If today you drive around Monterey County, stopping, for example, in the urban areas of Salinas, Monterey, or King City, or in the vast agricultural areas that provide the United States with a significant portion of its lettuce, artichokes, radishes, wine, herbs, and other products, you will be impressed by the great care that has been taken to protect and publicize the area’s many historic sites and structures.

San Antonio Mission, Monterey County

The resources that have been saved and made part of the ongoing life of the county are numerous and mesmerizing: for example, several Spanish missions, hundreds of ranch buildings and farmhouses, small town collections of Victorian business buildings, Stone Age remnants of hunter-gatherers, the building where California’s constitution was drafted, Gatsby-like mansions near the Pebble Beach golf course, the house where John Steinbeck was raised, and the nineteenth-century building where Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time when he visited California.

Robert Louis Stevenson house, city of Monterey

As in all parts of the United States, there is a constant danger that such resources may be lost because of neglect or, more likely, demolition to make way for land development and new construction driven by short-term concepts of economic gain. But in Monterey County, at least, something like a balance has been achieved. Local residents and visitors appreciate the value of historic sites and structures, yet still make room for intelligent growth.

I take pleasure in knowing that I played a role, several generations ago, in achieving the present balance. My memories go back to the 1970s, when one could not at all say with certainty that Monterey County would be protecting its patrimony, and when historic preservation there was in the midst of a “quiet crisis,” to borrow a phrase the novelist Wallace Stegner coined at the time to describe America’s nationwide challenges in natural resources conservation.

Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure
Dutton Hotel, a nineteenth century stagecoach stop in the south of Monterey County, a preservation failure

In 1972 I was working as an assistant to the president of the community college that served the Salinas Valley. The college was under great budgetary pressures. In the early summer of 1972, the president decided he would partially meet the crisis by eliminating my job.

Through a string of fortunate coincidences, I was eventually able to find a new source of income. One day, a retired member of the college’s History faculty, Bob Johnston, asked me if I would like a job helping several groups, made up mostly of retired people like him, who were working to preserve the old homes and historic landscapes in Monterey County where they had grown up. The groups thought that I, as a historian who, more than most academics, enjoyed working with local organizations, and was as an experienced writer of grant proposals, might be able to help. I said I’d love to, but I didn’t know where the money would come from. Bob explained how it would be handled. “We will talk to the members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. We will simply tell them to create a consultant’s position for you.” They did.


Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay
Deteriorating buildings at Cannery Row, Monterey Bay

That was my accidental introduction to the historic preservation movement, one of the streams of environmental consciousness that was beginning, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to take on its own features within the larger river of awareness about ecology then developing in the United States.

A contract with the County soon materialized. I was supposed to inventory the good work that had already been done in some parts of the Country, for example in the excellent preservation efforts in the city of Monterey; fill out forms to nominate eligible sites and structures to the National Register of Historic Places, a federal listing that had been established in 1965 and that was gradually expanding throughout the United States; and visit a sampling of concerned groups and organizations to learn their views and mobilize public support. This would lead to a written plan of action for preserving resources, following precedents established by historic preservation efforts elsewhere in the United States, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

Bob Johnston and his fellow senior citizens pointed out to me that all of these activities should have been set in motion many years before. They hoped that, now, they could catch up and rescue the county’s patrimony before it was obliterated.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove

In my car I wandered around the county to learn more about sites I had not yet visited. I talked with old timers – in their homes, in bars, at truck stops, at their farms. At local newspaper offices, I spent fascinating evenings going through old clippings and files. At home, tapping away on my portable Olympia typewriter (I knew nothing about computers in those days), I happily produced nominations to get sites listed on the National Register. Drawing on past experience as an intern in Washington DC, I compiled lists of funding sources and relevant regulations, and I gathered information about successful preservation efforts already in progress in places such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Williamsburg, Virginia.

The parts of the job involving public contact showed me the reasons why historic preservation had made some progress in years past, but still was not moving quickly. In one series of meetings, I worked with a group of wives of local growers who were determined to save from the wrecking ball the old house in Salinas where John Steinbeck had grown up. The women explained that their greatest obstacles were their own husbands, who maintained that the house ought to be demolished because they believed that Steinbeck, if still alive, would have sided with the migrant workers’ unions who were striking to obtain improved conditions at the time.

At the meetings of the Parks Commission, my challenge was the odd assortment of members, none with formal training in history or even a college education. Most of the commissioners were longtime community volunteers who knew a lot, in a concrete way, about outdoor recreation. One of the members, wealthy and garrulous, revealed his conception of history by using up all the time at one meeting to reminisce about the food he and he his wife had eaten while touring picturesque inns on a recent vacation in France. With people of this kind, I had to learn the trick of presenting the past in small chunks. I had to be respectful. But I had to present the intellectual aspects of history gradually, and disguise that I was doing so.

To move things along, I relied often on the Chair of the Commission, a charismatic, elderly woman named Elmarie Dyke. In the course of more than a half century of community organizing, she had accumulated a great deal of knowledge and developed a sense of the difference between big issues and little issues, and she was an attentive listener who loved to learn and knew how to ask penetrating questions. She had also lived a significant part of the history we were trying to preserve. I realized this once when I asked her to mail me something. She asked my address. I told her, and then asked, “Do you know where that street is?” She laughed and answered, “I not only know where it is; I named it.”

Bixby Creek Bridge on California's Big Sur.
Bixby Creek Bridge, on Highway 1, Big Sur, south of Carmel, a successfully preserved work of historic American engineering

The speaking engagement that I enjoyed least took place at the historical society that drew its members from Carmel, the city of Monterey, and Pebble Beach. The society was not representative of the enlightened attitude toward preservation I found in the local population as a whole. At the time almost all the members of the society were newly rich and regarded historic structures merely as prestigious antiques, not as assets for the community.

At the opposite extreme, in terms of integrity, was the historical society that served the southern portion of Monterey County. This area was almost completely rural. The economy was based partly on viticulture, but mostly on ranching. The largest urban area, King City, was essentially a town of about 5,000. There were a few rich landowners in the area, but most of the holdings were small and medium-sized and were owned by families who traced themselves and their workers back to the nineteenth century. These people liked their way of life and wanted it to continue. They had their share of foibles and weaknesses, but they also had tremendous dignity. Meeting them, I understood what it meant to say that someone revered the land. They regularly received offers to sell their properties to agricultural conglomerates or to re-zone the area for industry. But they refused and were willing, if necessary, to be cash poor and land rich.

They also pushed hard politically to protect the large areas of conserved land that were between their area of the county and the Big Sur coast to the west. Here there were several national forests and state parks and a large military reservation. The landscape in these areas was unsettled, unknown to most tourists at the time, and hauntingly beautiful. Here and there, midst the forests and creeks and valleys, one found important archeological and historic sites, including caves used by Stone Age Native Americans, as well as stagecoach roads, the remnants of old inns, and pioneer graveyards. The San Antonio Mission was also in the area. Many people regard it as the most beautiful of all those in the network built by the Spaniards in California.

Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City
Art Deco facade of the community theater in King City

With two of the local ranch owners, I developed a close friendship. Their names were Olive and Rachelle Gillette. They lived on separate ranches and were sisters. They told me fascinating stories about themselves and their neighbors, led me to important historical documents, gave valuable advice about county politics, asked probing questions about preservation initiatives elsewhere in the U.S., and took me on numerous drives in their old cars to see historic sites I would never have been able to discover on my own. Several times I got phone calls from the sisters before dawn in my apartment seventy miles to the north. “Dr. Messinger,” I would hear one of them say, “I’ve been tending the chickens and it looks like it’s going to be a nice day. Would you like to come down here for a tour?”

Even with the cooperation of gracious people like Olive and Rachelle, I might not have succeeded in my work, had it not been for the help I received from Bill Curry, the Deputy Director of the county planning department. Bill was my immediate contact at the department, the person assigned to help me navigate local politics and bureaucracy. Bill had grown up in the county, but had then gone on to Yale where he received a degree in Architecture before returning home. He understood local mentalities, but was also well equipped to integrate the contributions of an outsider like me.

Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction
Remains of the Pacific Biological Laboratory maintained by Doc Ricketts and immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; protected against abutting new construction

I dropped by to chat with Bill every few weeks in the big county office building in Salinas. We didn’t become close friends but we did greatly enjoy each other’s company, and we had both experienced the bittersweet process of understanding home by means of temporarily leaving it.

About five months into the project, I got a late afternoon phone call from Bill, saying he wanted to come over and see me right away to discuss the introduction to the draft plan I had given him earlier in the week. When Bill arrived at my apartment, he was carrying the plan in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. We sat down in my living room and Bill opened two cans of beer and told me we needed to talk friend-to-friend. Bill showed me passages he had circled. All were in the opening section of the draft where I had provided an analysis of the interest groups in the county that helped or hindered preservation.

My analysis was accurate, Bill said, but politically naïve. I seemed to be trying to impress an out-of-county audience — perhaps others in the planning profession, perhaps academic historians, perhaps my friends in Berkeley, perhaps readers of the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. I did not yet seem to have learned the difference between a document that is designed simply to speak the truth – especially that portion of the truth that attacks everyday assumptions – and a document that is going to be used to get a diverse group of people to unite for action. I did not need to go on at length about the snobbery I had seen among some of the preservationists, or about the anti-Hispanic prejudice of some of the growers in the Salinas Valley, or the reluctance of many county organizations to accept federal grants. I should focus upon the elements of pride that all county residents shared when they encountered their heritage. I should talk about the admiration that would be won by impressing outsiders with the history and achievements of the county. I should more fully explain the economic and social benefits obtainable from well-managed preservation.

In 1974, my work culminated with an address to the County Board of Supervisors after two years of working as their consultant. I described the historic treasures the people of the County had been given by earlier generations, and I talked about the fragility of the historic landscape in Central California, most of which was still in private ownership. I emphasized that, in the hands of the wrong people, much of this environment could be gone within a year, taking away vital benchmarks of identity, as well as economic assets that were vitally important for strategic expansion of the tourist industry. In response, the Supervisors voted my plan into law, directed the planning department to publish an illustrated version, and prepared to hire a staff to coordinate preservation energetically. The groundwork had been laid for more extensive activity.

By this time, however, the County was running into budgetary problems just as the state education system had two years before. I did not see much of an economic future for myself locally. I decided that I would try to find work in Los Angeles, and, if that failed, go to Washington DC. I gave notice to my landlord, packed my car, and began a long journey to find a place that would, I hoped, have room for a historian with a practical bent.

John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant
John Steinbeck’s childhood home in Salinas, preserved by adaptive economic reuse as a restaurant


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