Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Pig Palace - Jack London State Historic Park

My business partner, Cathy Garrett is actively working on a cultural landscape report for Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County. Yesterday, I visited the park to take photographs and measurements of some of the features in the study area. The 1400 acre park occupies land once owed by author Jack London, and is where he and his wife Charmian lived between 1911 and 1916. Its association with London is what makes it a historic site, and it is also a good example of a farm of that period. He named the property “Beauty Ranch”.

There is a lot to see in the park and ten miles of trails traversing oak woodland and mixed evergreen forest – almost too much to see during a single visit. I’ve been to the park four times in the past two years and I’m beginning to feel like I know the core of the park. I have not explored any of the back country trails beyond London Lake.

The Londons lived in the cottage and Jack had an addition built onto the cottage where he wrote. There is a nice perennial garden associated with the cottage; unfortunately, the park service did not restore the garden that is featured in historic photographs – it is a modern garden unlike the one that existing while the London’s lived there. The park also includes the House of Happy Walls, built by London’s widow and where she lived until her death in 1955. It now houses a London museum. You can walk down to the ruins of the Wolf House, which was built to be their permanent home but it burned to the ground, leaving only the stone walls and fireplaces, the night before they were to move in.

There are several barns and stone buildings associated with various aspects of the winery, and other structures used in the farming operations. A pair of 40-foot, cement-block silos stand between a vineyard in the foreground and an oak woodland background, providing a prominent and picturesque landmark.

My favorite part of the park though is the Pig Palace. Who would have guessed, an astoundingly prolific writer and an adventurer, would have had time to devote to farming, or interest. If you visit the site you will learn that Jack London practiced “scientific agriculture”. He was applying all kinds of innovative techniques to improve farming methods. The museum and interpretive signs, posted throughout the park, provide a wealth of information on this and other topics. Did you know that London developed a spineless cactus?

The Pig Palace, so named by locals who scoffed at London’s methods, is a beautiful structure sited on a knoll and shaded by overhanging branches of oaks. Yesterday, the light shone through the new leaves of the oaks, creating a stunningly beautiful effect. The Palace is laid out in a circle for efficiency. At the center is the two-story feed tower. Feed is loaded in the upper portion and pours into buckets when the farmer opens a shoot. The ground floor has troughs and a tub for bathing the pigs. Sanitation was an important part of London’s method and enabled him to avoid the cholera that was killing his neighbor’s animals.
Surrounding the feeding tower are individual suits for pigs. Each has an iron gate and a two-part stone enclosure. The inner portion is open air and has a built-in concrete food trough and a separate water bowl. Galvanized water lines and hose bibs, mounted on the stone walls, are there to fill the water bowl and to clean the enclosures. An opening leads into the second part of the enclosure, which has a roof to provided shelter from cold or heat. From that space each enclosure has a private, fenced-in exercise yard. London’s objectives with this unique design were two-fold: to provide a facility that would function efficiently for the farmer and to develop an improved breed of pigs for the market.

If you visit the park and take the walk to London Lake be sure to take the short trail to the Pig Palace. Oh, and one more tip – don’t bring a picnic lunch from home – instead stop at the Glen Ellen Village Market, just before you take the road up to the park. They have the greatest deli that makes wonderful sandwiches and the chocolate mousse cake is perfection.

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