Bygone but not lost

Nearly thrown away, trove of photographs captures a long-gone era

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Self-Portrait

    Joseph Bragdon photo

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Salinas Valley Farm Stead

    Joseph Bragdon photo
    Salinas Valley Farm Stead

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Dray Dock

    Joseph Bragdon photo
    Dray Dock

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joseph and Doris Bragdon in their Shelburne Falls home.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Joseph and Doris Bragdon in their Shelburne Falls home.

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Downtown Salinas

    Joseph Bragdon photo
    Downtown Salinas

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Cannery Row Propeller

    Joseph Bragdon photo
    Cannery Row Propeller

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Monterey Fishing Fleet

    Joseph Bragdon photo
    Monterey Fishing Fleet

  • Photo courtesy of Joseph Bragdon<br/>Joseph Bragdon and Ansel Adams

    Photo courtesy of Joseph Bragdon
    Joseph Bragdon and Ansel Adams

  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Self-Portrait
  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Salinas Valley Farm Stead
  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Dray Dock
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Joseph and Doris Bragdon in their Shelburne Falls home.
  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Downtown Salinas
  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Cannery Row Propeller
  • Joseph Bragdon photo<br/>Monterey Fishing Fleet
  • Photo courtesy of Joseph Bragdon<br/>Joseph Bragdon and Ansel Adams

Joseph Bragdon, 97, recently of Shelburne Falls, may be one of the last men left who knew what John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” — or rather, the real-life fishing industry that inspired the novel — was like. At 22, Bragdon worked the fish cannery in Monterey, Calif., then joined the fishing fleet. “I lived a couple of blocks from (Steinbeck),” he said. “But I don’t know if I ever saw him.”

He did, however know Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who was the real-life inspiration for “Doc,” one of the most memorable characters of “Cannery Row.” And he knew a lot about the lives of the purse seiners who caught the fish, and the workers who cleaned them for the canneries.

“‘Cannery Row’ shows pretty much how it was,” he said. “It was a pretty accurate picture.”

“Steinbeck wasn’t the least bit popular at the time,” he added. “He was too far to the left. They burned his books in Salinas.”

Before retiring to Shelburne Falls, Bragdon taught art and photography for Hartnell College, from 1957 to 1983.

Recently, the photographer and former art teacher’s life made one more link with Steinbeck: his photography is now on display in the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., through July 28. Bragdon and his wife, Doris, were honored at a reception for the show, which drew about 400 people.

While in California, the couple also became lifelong friends with the photographer Ansel Adams, whom they met and asked to support a grass-roots effort to prevent an oil refinery from being built on Monterey Bay in 1958. A marine research facility is now located where the former Humble Oil Co. refinery was to have been built.

Joseph took photography classes from Adams and brought him to the college as a guest speaker, according to his son, Philip Bragdon of Shelburne Falls.

The elder Bragdon’s photography shows his love for nature and much of it reflects indigenous wildflowers that are now rarer. They also reflect a more pristine landscapes from a time when coastal California had more wilderness than now.

Seine fishing, named for the French river, is done by casting a huge net into the water, letting the fish swim into it, then drawing it up. Purse seiners use wide nets whose bottoms can be drawn closed — like a purse — enclosing the encircled fish inside.

Steinbeck talks about purse seiners in his novel and Joseph remembers that the nets were a quarter-mile long.

“When the fish were running in such huge schools, (the fishermen) could see them in the water at night,” said Joseph, explaining that their silvery florescence would “light up the water.”

“The boats had a timetable on the stern,” he said, explaining that one end of the net was fastened to the boat, so the fishermen could “pull in the school.”

“Sometimes the boat would have several tons of fish in it. They were called ‘sardines,’ but they really were a herring, about a foot long, about one pound. They would take them from the net and dump them into the hold of a boat. A few times they got greedy and sunk their own boats.”

Joseph said the boats were about 70 feet long. “I don’t know how many tons they would take in.”

“Each cannery contracted with so many purse seiners,” he said. “The first stop was the cutters ... The cutters were women and they had a terrible job. They would put them onto an endless belt, chop head and tail off, gut them. Then women packers would get them into oval cans ... The job I had was to get them into a cooker. They cooked them in the can and they put a sauce on them.”

Joseph said he worked in the cannery in 1938, before joining the fishing fleet.

“There was what was called a Circle of Enchantment: Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove-by-God and Monterey-by-the-smell,” says Doris, who was being courted by her future husband during his cannery days. She explained that Carmel was enchanted because of its coastal beauty, Pacific Grove (a “dry” town until 1970) had many churches, and Monterey was know for its pervasive odor of dead fish.

“The smell was outrageous,” she recalled. “Joe would come to my house, right, to make a date for the weekend. He would come up in his cannery clothes and he would smell.”

“She wouldn’t let me in her house,” adds her husband. “She would make me stand out by the porch.”

“Now, of course, Monterey is much different,” she adds.

When he was 19 years old, Joseph’s family moved to Monterey in 1935 and he met Doris Barnard of Pacific Grove three years later. They were married in 1941 and moved to San Francisco, until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943.

Doris’ aunts in Salinas knew Steinbeck when he was a child. They made hats and paid him and other neighborhood boys to make deliveries.

“Emily and Mary Benjamin ran a milinery store on Main Street,” said Doris. “Everybody had to have a hat for Easter, in those days. And they used to give the boys 10 cents to deliver each hat box.”

“I talked to Steinbeck’s sister, Beth, one time at the (Steinbeck) museum, said Doris. “She said her brother made deliveries and that everybody remembered the sisters.”

After the Army, the Bragdons returned to Pacific Grove, where Joseph drove a school bus and earned a batchelor’s degree. He taught high school art for a while, before they moved to Salinas in 1957.

A year later, they became involved in an effort to keep an oil refinery from being built near the fishing area, the effort that led to their friendship with Adams.

“He was a very kind gentleman, very generous with his time, too. So many students were delighted to meet him,” said Doris. “He was the best-known photographer in the country.”

“Adams would come and talk to students, and give them his view of things,” said Doris. “We got to know him and become close friends. I was thrilled because he was such a well-known person. He would have us to his house for a meal and we got to know his daughter, whom we still correspond with. She lives in Salinas”

Doris believes that building an oil refinery on Moss Landing, a big circular bay, “would have made a mess on the seaport.”

“So we called Ansel Adams. We didn’t know him, but we knew he was an environmentalist. We asked him to write an article of what would happen to the environment if they built this refinery in Monterey.”

“Nobody wanted these oil companies there, because Monterey has one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world,” said Doris. “We didn’t want an oil spill. Besides, it would hurt the fishing.”

Throughout his years of teaching photography and art, Joseph took photos and painted. But it wasn’t until the Bragdons moved from their Salinas home two years ago that their children realized the images stored in boxes for 50 years represented California’s bygone history.

“We had this collection of wildflowers in Salinas County, and (Joseph) was the only one that bothered to take (photos of) wildflowers,” she said.

Their son, Philip Bragdon, was about 8 or 9 years old when he met Adams. “I got to drive his truck,” he said. “He had an old ambulance that he used to travel around in and he had a platform on the roof, for his tripod.

“Philip was just a youngster, and he loved to get on top of this ambulance,” his father added.

During a sabbatical leave in 1971, the Bragdons spent a year driving through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Soviet Union, while living in a VW camper. They visited 31 countries, traveling 24,000 miles, so that Joseph could study the art and culture of the places they visited.

After retiring from teaching, the couple volunteered as docent guides at the National Steinbeck Center from 1998 to 2011.

Meanwhile, those photos that hibernated for so long in an attic are sparking renewed interest says Philip, who lives across the street from his parents. While moving their parents from California to Massachusetts, and Philip and his brother, Joel, came across boxes and boxes of their father’s paintings, photos and photo negatives. When Joel asked his father what they should do with them, he said, “throw them away.”

“My brother, Joel, took them to the curator at the (Steinbeck) museum, and she was excited,” said Philip. “This work represents a place in an era that is kind of lost to us now,” he said. “You can’t go back.”

Philip said his parents were also friends with Caesar Chavez, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, who led efforts to improve work conditions for immigrant farm workers. Philip estimated there are between 5,000 to 10,000 photos, negatives and slides of California — mostly from the late 1950s.

“This exhibition is (from) what we found first,” he continued. “It was only later that we discovered a real treasure in other boxes in the garage ... There are a lot here (in Massachusetts) that I’m going through and Joel and I are going to spend a few days trying to catalog them by dates and places.”

Philip said a second, more comprehensive exhibit of his father’s work will be held at the Steinbeck museum in 2015.

He also hopes to arrange an exhibition of his father’s work in a local gallery.

Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. She can be reached at: or: 413-772-0261,
ext. 277.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is

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