and expensive.
It got a lot of criticism because it cost London $3,000 in 1915, or about $90,000 in today’s money.
“The San Francisco Chronicle got wind of what he was doing and mocked him by calling it the 'Pig Palace,'” said Leffert.
Jack didn’t just build a palace for the pigs. He also built one for himself. The Wolf House, as he called it, was a 15,000 square-foot mansion equipped with 26 rooms, including a massive library and a built-in vacuum system. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t get to enjoy it for long.
“Sadly, when it was completed in 1913, just before they were going to move in, it burned down,” said Leffert.
The fire was determined to be an accident; some oily rags caught fire when no one was around. The Wolf Lodge would never be rebuilt because London’s health was failing.
“On his adventures in the South Pacific he got a disease called Yaws,” said Leffert.
At the time, treatment for the disease contained mercury, which likely killed the author in Nov. 1916. He was just 40-years-old when his ashes were spread around a large rock above his ranch.
Jack London’s memory lives on in the House of Happy Walls Museum, a home his second wife, Charmian, built after his death.
“The walls inside are literally lined with artifacts that Jack and Charmian collected on their travels,” said Leffert.
Charmian was Jack's true love and partner in adventure. They were both writers and helped other aspiring authors who often visited to Glen Ellen, the town below Jack's farm, for inspiration.
“He attracted a bohemian crowd when he was here,” said Leffert.
Whether it's inspiration or admiration, Jack London fans from all over the world still come to Glen Ellen and his ranch.
“Of course people come here because they fell in love with him as a writer, but I think a lot of them walk away with the understanding of him as a rancher,” said Leffert.
GET TO KNOW MORE FAMOUS AUTHORS ON THE BACKROADS: Visit the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas and learn what inspired some of John Steinbeck's most prominent works.