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Special Section: Jack London Centennial

“It is like a monster ever unsubdued,” wrote Jack London in his novel “John Barleycorn.” “This stubborn land that… survives them all, the men who scratched its surface and passed.”

Working hard to bring his own vision to life at his Beauty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain, London was keenly aware of “the dreamers of yesterday who dreamed their dreams” on his own warm hills, from the indigenous tribes to Mexican explorers, American homesteaders and tourists like London who liked what they saw and stayed. Before his death, London had amassed 1,500 acres of the forested mountain.

Picture Sonoma Mountain as the First Peoples of southern Sonoma County did. They called it oona-pa-is and told stories of how its summit was an island in a primordial ocean at the beginning of time. After the water retreated, o-ye, the Coyote-Man, threw feathers from the top into the air. The next day, wherever those feathers landed, there were people living.

We can’t know what dreams the first humans brought. Certainly they must have recognized the mountain as an abundant place, covered with redwood and Douglas fir forests, grasslands, oaks and chaparral. Grizzly bears, elk, pronghorn and salmon made their homes on the mountain and in the valleys below.

Villages and hunting camps were established at its foot and by the springs on its slopes. First Peoples managed the land carefully to provide for their needs — tending patches of plants for basketry and arrow shafts; pruning and fertilizing oak trees for plentiful acorns; and intentionally setting fires every few years. This kept the brush down, made rich forage for game by recycling soil nutrients, and kept acorn worms in check.

Father Jose Altimira came in 1823 with the dream of founding a mission. He described Sonoma Mountain as “well-covered with trees fit for building a pueblo.” Sixteen years later, General Vallejo established one of the first sawmills in California on what is now Asbury Creek, and the cutting of the forests began.

By the 1840s, Americans were emigrating to Mexican California with their own dreams. The Asbury family was among them. Arriving from Missouri by wagon train and finding the valley lands already claimed, they settled on the mountainside. Their homestead encompassed parts of Jack London State Historic Park and included milk and beef cows, chickens, oxen and fields of corn, wheat, potatoes and onions. Elsewhere on the mountain, logging continued until 1856, when the sawmill became a grist mill.

Some dreams never reach fruition. The Asburys soon gave up, leaving behind only their name on Asbury Creek. London’s great nephew, Milo Shepard, described the 19th-century settlers as mostly Scotch-Irish, of the same heritage as the people who settled the Appalachians. This included the Cowans, homesteaders of the upper park. Cowan Meadow commemorates them.

Hazen Cowan, London’s foreman, was still around in the 1970s. His brother Norman was a rodeo rider. During a competition, Norman broke his leg. Unwilling to accept defeat, he spent the night with his leg between blocks of ice and went on to win the finals.

Tough as they were, even the Cowans were ultimately unable to keep their homestead going. Scrambling to feed themselves during the Depression of the 1880s, they hunted out the deer and finally abandoned the mountain.

Special Section: Jack London Centennial

London remembered Haska, who had “cleared six acres of brush … He broke the soil, reared stone walls and a house, and planted apple trees.” A generation later, London said “already the site of the house is undiscoverable” and the brush had choked the orchard “to death.”

Some dreams had longer legs. During the Gold Rush, German immigrants Kohler and Frohling dreamed of making wine “for the weary multitude.” In 1872, they bought Tokay Vineyard from Hungarian immigrant Csmortanyi, expanded it to 250 acres and went on to run one of the largest and most respected wineries in the state.

The railroad arrived in the 1880s, allowing San Franciscans and other urbanites to get to Glen Ellen with ease and enjoy time in the country. Besides sparking tourism, the trains led to the wholesale cutting of oak and madrone, which could now be readily shipped out. As Milo Shepard recalled, “The wood from this country is what heated San Francisco.”

Soon after London first bought property on the mountain in 1905, he saw how the land had been “destroyed by our wasteful California pioneer farmers” and felt a strong desire to do better. “Most of the ranchers were poor and hopeless,” he wrote. “They had worked the land out and their only hope was to move on.” These “farmers of the old school” had “lost their money, broken their hearts, lost their land.”

London pieced together Beauty Ranch from a half-dozen bankrupt farms and set to rebuilding the worn-out hillsides. His property included the Tokay Vineyard. Wiped out by phylloxera in the 1890s, it was replanted with resistant vines.

During his 11 years on the mountain, London experimented with many crops, growing hay, grapes, and eucalyptus; and raising pigs, horses and cattle. He built terraces to keep the soft volcanic soil from washing away, a practice he had seen in Asia. Jack knew that finding the right practices and crops was essential to his long-term success. His dream was not so different from the First People’s: to steward the land for sustainability and abundance.

“I believe the soil is our one indestructible asset,” wrote London. “And by green manures, nitrogen-gathering cover crops, animal manure, rotation of crops, proper tillage and draining, I am getting results which the Chinese have demonstrated for 40 centuries.” His old-fashioned approach was well ahead of its time, anticipating the organic and biodynamic practices popular today.

After London’s death in 1916, his wife Charmian and sister Eliza opened the property as a dude ranch where guests could hike and ride horses on Sonoma Mountain. Eventually much of it became the park we know today. Like his literary works, London’s agricultural endeavors live on.

At his ranch you can still see the first cement block silos in California; his ingeniously designed Pig Palace; the lake behind his stone dam; and of course, the sad ruins of the Wolf House.

Like those previous residents he remembered (his land-cestors if you will), London is now “a dreamer of yesterday” turned to ashes. But the brilliant blaze with which he lived his life still glows visibly at Beauty Ranch.

Arthur Dawson is a Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist. You can reach him at baseline@vom.com.

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