Get a glimpse of Jack London’s Beauty Ranch
Jack London lived a rip-roaring life while writing novels and short stories that are still read by millions around the world.
He is remembered as a man of action who had the vision, determination and dream to establish a model farm on Sonoma Valley land he loved and preserve it for future generations. He called his 1,400-acre spread Beauty Ranch, or The Ranch of Good Intentions.
London’s noble dream and the power of his “good intentions” continue today, both vividly chronicled in a new book by Glen Ellen resident Elisa Stancil Levine. “Images of America: Jack London State Historic Park” (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99) was released this week, documenting in words and pictures the rich history of the park that now draws 80,000 visitors annually. Levine will donate proceeds from its sale to the ongoing restoration of the park’s ongoing restoration efforts.
“It has so many hidden treasures,” she said. “The historical buildings offer a sense of the time and place of early 20th century living, while the trails and picnic areas make the park ideal for either the solitary hiker or large groups. All of it is surrounded by the iconic beauty of the Valley of the Moon and Beauty Ranch.”
By integrating concise, crisp writing with hundreds of rare vintage images, many photographed by Jack London, Levine takes the reader on an illuminating journey into past lives filled with joy, love, laughter, challenge and tragedy but also, of hope.
“This book tells the tale from the earliest inhabits on Sonoma Mountain through present day and is a comprehensive record of the park history as well as a vital view into the park today,” she said.
A noted restorative specialist, Levine is uniquely qualified to write the park’s story. Levine has conducted restorative projects on historical homes such as the Wrigley mansion in Santa Barbara and has a long intimacy with state parks. She was born near the Gold Rush mining town of Coloma, and was raised on the south fork of the American River. Today she lives just a short stroll from Beauty Ranch with her husband, Chuck Levine, who serves on the board of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, the nonprofit group that took over management in 2012 after the state threatened to close the park.
“Chuck was key in negotiating the contract with the state and devising startup strategies for staffing, managing, and visioning the future of the park,” said Levine.
During the course of her writing, Levine began the day with a spirited run though the park. With her husband on horseback, she followed the same path that London and his wife, Charmian, often rode to the summit of Sonoma Mountain.
“The view is spectacular,” said Levine. “The silence is overwhelming; the experience, spiritually rejuvenating. I am so grateful to live here and for the opportunity to write this book; I call it my love letter to the mountain.”
Writing the book may have been her labor of love, but it took considerable effort. Levine spent more than two years conducting historical research, searching for archival materials that have never been published.
“There have been many books written about London and, in the case of this particular book, I was seeking images that would demonstrate the park, the land, the mountain and the manner of life at Beauty Ranch,” she said. “Demonstrating the life of London and his literary legacy was also key, as these are what gave him the wherewithal to fund and build his vision.”
Levine’s quest took her to the renowned Huntington Library in San Marino, the west coast’s preeminent institution for archival management. “The funding, protocols and scholarly access make this the very best location for the papers, manuscripts and photos about London,” she said.
Levine gained special access to the Huntington archives through her friendship with the late Milo Shepard, grandson of London’s stepsister, Eliza Shepard. “Milo was in his 80s when I met him,” she said. “He made it possible for me to gain access to the collection.”
While the life of Jack London is remarkable and his halcyon days at Beauty Ranch fascinating, Levine was determined her book would highlight the accomplishments of Eliza Shepard. According to Levine, she deserves the credit for turning London’s big dreams and innovative ideas into reality.
“Eliza is the unsung hero of Beauty Ranch,” she said. “Eliza and Jack were very close; he had total faith in her abilities and made her his ranch manager.”
To tell the story of this formidable woman, an attorney who was appointed to oversee the relief efforts resulting from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Levine also attended the Jack London Society Symposium at Utah State University.
“I was given access to letters and images from the London collection that are housed there,” she said. “I obtained copies of letters between Eliza and Charmian written mostly after London’s death. I also spent hours doing oral histories with people who visited Beauty Ranch when it was a guest ranch, and also those who worked at the Guest Ranch when young girls. The Shepard family was wonderfully helpful, fact checking, supplying many photographs and giving important interviews.”
Now that her book is published, Levine is refocusing her energies on the restoration of Jack London Lake. Located in a tranquil part of the ranch, the lake was constructed by Eliza for irrigation and the enjoyment of London, his wife and their guests. Once a pastoral, clear body of water, it is now clogged with sediment and algae, the result of decades of neglect by the state parks department.
“I formed the Jack London Lake Alliance to raise funds to restore the lake to what it was during the great days of Beauty Ranch,” Levine said. “I hope the book will bring awareness of that effort.”
Join Levine for a book release party 1-3 p.m. Sunday, July 19, at Jack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. It’s free, with $10 parking fee. 938-5216, jacklondonpark.com.