Salinas, California – history of the valley and things to do

Located in the heart of California’s Salinas Valley, the city of Salinas holds a rich history and boasts several noteworthy historical attractions. Known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” Salinas is renowned for its agricultural heritage and vibrant cultural scene.

One of the city’s prominent historical sites is the National Steinbeck Center, dedicated to the life and works of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. Visitors can explore exhibits showcasing Steinbeck’s literary contributions and gain insight into the social and economic landscapes that influenced his writing.

The First Mayor’s House, a living history center, offers a glimpse into Salinas’ past. Built in 1868, it was one of the first buildings in the new town of Salinas City and served as the Harvey-Baker family home. Now restored to the 1870s, the house provides interactive experiences and events, bringing the past to life.

Another fascinating attraction is the Boronda Adobe History Center, located just outside the official city limits. This adobe dwelling, constructed in 1844, stands as a fragment of Spanish California and houses a museum dedicated to early Salinas and California history.

For those interested in medical history, the Salinas Museum of Medical History provides a captivating journey through the evolution of medicine. With exhibits featuring antique medical instruments, diagnostic machines, and Civil War-era surgical kits, the museum offers a window into the scientific progress of the past centuries.

Additionally, Oldtown Salinas showcases a delightful blend of Victorian and Art Deco architecture. The Monterey County Courthouse stands as an architectural gem, while the McDougall Building, surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, adds to the city’s architectural heritage.

With its historical attractions, Salinas invites visitors to immerse themselves in the captivating stories and cultural heritage that have shaped this vibrant city in the heart of California.

City of Salinas history

Salinas, California, has a rich history that dates back to the settlement of Native Americans known as the Esselen. The Rumsen group of Ohlone-speaking people replaced the Esselen between 200 and 500 AD. Spanish explorers arrived in the 1700s and encountered the Rumsen-Ohlone, becoming the first recorded contact with the native inhabitants of the Salinas area.

Spanish land grants were issued for Catholic Missions and as rewards for soldiers upon the arrival of the Spanish. After Mexican independence, smaller land grants were given for ranchos, primarily used for cattle grazing. Rancho Las Salinas, which included the area of present-day Salinas, was one of these land grants. The region experienced a thriving trade in cattle hide shipments, utilizing the Port of Monterey.

In 1848, California became part of the United States after battles in the Salinas area. John Fremont claimed California for the United States by raising the American flag on the highest peak of the Gabilan Mountains. Shortly after the transition to American administration, California was ruled under martial law. On September 9, 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a state.

In the 1850s, a post office was established in Salinas, located at the junction of two main stagecoach routes. The town took its name from the original “Rancho Las Salinas” and was named after the salt marshes around the central Salinas slough. The conversion of grazing land to crops and the arrival of the railroad in 1868 propelled Salinas’s economic development. Dry farming of grains and later irrigation for row crops transformed Salinas into a major agricultural center. The city became known for its vegetable production and had the highest per capita income in the United States in 1924.

During World War II, the Salinas Rodeo Grounds served as a temporary detention camp for Japanese Americans before their relocation to more permanent facilities. The camp held 3,608 people before closing in 1942.

After the war, urban and suburban development led to the conversion of farmland into the city. Salinas experienced significant growth spurts in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Skyline of downtown Salinas, California - digital painting
Skyline of downtown Salinas, California – digital painting

Salinas old town

Oldtown Salinas, a historic district in Salinas, showcases a charming blend of Victorian and Art Deco architecture. In this chapter I will talk about some of the most important historical buildings in Salinas.

Monterey County Court House

The Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas, showcases the fusion of Works Progress Administration Moderne architecture and the International Style, adorned with decorative elements that depict the history of Monterey County and the western United States.

Designed by architect Robert Stanton in collaboration with artist Jo Mora, the courthouse is composed of two U-shaped wings surrounding an interior atrium courtyard. Built in 1937 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, the courthouse features extensive sculptures and reliefs by Joseph Jacinto Mora, showcasing California’s rich history.

This historic landmark, costing $450,000 to construct, incorporates elements of concrete, glass, and steel, and it currently serves as the Monterey County Superior Court. Recognized for its architectural and historical significance, the courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

John Steinbeck House

The John Steinbeck House in Salinas, is a historic house museum and restaurant. Constructed in 1897-98, this Queen Anne-style residence was the birthplace and childhood home of renowned author John Steinbeck.

Recognized for its architectural charm, the house boasts turrets, wood siding, and a distinctive combination of hip and gable roofs. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The Valley Guild, a nonprofit organization, has diligently preserved and restored the house since acquiring it from the Catholic Diocese of Monterey in 1973. The significance of the Steinbeck House extends beyond architecture, as it is intimately tied to Steinbeck’s literary legacy. Not only did he spend his early years and write his first short stories within these walls, but he also completed two novels, including The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat. The house even played a crucial role in his acclaimed work East of Eden.

Today, visitors can enjoy a delightful lunch at the restaurant and take guided tours during the summer months, specifically on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The National Steinbeck Center, situated just two blocks away on Main Street, provides further exploration into the author’s life and work.

Notably, Sheriff William Nesbitt resided in a house two blocks west of the Steinbeck home, while Olga E. Krough, the daughter of Peter Krough, who lived three houses down from the John Steinbeck House, had a childhood connection with the author.

Harvey-Baker House

The Harvey-Baker House also known as The First Mayor’s House, is a historic building in Salinas City. Constructed in 1868 from redwood planks dragged from Moss Landing, it was the residence of the Harvey-Baker family for over a century. It was moved to this location (Intermodal Transportation Center) in 1999 from its longtime place on East Romie Lane. Now restored to the 1870s era, the house functions as a living history center operated by a non-profit board.

It offers Open Houses, educational programs, and special events to bring the past to life. The First Mayor’s House is the oldest building in Salinas and serves as a hub for history, art, and culture in the community. It provides visitors with insights into the early days of Salinas and California’s transition to the United States.

The Old Monterey County Jail building

The Old County Jail, built in 1930, showcases an eclectic design combining Art Deco, Gothic, and Classical elements. It gained recognition on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 due to its association with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. Chavez himself was imprisoned here in 1970 during a lettuce boycott.

Despite plans for demolition, a court ruling in 2004 deemed the Old County Jail a valuable historic resource, considering its Gothic Revival style and significance to the farm-worker movement.

The McDougall building

The J.H. McDougall Building, designed by California architect William H. Weeks, stands proudly as a testament to Salinas’ rich history. Constructed in 1898, it was named after James H. McDougall, a prominent merchant, former City Postmaster, and County Tax Collector in Salinas.

This architectural gem holds a unique distinction as one of the few surviving structures in Oldtown Salinas that withstood the widespread devastation caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Today, the McDougall Building continues to make its mark on the city as the home of the First Awakenings restaurant. Located at the corner of Main and West Gabilan Streets, it represents a tangible link to Salinas’ past, honoring the legacy of James H. McDougall and preserving a piece of the city’s architectural heritage.

The Salinas Valley Art Gallery

The Salinas Valley Art Gallery, founded in 1976 as an artists’ cooperative, has become a vibrant hub for fine art in the Salinas Valley and Central Coast. With a diverse range of artwork including paintings, collage, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, photography, glass, weaving, and fiber art, the gallery showcases the talents of its about 40 members.

Each month, a featured artist show is held, offering the public an opportunity to engage with the art during the First Friday Art Walk in Old Town.

Visiting the gallery is a fun-filled experience, with a wide variety of local artists’ works on display. The gallery also offers reasonably priced unframed pieces and prints. Visitors have the chance to meet and speak with local resident artists who rotate their presence in the gallery.

Located just a short walk from the Steinbeck Center, the Salinas Valley Art Gallery is a must-visit destination for art enthusiasts and those looking to support local artists. It provides an opportunity to appreciate and purchase artwork that showcases the beauty of the local landscapes. By supporting the gallery, visitors contribute to the thriving artistic community in the Salinas Valley.

Boronda Adobe History Center

The Boronda Adobe History Center, situated on the 2,230-acre Rancho Rinconada del Zanjon, offers an authentic glimpse into the rich history of Spanish California. Acquired by the Monterey County Historical Society in 1972, the Boronda adobe and its surrounding five acres were meticulously restored and transformed into a museum in 1976. The site holds great historical significance, recognized as a California Historical Landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1844 by José Eusebio Boronda, the restored adobe dwelling stands as a testament to the early days of Salinas and California. Visitors can explore the museum, which showcases the fascinating history of the region.

Alongside the Boronda Adobe, other notable historic buildings grace the site, including the Lagunita Schoolhouse immortalized in John Steinbeck’s renowned work, “The Red Pony.” Additionally, the location serves as the official archive of Monterey County, offering researchers access to its wealth of historical records by appointment. Step into the past and discover the captivating stories preserved at the Boronda Adobe History Center.

The Salinas Museum of Medical History

The Salinas Museum of Medical History offers a captivating journey into the evolution of medicine and healthcare practices throughout history. Located in the lower level of the Sam Downing Resource Center on East Romie Lane, this educational museum provides free self-guided tours, making it easily accessible to visitors.

Step inside and explore the fascinating exhibits that showcase antique and obsolete medical instruments dating back centuries. From a Civil War surgical kit to a doctor’s office circa 1920, complete with furniture and instruments used for tonsillectomies, the museum offers a glimpse into medical practices of the past. One intriguing highlight is a surgery case featuring an operating table owned by Dr. Henry Murphy, who was none other than John Steinbeck’s family doctor.

The collection also includes diagnostic machines, medical artifacts from the 1700s to World War I, and memorabilia spanning the 50-year history of the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital Service League and the nursing profession. Notably, visitors can view a preserved iron lung, a significant piece of medical equipment used in the treatment of polio patients.

As you wander through the museum, you’ll encounter a wide array of intriguing objects, such as 18th-century ceramic medicine jars, tracheal dilators for diphtheria, and portable Civil War-era amputation kits. The displays also feature samples of sutures made from silk worm gut, horsehair, and ostrich tendons, as well as various medical devices and medicines of the past.

The Salinas Museum of Medical History offers a truly eye-opening experience, shedding light on the fascinating world of medicine from a layperson’s perspective. It serves as a valuable window into our scientific past and the progress made in the field of healthcare over the centuries. Before planning your visit, it’s recommended to call ahead to confirm the hours and admission details.

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