The city of Salinas is internationally revered as John
The city of Salinas is internationally revered as John Steinbeck’s birthplace. The world, however, might never have become acquainted with California’s most famous author if it hadn’t been for the construction of the town of Hollister during the 1870s.
I pondered this fact while chatting this week with Audry Lynch, a founding member of the Traveling Steinbeckians. She and her fellow Steinbeck devotees will present a special Gilroy Writers Program lecture about the Nobel Prize-winning author at the Gilroy Public Library on Saturday at 2pm.
Lynch grew up in New England and remembers how her Harvard University professors snubbed Steinbeck in her English classes. “He was ‘too Western,’ you know,” she explained.
Despite this Ivy League snobbery, John Steinbeck somehow came into Lynch’s life. “I picked up this copy of Cannery Row,” she told me in our phone conversation. “I read it and I thought, ‘Wow! This is the best opening of any book I’ve ever read.'”
She went to the library and checked out all of his books, numbering about 20 . “I guess what really attracted me was his compassion for the underdog,” she said
In the early 1970s, Lynch and her husband moved to California. She felt overwhelmed with joy to live amid the setting of so many Steinbeck stories.
During a special weekend literary retreat, she met Steinbeck’s second wife, Gwyn, as well as many of his friends and acquaintances. This experience made Lynch dive deeper into researching her favorite novelist.
Collecting stories from people who knew Steinbeck, she by chance met a fisherman named Sparky Enea. “He was a caddie and a bartender and he was a character. Sparky signed up with Steinbeck as a cook for the trip to the Sea of Cortez,” Lynch said. “He talked to me and I thought, ‘Wow, this is an actual Steinbeck character.'”
The meeting led Lynch to co-write with Enea a memoir of the colorful voyage Steinbeck took with his friend “Doc” Ed Ricketts to gather biological specimens in Baja California.
While promoting her book “With Steinbeck on the Sea of Cortez,” Lynch met even more people who told her delightful tales and anecdotes about the author. She interviewed 20 of them and put their oral histories into her second book, “Steinbeck Remembered.”
Like Steinbeck and Ricketts turning over rocks in tidal pools to find astonishing seaside specimens, it’s remarkable how many stories about the Salinas-born author still remain to be explored. I asked Lynch if she knew about the South Valley connection to Steinbeck. She told me she heard the author’s sister Esther had once lived in Hollister.
It’s a fact the home of the Haybalers and the writer’s own personal history are tightly interwoven. The epic family saga is as fascinating as the one he detailed in his novel East of Eden. It’s described in a paper published by the San Benito County Historical Society titled “History of the Steinbeck Family.”
The South Valley-Steinbeck connection begins with Johann Adolph Grosssteinbeck’s birth in Germany in 1832. At 17, he journeyed with his brother Frederick to Palestine to manufacture olive wood souvenirs for tourists. There in 1855, Johann met Almira Dickson, the daughter of an American missionary. They married and moved to Jerusalem to start a farm. The following year, the couple had a child they named Charles.
One night, Arab tribesmen attacked the Grosssteinbeck farm, killing Frederick and raping his wife Mary. The devastation of the raid made Johann decide to sail to the United States. On the arduous six-month voyage to Massachusetts, Johann took on an anglicized name — John A. Steinbeck.
The Steinbecks faced one harsh New England winter, then decided to move to Florida’s much warmer clime. In St. Augustine, the family grew with the addition of two more boys: Herbert and Frankie.
The Civil War began in 1861 and Almira took her three sons to safety in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, John – who was no Southern sympathizer – found himself conscripted against his will into the Confederate Army. He eventually used a ruse to get out by swapping his uniform for the suit of a dead man.
John walked all the way north to Massachusetts. Upon arriving at the family home’s back door, Almira answered his knocked with an astonished cry, “John Steinbeck, how you look!”
The couple had three more sons: John Ernst, Wilhelm Peta and Harry Eugene. For 10 years, John worked as a mechanic making pianos in Massachusetts. Growing tired of the cold weather, in 1873 he headed west by train to find a new home for his family.
On the West Coast, John learned about a new farming community being constructed in San Benito County. The town of Hollister desperately needed carpenters, and so John easily found a job. He sent a telegram back to Almira telling her to come out west to California. On Nov. 25, 1874, he met his family at Hollister’s train depot.
Four years later, the Steinbeck family bought a Victorian home and 10 acres bordering South and Line streets in Hollister. John started a dairy ranch there and built a successful business.
Grown up, John’s son Ernst settled in the Salinas Valley where in King City he met a lovely schoolteacher named Olive Hamilton. The couple married and on Feb. 27, 1902, they had a baby they named “John Steinbeck” in honor of the child’s adventurous grandfather. The boy grew up to become a Noble Prize-winning writer.
In spirit, South Valley remains “Steinbeck Country.” I’m sure Johann Adolph Grosssteinbeck – and his famous namesake – would recognize today the agricultural landscape around here still.
“Steinbeck was a writer of the land,” Lynch told me. “He was very much rooted in the land and the agrarian culture. The land and the sense of place is like another character in Steinbeck’s books.”
It’s that love of the land, as well as the universal themes in his stories, that made John Steinbeck one of America’s most popular writers – and a beloved storyteller for Audry Lynch and her Traveling Steinbeckians.
Martin Cheek is the author of ‘The Silicon Valley Handbook.’ He can be reached at [email protected]