Dive deep for historic riches at home or on vacation travels

Each week, "Florida Flashback" celebrates our area's past and its preservation. When we travel, we take that love of history along, of course. So here's a vacation postcard from a recent visit to the other west coast — to Monterey Bay in California, where a rich historic site survives amid the tourist hubbub of Cannery Row.

It has parallels with some Central Florida historic sites, especially the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando's College Park — another unassuming structure that's a gateway to our nation's literary heritage.

In Monterey, the small frame building with the big past sits at 800 Cannery Row. Once the home of Pacific Biological Laboratories, it's now surrounded by hotels, souvenir shops, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where giant inflatable octopus arms sway high above the building to promote an exhibit titled "Tentacles."

'Between Pacific Tides'

What would Ed Ricketts have thought of those big, waving suckers, one wonders?

Ricketts knew marine life. During the 1930s and '40s, his Cannery Row lab shipped marine specimens and slides to schools and museums far and wide. In a picture that biologist Ralph Buchsbaum took for his classic book on invertebrates, "Animals Without Backbones," Ricketts is holding a Humboldt squid. And Ricketts' own book, "Between Pacific Tides" (written with Jack Calvin) is considered a marine-biology classic as well.

Ricketts was also a student of classical music, poetry and philosophy, with a life like something out of fiction, from his relationships with women to his death in 1948 after a passenger train hit his car.

And it was through fictionalized versions of Ricketts, created by his friend John Steinbeck, that he became best known: He inspired Steinbeck's character Doc in "Cannery Row" and other characters.

In his version of Ricketts, Steinbeck described a charismatic man of wide-ranging interests. "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon," Steinbeck wrote. "Everyone who knew him was indebted to him."

The people who knew Ricketts included Steinbeck and his wife Carol — who described Ricketts as looking like "a beautiful kind of monk" — as well as the mythologist Joseph Campbell, authors Henry Miller, Lincoln Steffens and more.

Thanks to the nonprofit Cannery Row Foundation and the city of Monterey, which owns Ricketts' old home and lab, Pacific Biological Laboratories is on the National Register of Historic Places. But it's open to the public only a few Saturdays each year for tours, which depend on the time, interest and skill of volunteer docents.

Sardines and Steinbeck

This summer, my friends and I lucked into one of the rare tours — an excellent one with docent Scott Johnson, who gave us a capsule history of commercial fishing in Monterey Bay from the arrival of three Chinese families in 1853 to the end, in the 1950s, of what had once been one of the world's most productive fisheries. The area's Pacific sardines were fished to the point of near extinction — something Ricketts had predicted.

As Johnson described the heyday of Monterey's sardine canneries, when 200,000 tons of sardines were taken from Monterey Bay in 1935, we could almost smell the stench of the fishy refuse and feel the heat of the canneries. In the center of it all was Ricketts and his lab and his ability to inspire ideas, a magnet for Steinbeck and others.

"They were extraordinary people doing extraordinary things," Johnson says. "We know Ricketts deeply influenced John Steinbeck, a teller of tales sublimely rooted in our nation. . . . That he was immersed in a place at a time so overwhelmingly American in character — Cannery Row — only adds sauce to the goose."

Visiting Ricketts' world, across the country, reminded me of the power of place — of the importance of preserving places tied to powerful stories from our past, whether or not they are grand or modest buildings. It's great to visit them when you travel, treasure those we have at home, and volunteer to help tell visitors about them.

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at jwdickinson@earthlink.net, FindingJoyinFlorida.com, or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.

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