Story and photos by David Laws.
“There was always something to do in Salinas. For pure culture we had The World of Art, with slides in a big tent with wooden benches” but, as Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck quipped in a 1955 memoir of his hometown, “the town preferred to hear Joe Conner sing Irish songs.” (Always 59)
What a difference 50 years makes! Today Steinbeck is Salinas, California’s favorite son. Stimulated by the 1998 opening of the $12 million National Steinbeck Center honoring his life and work, there is also lots more to do. Art, dance, poetry, music, movies, plays and opera inspired by his works enliven the city every summer.
Main Street businesses have not fared so well. As with many old downtown areas, retail fled to the malls and “darkness from the swamps” invaded deserted stores. Downtown boosters pray for salvation by visitors to the glistening National Steinbeck Center rotunda at the head of the street. Compared to its upscale neighbors of Carmel, Pebble Beach, Pacific Grove and Monterey, gritty blue-collar Salinas (named after local salt ponds) is an unlikely tourist destination. But there are encouraging signs. New restaurants are beginning to bustle and an ambitious children’s theater is under construction.
Whatever the outcome, Salinas is an essential pilgrimage for Steinbeck fans. The writer was born and raised here, and his ashes rest in the city’s Garden of Memories. As the bustling county seat of the nation’s richest agricultural region, Salinas furnished abundant raw material for his powerful studies of the human condition. “Salinas was the county seat and it was a fast growing town. It’s population was due to cross the two thousand mark any time … everyone felt that a brilliant future was in store for it” (Eden 210). Today the population exceeds 130,000!
I spent two hours at the Center reliving Steinbeck’s stories through video clips, stage sets, and original documents. While I ate in the café, his craggy visage stared at me from a mural on the building opposite. Guided by his words, I set out to explore more tangible links to the writer and his era in this urban quarter of Steinbeck Country.
From the front of the Center, I looked down Main Street. Beyond the decaying grandeur of once proud 19th century storefronts, Mount Toro, backdrop for The Pastures of Heaven, peeked through the morning fog. Mentally uprooting trees and flower-filled planters and replacing sleek modern cars with boxy black Fords, I saw the street as it looked in Steinbeck’s youth. On my left, two-story brick buildings once housed grocer and butcher stores patronized by his mother. A restaurant sign entreated “Come dine at Sangs.” Steinbeck did.
Following in the footsteps of Adam Trask, I “turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck. It was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough but not pretentious, and it sat inside its white fence, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and cotoneasters lapped against its white walls.” (Eden 385)  Cream, blue and tan tones now highlight the frills and furbelows of the Queen Ann-style Steinbeck House. Inside, high ceilings, dark polished wood, and somber Victorian decor host a luncheon restaurant that raises money for charity. The hostess greeted me in the front reception room where baby John was born in 1902. The basement “Best Cellar” gift shop displays the finely crafted bed.
I ate in front of the fireplace where their schoolteacher mother Olive nourished John and his sisters on a diet of classical music and books. In addition to popular adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, these included readings from Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, the Bible, and Greek myths. Above me was the attic bedroom where the 14-year old youth filled dresser drawers with his handwritten manuscripts. “I used to sit in that little room upstairs … and write little stories.” (Californian) While his parents lay dying he wrote chapters of The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat here and lamented “The house in Salinas is pretty haunted now. I see things walking at night that it is not good to see” (Letters 89)
A few doors down at 53 Central, John spent many hours in their modest white frame home with the Wagner boys, John and Max. Edith Wagner, their mother, who inspired “How Edith McGillcuddy Met R. L. S.,” was one of few adults with the patience to listen to his teenage writing efforts. Max once threw a roast beef through the glass door of City Hall; an act later attributed to Steinbeck. “[Max] worked so hard and I get all the credit.” (Letters 308). Steinbeck renewed his acquaintance with the family after they moved to Hollywood. Jack helped with scriptwriting on The Pearl (1947), while Max played bit parts in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Red Pony (1949). Both brothers contributed to A Medal for Benny (1945).
Turning left at Capitol Street, I passed Mission-Revival style stucco and red tile Roosevelt School. It was built in 1924 on the site of Steinbeck’s West End Grammar School where “the windows were baleful; and the doors did not smile.” (Eden 420) He recalls his dislike of school as “I remember how grey and doleful Monday morning was. … What was to come next I knew, the dark corridors of the school.” (Journal) These feelings surface again in a letter to the Salinas-Californian newspaper “If the city of my birth should wish to perpetuate my name clearly but harmlessly, let it name a bowling alley after me or a dog track or even a medium price, low-church brothel — but a school — !” (Letters 572)
Dozens of WPA sculptor Jo Mora’s heroic pioneer faces stared down impassively from the walls as I rested in the courtyard of striking Art Deco Monterey County Courthouse at Alisal and Church Streets. Ernst Steinbeck had worked as County Treasurer and young John penned some of his earliest prose on discarded ledgers in his father’s office located in the former wooden building that stood on this spot until 1936. Large relief panels and detailed bronze door embellishments, also by Mora, celebrate agricultural workers immortalized in In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. Born in Uruguay, artist, author and actor Joseph Jacinto Mora (1876–1947) captured the fading glow of western frontier days in children’s books, architectural installations and sculpture.
Across the street I admired the Salinas-Californian’s sleek Streamline Modern-architecture newspaper offices. Here in 1948, Steinbeck gathered material for “my marathon book, which is called ‘Salinas Valley’ [renamed East of Eden.] It is what I have been practicing to write all of my life. Everything else has been training.” (Letters 310) Nearby, at Alisal and Salinas, Steinbeck played basketball and attended his senior prom in the two-story, bay-windowed old Troop C Armory building “where men over fifty … snapped orders at one another and wrangled eternally about who should be officers.” (Eden 516)
A near life size bronze statue of the writer welcomed me to the John Steinbeck Library at 350 Lincoln Avenue. I browsed a wealth of Steinbeck books, articles and clippings before walking two blocks to Main and San Luis. Here, in 1939, locals say that angry farmers burned copies of The Grapes of Wrath on the steps of the grand Classical Revival Carnegie Library building (replaced in 1960 by a modern Bank of America office.) (Walking 12) According to Steinbeck, a librarian who was sympathetic to the farmers “remarked that it was lucky my parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame.” (Letters 539)
Overhead a banner proclaimed “Welcome to Old Town Salinas. Uptown Style — Downtown Charm.” I’d love to hear Steinbeck’s feisty response to this attempt to gentrify hard working Main Street. Ahead of me, freshly painted Art Deco facades and restored Victorian pediments competed with empty storefronts for the soul of downtown.
The J.E. Steinbeck Feed Store at 332 Main failed when customers deserted horse feed for gasoline. “Poor Dad couldn’t run a store, he didn’t know how.” (Walking 13) Steinbeck used his father’s poor business acumen and financial disappointment as the model for Ethan Allen Hawley’s father’s experience in The Winter of our Discontent. The present business, The Cherry Bean Coffee Shop, thrives on the fuel of a new millennium.
I dallied over a “Steinbeck brew” while locals discussed the issues of the day. In Steinbeck’s era a stratified social hierarchy began with Cattle People. “Sugar people joined Cattle People in looking down their noses” at Lettuce People. “These Lettuce People had Carrot People to look down on and these in turn felt odd about associating with Cauliflower People.” (Always 58) Conversation revolved around today’s disdained classes of Grape People, who now dominate valley agriculture, and Silicon People who inflate local housing prices by commuting to high-paid, high-tech, Silicon Valley employment in the north.
A plaque on the brick pillars of number 315 across the street identifies East of Eden’s Muller’s Funeral Chapel. It also figured poignantly in Steinbeck’s own life in 1934 when his mother was prepared here for her burial. Now a block away Muller’s still serves Salinas.
“Hats for Us,” number 242, was formerly Bell’s Candy Store, where in 1917, “the rage was celery tonic.” (Eden 441) According to Mr. Bell, “John was a good boy, but you had to keep your eye on him around the candy!” Exotic Fox Californian Theater, opposite, was the finest show house between San Francisco and Los Angeles when the author’s first movie, Of Mice and Men, played in 1939. Built in 1921 in a Classical style, its imposing Art Deco false front and ticket booth were added in the 30’s.
Agricultural wealth built imposing banks on each corner of Gavilan and Main. Their owners disliked Steinbeck’s writing. “The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad.” (Letters 188) Today. the buildings dispense food and antiques. I peered through dusty windows of the gilded wrought-iron entry to former Monterey County Bank. For a fleeting moment in the dim light, I thought I saw Kate depositing money, or maybe it was Cal counting his fifteen fated $1,000 bills.
Retrieving my car from behind the Steinbeck Center, I turned right onto Market (formerly Castroville) Street: “Two blocks down the Southern Pacific tracks cut diagonally across the street.” (Eden 218) “Over across the tracks down by Chinatown there’s a row of whorehouses.” (Eden 213) Here young Steinbeck spent many hours in the gambling parlors observing colorful characters of the night. Although vestiges of their distinctive architecture remain, the Chinese have moved on. A modern-day Steinbeck, however, would still find plenty to write about in the homeless Hispanic inhabitants of this now forlorn and derelict neighborhood.
Late afternoon wind scattered fallen cottonwood leaves across the Garden of Memories Memorial Park on Abbott Street. I followed an arrow to a simple bronze plaque, “John Steinbeck 1902–1968,” marking where his ashes lie in one of two Hamilton family plots. Family, friends, and many of his characters, including his maternal grandfather Sam Hamilton, Sheriff Quinn, and Jenny, the Madam, surround him. His detractors rest here also, but while they are now silent, Steinbeck’s voice lives on.
IF YOU GO: The National Steinbeck Center website link is provided here.
Sangs Cafe. 131 Main St, Salinas. Where Steinbeck dined.
Steinbeck, Elaine, and Robert Wallsten, eds. Steinbeck a Life in Letters (Letters). New York: Viking, 1975
Steinbeck, John. “Always Something to Do in Salinas.” (Always) Holiday Magazine (June 1955): 58–59
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. (Eden) New York: Penguin Books 1992
Steinbeck, John / Dorothy Vera. Salinas Californian Newspaper. (Californian) (11 January 1969): 14A
“Walking Tour Souvenir Program” (Walking Tour) Steinbeck Festival XX. Salinas: National Steinbeck Center 2000
Originally published in Steinbeck Studies, Fall 2001, San Jose State University. An updated version was posted as “East of Eden: A Pilgrimage in Pictures to John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California” on the steinbecknow.com website in October 2016.