Skip to main content

Innovative Rancher

A 2014 article in Modern Farming, “Jack London’s Futuristic Farm,” sums it up well:

“Jack London has been called many things throughout history, among them, an author, explorer, visionary and a socialist. He has even been called the greatest romantic of his time. However, above all these fancy titles, he was a farmer—and an inventive one at that.”

 London driving his favorite Shire horses.

When he had first bought the Hill Ranch he had written to his friend Cloudesley Johns, 'I am not going ranching; the only cleared ground on the place will be used for growing hay'. But he found that his interest in farming and ranching was growing apace, that every development led him into new operations. He subscribed to agriculture newspapers and magazines, wrote to the agricultural departments of the University of California and the state government for information and advice. With the passage of months he realized that agriculture and ranching were exciting subjects, and that he was becoming fascinated. Tired of adventuring abroad, he now began to adventure at home; farming became his hobby. Giving himself to the new activity with his accustomed zeal, before long he found he had acquired sufficient knowledge to constitute himself somewhat of an authority.

Envisioned a Model Farm

The more he studied agriculture in the State of California the more he found wrong with it, the more he decided the entire agricultural system was a counterpart of the economic system, haphazard, wasteful, needing a sharp reconstruction with scientific methods. He had the land, he had the money, he had the knowledge and determination; he decided to put them together to rescue California farming. Slowly, as he continued with his studies and delved more deeply into his subject, there formed in his mind a vision of the type of model farm his foster father, John London, had wanted to build in Alameda and then in Livermore. This model farm he would build through the years would point the way to a higher type of agriculture throughout the country, would enable the farmers to get a higher quality produce out of their land and stock.

He learned that the Kohler and Lamotte Ranches were worn out, useless because the former owners had tilled the land for forty years without feeding it fertilizer, without allowing it to lie fallow. He found the stock of the countryside had degenerated; scrub bulls without pedigree were being used for the mount; the horses, pigs and goats were all of inferior breed. The fertile hills of California were being wasted; 'we must develop scientific methods to turn the slopes into productive areas'. He reasoned that if he rehabilitated the land and reinvigorated the stock, if he threw overboard the wasteful, destructive methods of the farmers who were failing all about him, if he farmed for only the highest-grade produce he could save that section of the state for agriculture. To achieve this end he and [stepsister] Eliza threw all their resources, energy, and capability into the task. Jack planned everything with Eliza, who then gave orders and supervised the work.

In 1905 American writer, Jack London, had purchased 129 acres of ranch land in the Sonoma valley, and over time he continued to add adjoining acreage. (Before then he had lived with Charmian at Wake Robin, owned by her aunt Ninetta Eames.) While writing remained his vocation, farming became his avocation. As an enthusiast of scientific farming, he set out to make his "Beauty Ranch" the most modern in the west. He ardently advocated the scientific breeding of animals and imported many European Purebreds to improve his stock. With this in mind, we have attempted to address his agricultural experiment as well as his writings and life.

London once said, "I believe the soil is our greatest asset." These words are truer, in our current world, than ever before! On his ranch he pioneered in soil conservation, using tillage and terracing to make fruitful again the worn-out hillside lands. He raised vegetables, grains, alfalfa, grapes, fruit trees, prunes, potatoes, spineless cactus, eucalyptus trees, horses, goats, chickens, hogs, beef, dairy cattle, prize-winning livestock and cut the biggest and best hay crops in Sonoma County. Whatever London attempted, he attempted in an all-or-nothing way, and his experimental farming methods were no different. His stepsister and Ranch Superintendent, said it best after he died:

"Jack's ambition was to develop a model farm; one of the best all-round ranches in the state, combining a stock ranch, fruit, grain, vegetables, vineyard and the like. He would have accomplished his plan had he lived, for his enthusiasm was unquenchable. His intense energy simply rioted in work. Success seemed only to stimulate him to greater and wider efforts."-- Eliza Shepard

London bought seven parcels of land over the years:

Parcels of land Jack London Purchased
Property NameDate of PurchaseAcres
(1) Hill RanchJuly 6, 1905130
(2) La Motte RanchDec. 19, 1908127
(3) Caroline Kohler Ranch190924
(4) Fish Ranch19099
(5) Kohler & Frohling RanchMay 14, 1910700
(6) K & F Winery (buildings)May 12, 191112
(7) Freund RanchJan. 20, 1913400

On May 14, 1910 Jack London was able to purchase the Kohler-Frohling Tokay Ranch for twenty-six thousand dollars plus cost of livestock and equipment. The Jack London Ranch now had a total of one thousand ninety acres, making it one of the largest in the Valley of the Moon. Over two hundred acres of the Tokay addition were suitable for growing wine grapes. With seven distinct soils in the alluvial deposits at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, with cool mountain breezes at night and warm sunny days, in an area that had never seen frost during the growing season, a crop of premium wine grapes was almost a certainty every year. But at the time Jack bought the ranch, grapes were selling for eleven dollars a ton. Since it cost more than that to raise them, he reluctantly plowed most of the vines under, leaving enough for his own use.

Jack's purchase of the Tokay Ranch didn't include the buildings - the twelve acres containing the ruins of the old winery destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, or the old six room cottage, the two small stone buildings and the stone sherry house  which were owned by the California Wine Association. Jack's goal was to now buy these twelve acres and the five hundred-acre Freund Ranch above his property, which was vital to his water needs. When, and if, those purchases were made, the Jack London Ranch, as he envisioned it, would be complete.

In 1911, heartily sick of living in makeshift accommodations at Wake Robin, and seeing that the Wolf House would not be completed for at least another two years, he made a move that brought him the happiest and richest years of his life: he bought the twelve acres in the middle of the Kohler vineyards upon which stood an abandoned winery, a broken-down ranch house, and some barns.

On May 12, 1911 during Jack and Charmian's four-horse trip to Oregon, , Jack's step sister and ranch superintendent Eliza Shepard managed to get the cottage livable for them until completion of Wolf House. On September 5, 1911 they rolled through Glen Ellen and up the hill to sleep for the first time on their own ranch, in the cottage.

--David Hartzell

Sonoma County and Wine

The first wine grapes grown in Sonoma County were planted by the Russians during their brief stay in the Fort Ross area c. 1812. Missionaries and Spanish/Mexican settlers made small plantings for both sacramental and home use.

California's first premium winery, Buena Vista, was started in 1857 near the town of Sonoma by Hungarian Ágoston Haraszthy, He is known as the Father of California Viticulture since he was the first to bring modern European vinicultural techniques to California, and imported European vines to the region. Some wineries active today started in later years. In 1873, the devastating phylloxera parasite destroyed many, though not all vineyards. Those that continued faced the threat of Prohibition in the 1920s, yet survived by making sacramental wines or grape juice. Nonetheless, some plowed their fields under. The major revival of Sonoma as a wine region did not occur until the 1970s, when technological improvements and market demand made fine winemaking profitable. Today the region is on the world map with over 600 bonded wineries.

The reference to Tokaj in one of the ranches Jack bought refers to the major wine region in Hungary. Both share a similar terroir, that of volcanic and clay soil, as well as a similar mild climate. As noted, London decided wine grapes were not a wise choice when he planned the direction of his ranch. This would be more true once Prohibition set in. It is ironic that the vines London destroyed had survived the phylloxera invasion, and would have been strong stock. Following publication of John Barleycorn, though still imbibing alcohol, he sold his name and image to a grape juice product.

Jack London grape juice label

London's inheritors, the Shepard family, kept a section of the old wine fields after donating much of the land to the State. Milo Shepard established a sustainable vineyard that can be viewed by visitors today. The wines are produced under the Jack London label by Kenwood winery. The label features the wolf logo Jack used in his bookplates.