Memoir Written in 1920
The following is an autobiography of Salvatore Ventimiglia, which he wrote in 1920 in pencil, given to me by Cathy Gomez Ventimiglia, who's father was the son of Salvatore, who carries his father's name. We transcribe the hand-written biography and tried not to change the broken English, which would change the character of the article.
I left Isola delle Femmine, Sicily, at the age of 14 with two brothers to join my father Salvatore Ventimiglia and two older brothers. I fished in Martinez, and worked in the San Francisco Cannery. I went to Black Diamond, (Pittsburg, CA) and drove a team of horses and a wagon to deliver wood to families there, as there were no gas or electric stoves at that time. The people I worked for also had a funeral business and the same horses would be used to pull the hearse at a funeral. Heavy irons were heated on top of the stoves to do the family ironing.
In 1912 at the age of 19, I came to Monterey to fish on the lampara boats. These boats were about 28 feet long. There were about 10 of these boats at the time. Lampara was the name of the net used by these boats. Each of these boats brought with them and pulled a lighter boat called a skiff. The fish catch was put into the skiff and towed to the cannery. The skiff was also needed when putting out the net. The cannery would heave (scoop out) the fish with a big hand net. The fish were then pulled into the cannery. This would continue until all the fish from the lighter skiff were unloaded.
I fished with the old timers Pietro Ferrante, Orazzio Cardinalli, Orazzio Crivello, Orazzio Enea, son of Sparky Enea, and Petro Buffo. Later came Angelo and Frank Lucido. Angelo later had one of the biggest canneries on Cannery Row. It was located next to the breakwater, which was built later in 19__. His brother Frank Lucido had a fish rendering plant in the back where the Steinbeck Theater was located. As more canneries were added, the Sicilians used larger boats called half ringers. The boats were identified by the type of net they used. The boat had a big hold in the stern, which would hold tons of fish. At this time I had built a boat called the Sea King, which I later sold.
There were now nine canneries, starting from the San Carlos Cannery and Big Angelo at one end, and at the other end E.B. Gross, Frank Raiteir Cannery, Cal Canning Company, Custom Haier, Monterey Canning Company, Del Mar Canning, and Hovden. Later empty spaces were filled with Cal Frozen Fish Company which I owned and other canneries like Enterprise Canning, Oxnard Canning, Palma’s, and Frank Lucido’s fish reduction plant.
I was the sole owner of Cal Frozen Fish Cannery on Cannery Row with no partners. I was losing money and when fall came I stood to lose more. During this time the boats got bigger and ranged from 78 to 82 feet in length. These boats were called Purse Seiners again named after the style of net it carried.
In 1919 I bought my first boat to fish for myself. I felt that I could do it as not all fishermen could be a captain as it required some skill. I took a chance on this boat. After the deposit, I had to pay it all up by a certain date or lose the boat and all the money I had put into it. Well I had luck and made it. I paid if off in one year. I was the youngest captain at that time to have my own boat. I was about 26 years old then; the age of most captains was between forty and fifty years of age. At this time fishing was done inside the bay only, as the boats were not good enough to travel very far carrying nets and towing a lighter skiff. A full load of fish on a good night would weigh several tons. Fishing was done at night when it got dark and before the moon came up. When the boat came into the fishing grounds the top of the water was a beautiful silvery sight. We did not fish for 3 or 4 days during full moon. After the full moon we went out and had to be back when the moon came out as the fish did not glow on the surface of the water. Sometimes we were out for only an hour, until the moon came out. Each following night we could fish a little longer until we could fish all night until just before daybreak.
Cannery Row was the center point of the Monterey Peninsula. Everything revolved around the canneries, the people working in the canneries to the fishing boats and the fisherman who owned and worked on the boats. It was a mixing pot of different cultures Italians, Japanese, Portuguese, Hispanic and Chinese. The sardine industry was the economic driver for the Monterey Peninsula, a multi-million dollar industry for decades. The hard working people were the backbone of this great industry making Monterey the sardine capitol of the world at that time.
The canning industry revolved around the fishing industry, no fish, no canneries. The canneries generated work for thousands of people over the years mostly women, who worked long hours and would have to beckon to the whistles that would blow throughout the day and early evening hours summoning them to work as the boats came in with their payload of sardines and the men unloaded the fish at the cannery for processing. Each cannery had a whistle attached to the smoke stack of the cannery. Each whistle had its own individual sound calling their workers back to the cannery. Whistles were used as time clocks since the work was piece work there was no time clock as we know today. The whistle would tell you it was time to go to work, time to take a break, and time to go home. Most workers lived in homes that lined the streets of New Monterey, Monterey and Pacific Grove. Most did not drive so they would walk down to the cannery from their homes. The whistles of the canneries were like Morse code and anyone who knew the sounds of the individual whistle belonging to the cannery would know what was going on down on Cannery Row. The whistles were a mixed blessing. They called workers to work but at the same time peninsula residents would be annoyed by the sounds and the smells that were generated by the canneries.
Although the whistles would stop during the night hours, the processing in the canneries continued through the night where thousands of tons of sardines were being processed. At the height of Cannery Row there were approximately 19 working canneries operating on Cannery Row. No part of the sardine was wasted. What could not be canned was turned into fertilizer and fish oil by some of the fish reduction plants that were located on Cannery Row.
There were only three canneries at this time. One was Booth Cannery in New Monterey. Louis Trenner, father of Robert Trenner the Assistant Police Chief, was working for Booth Canning Company. He was in charge of the big scoop that would scoop the fish out of the boat and into the cannery. When the fish got inside the cannery they were put into big tanks of water and then scooped onto long tables. Then they would cut off the heads and tails, and take out the entrails. Then the fish were put into big square mire baskets (layers of fish) to be cooked. They were packed by ladies who lived on the peninsula they were good respectable people. The sardines were packed in flat oval cans sealed and then put into steel baskets and wheeled into retorts (big ovens) and remained for a certain time at a fixed temperature. The cans were then removed and cooled. The cans were lacquered a light golden color. When the cans were dry they were put in cardboard boxes 48 to a box. The cans were then later labeled by hand by two ladies sitting on one side of the table. The men, usually one man for every two tables, would set a can of fish tipped toward the lady who was to label the can and clean it. One clean case was set on a stool to the right of the lady doing the labels. Each lady would set eight even stacks of labels in front of her, very close together. Each lady had a can of paste to stick the labels onto the cans. Some of the paste was put on each end of the label about one inch from the edge of the label. The end of the can was centered on a certain spot on the label and brought up with the left hand and then with the right hand, bringing up the other half of the label and pressed at the top to stick. The cans were placed in the box in layers of eight cans; they were pushed in evenly as to fit into the box and not to damage the labels. A sheet of thin cardboard was placed over the cans between each layer until there were six layers of eight cans each for a total of 48 cans per case. Then a man would take it away immediately and another empty box would be put down beside her. If this was not done immediately it would slow down the labeler and she would have to stack the cans at the end of the table. Then when the box came she would have to put them in the box and this was precious minutes lost. This was piecework paid at 4 cents a case.
One labeler in 1918 at the age of 15 set a record labeling 30 cases an hour, two minutes a case, at a total of $1.20 an hour. When she left in 1919 a sister and a relative of hers were able to match her speed. Other labeler’s speed was between 50 and 75 cases in 8 hours for both young and older ladies