Books: Remembering the Old Monterey Peninsula Through Postcards By STEVEN FINACOMSpecial to the Planet
One hundred years ago poet George Sterling arrived in Carmel on the cusp of a storied era for the Monterey Peninsula.
He wrote in his diary, now in the Bancroft Library, “June 30, 1905. Fine weather. Put up small tent.” The next day’s entry reads “Fine weather. Put up large tent.” Later, he’d write, “This is a fine place for cheap grub,” referring to the opportunity to freely collect abalone and mussels and hunt small game on the Monterey peninsula.
Such simple beginnings marked the start of a migrati on of kindred bohemians, artists, and authors from Mary Austin to Robinson Jeffers, who would shape the little town and its environs into a storied artist colony.
Those early days in a region now dominated by some of California’s most expensive and exclu sive coastal real estate, restaurants, and resorts, are evoked in an attractive new book, The Monterey Peninsula: A Postcard Journey, by Berkeleyan Burl Willes.
A retired Berkeley travel agent, traveler, and author, Willes drew extensively on private and public historical and postcard collections to organize this attractive image-filled book.
Willes particularly credits collector Pat Hathaway’s extensive Monterey postcard collection for the images in this book. The postcards, most in color, are reproduc ed near actual size, or enlarged, typically no more than two to a page, to create a lavish display.
Chapters are generally geographical, from Monterey through Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and Carmel, and south to Big Sur. The postcards profile each region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A page or two of text at the beginning of each chapter introduce themes and give historical context and local anecdotes, but this is primarily a book of visual display.
Here, for example, are pages on Monterey’s Hotel Del Monte, with its greenswards, tennis courts, outdoor maze and pools, and indoor plunge. Built in 1880, the sprawling complex attracted well-heeled vacationers, including many East Bay residents, who arrived by train or yacht and put Monterey on the map as an “internationally acclaimed tourist destination.”
Other postcards evoke not only that early 20th century era of mid-coastal California bohemians and recreation, but periods and peoples that Californian’s majority American-era population replace d and displaced.
One postcard displays “the Largest Collection of Indian Mortars and Pestles in the World,” the artifacts piled high against a flag-bedecked wall. And there are several images of a Chinese coastal fishing village whose residents were dri ven out by arson in 1905.
There are pages displaying what Willes calls “the crumbling remains of [Monterey’s] rich cultural heritage,” encompassing Spanish, Mexican, and pre-Gold Rush American eras.
Humble and stately adobes are shown, along with the C armel mission, then a picturesque unroofed ruin, where Americans would make a holiday of unearthing Father Serra’s grave. Other postcards trumpet “The First Brick Building” and the “First Frame Building” in California, the latter looking on the verge of c ollapse, and Monterey’s first prominent literary landmark, the house where Robert Louis Stevenson stayed.
The early natural abundance of the Peninsula is also captured in postcards of sardine canneries, fishing fleets, and an immense pile of thousands of abalone shells on a postcard advertising “Porter Bro’s. Pioneer Preparers of Abalone Steaks.” All would eventually be decimated by overuse.
Local events important and unusual were frequently recorded in special postcards, from a huge beached basking sha rk surrounded by spectators, to shoreline storm damage, a ship run aground, and local festivals and celebrations.
There’s a splendid two-page spread showing the 1908 visit by Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet to Monterey Bay, juxtaposed one sheet over, with a two-page view of the same bay more typically and tranquilly dotted with tiny fishing boats.
There are also numerous images of families in Victorian swimming gear and attire for hotels, hot springs, fishing, and country jaunts, all just having a good time as families still do today when visiting Monterey.
Little country cabins, early golf courses, the one lane dirt coastal road to Big Sur, rustic mansions, unpopulated beaches, quiet small-town streets, the outdoor Forest Theatre, and an early Asilomar populated with canvas fronted sleeping cabins are all shown, along with images of country life such as “milk shrines,” little covered stands where neighbors left their money for milkmen who dropped off the daily delivery.
The Monterey Peninsula stands as a nice companion to another history organized and edited by Willes, Picturing Berkeley: A Postcard History. That volume has just been reissued in a softcover format and is now in local bookstores (Gibbs-Smith, $24.95. Copies of the original, 200 2 hardcover edition are still available from the Berkeley Historical Society and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.)
Picturing Berkeley contains a splendid array of handsome and nostalgic views of early Berkeley, both town and university.
Cha pters were authored and organized by several local historians and collectors, and the book provides not only good written and visual profiles of the evolution of the community, but a precise and compact explanation of the different sorts and uses of early picture postcards.
Graphic designer Kathleen Tandy created the handsome look of both postcard books.
The Monterey Peninsula is the third local history by Willes, a quiet supporter of numerous historical enterprises. He also authored the popular Tales of the Elmwood: A Community Memory.
Useful for historical reference, pleasure reading, or gifts, all the Burl Willes volumes should be on a well-stocked Berkeley bookshelf, coffee table, or nightstand.
THE MONTEREY PENINSULA:
A POSTCARD JOURNEY
By Burt Willes
Gibbs-Smith, 208 pages, $29.95