Historian Michael Hemp stands in front of Ed Ricketts’ Lab on Cannery Row.
Historian Michael Hemp stands in front of Ed Ricketts' Lab on Cannery Row. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)
If you have a question about Cannery Row's history, chances are Michael Hemp has the answer. Cannery Row's official historian can effortlessly rattle off a string of fun facts about the famous strip that inspired John Steinbeck's book "Cannery Row."

It's been a big part of his volunteer work for the Cannery Row Foundation, of which he is the president and founder.

"We're the ones who people come to, whether it's NPR, CBS or the German media," said Hemp of function of the group he formed in 1983. "They come to Cannery Row looking for information, and they can't just go down the street and find it."

Hemp and the Cannery Row Foundation have worked diligently to preserve the area's history.

Ed Rickett’s Pacific Biological Labs
Ed Rickett's Pacific Biological Labs (VERN FISHER/Herald Archive)

Hemp's book "Cannery Row: The History of John Steinbeck's Old Ocean View Avenue," features more than 100 pages of photographs and stories, all centered around the region that is now home to dozens of shops and restaurants frequented by tourists year-round.

Hemp said that, while tourists may have a general idea about how prominent the fishing industry was to the area's history, the raw numbers are staggering.

"We landed about 200,000 tons (of sardine) every six-month season. Just think of what 200,000 tons of sardines looked like," said Hemp. "That's about 1 billion sardines a season."

Monterey sardines measured up to a foot long, and were packaged in large, oval-shaped tin cans — originally used to can salmon — that became a local trademark.


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As large and plentiful as the sardines were, their primary use wasn't for food production.

Rather, Hemp said about two-thirds of the sardines landed at Monterey were turned into fish meal and fertilizer. Tons of fish were ground in grinders, then spun in centrifuges to separate the fish oil.

The fish mush was baked in huge revolving iron cylinders, called rotary kilns, and then baked into something that was a cross between oatmeal and kitty litter.

"That's what Cannery Row lived by," said Hemp. "Two-thirds of all of our sardines ended up like that."

Hemp said the role of the Sicilian fisherman was crucial to the fisheries' development and growth.

The Sicilians introduced fish-netting methods, including the "lightening net" that measured 200 feet deep and a quarter-mile long.

"They had the technology. They had the perfect work ethic," said Hemp. "They were cohesive, tough, and looked down upon by most of the community."

But perhaps no one best signifies the importance of Cannery Row history than Ed Ricketts, who was immortalized in Steinbeck's book as "Doc."

Protection of Ricketts' legacy was a key to the foundation's origins.

Hemp said the general public has a hard time differentiating the unique char- acter "Doc" from the brilliant mind who wrote "Between Pacific Tides," which is required reading for all marine biologists.

"To his friends, he was always Ed. And Steinbeck never made mention in his writings of 'Doc Ricketts.' We created Doc Ricketts," said Hemp. "That is in fact why we started the foundation — to differentiate this wonderful character John Steinbeck used, and this brilliant scientist who predicted the end of the fisheries on Cannery Row."