By MICHAEL PERKINS
AMIDST THE CARNIVAL ATMOSPHERE OF MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA’S CANNERY ROW, IT IS A DRAB, ORDINARY THING, and, if you are not paying close attention, Ed Rickett’s original biological lab, tucked next to the towering Monterey Bay Aquarium, looks as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball. In fact, it has escaped that fate several times over, much to the glory of this old industrial district, now scrubbed squeaky-clean to house Starbucks and other national chains within the substructures of what was once the beating heart of the California fishing industry. However, with a little closer look at the former headquarters of Rickett’s Pacific Biological Laboratories, you realize that it carries more history within its humble walls than most of the theme park dreck in the area that attempts to recall that era.
If Cannery Row is a salute to history, the House That Ed Built is history, and has been, luckily, left alone to tell its amazing story.
Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts, who found himself living and working in Pacific Grove, California in the early 1920’s after bouncing around the country as an Army medical corpsman, a dropout zoology student at the University of Chicago, and a travel writer, founded Pacific Biology Laboratories with a friend in 1922. The original lab was in Pacific Grove, a next-door neighborhood to Monterey, and was later relocated to Ocean View Boulevard in the heart of the bustling fisheries and processing plants of Cannery Row. Ricketts took consignment orders from researchers and museums for various life forms from the coastal tides in the region, commissions which made him a modest living and helped finance his own experiments. By 1930, with his reputation fairly established, he met an up-and-coming author from the area named John Steinbeck. The two became lifelong friends.
The PBL lab, with holding tanks around the bank for storing specimens (still viewable today), was nearly destroyed in 1936, when a fire consumed the neighboring Del Mar cannery (now the site of the world-class Monterey Bay aquarium). Steinbeck, stepping in to purchase a half-interest in Ed’s lab, financed its rebuilding (and helped keep a roof over his friend’s head).Saved from the flames was Rickett’s career-defining work, Between Pacific Tides, the manuscript for which had been sent ahead to his publisher before the blaze.
In 1940, following one of many messy breakups with the various women in his life, Ed decided to take a road trip to Mexico and pay for it by researching and writing a new book on marine life. Steinbeck, looking to escape some of the controversy that dogged him following the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, decided to partner with Ricketts on the project.The result, Log From The Sea of Cortez, one of Steinbeck’s only works of non-fiction, became a solid reference work in the field of marine biology.
Writing his novel Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck modeled his marine biologist character “Doc” on Ricketts, fictionalizing the PBL as “Western Biological Laboratory” and keeping the spirit of Ed’s place as a gathering (and drinking) point for writers and artists. Following Rickett’s death in 1948 (he was hit by a train carrying Del Monte canned fish through the area!), friends bought the place, keeping it as a kind of clubhouse until 1983, when they sold it to the city of Monterey. The budding Cannery Row Foundation, then just getting underway with a renovation of the area, saw to the restoration of the building, which now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Specimens Ed gathered from the tidal pools have, for decades, graced collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History, Lund University in Sweden, and dozens of other places the world over. Now the place his work began is itself a specimen.
Cheesy retail and chain restaurants have blotted out a lot of the physical history of Cannery Row, leaving Pacific Biological Laboratories as one of the only authentic visual legacies of one of America’s most storied industrial centers. As such, it’s always worth an extra (and loving) look.
(Here’s a great link from the Museum of Monterey with a wonderful overview of Ed’s life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obz6BdAtgIk )